Eden Studios
Atari
Racing (M.O.O.R.)
1 (2-8)
09.05.06

Test Drive Unlimited (Xbox 360)


Racing games can be the most tedious genre in the video game world. Behind the dazzling car models that the average gamer doesn’t really appreciate and the occasional “run from the law” or “illegal street racing” theme is a generic concept; first one to the finish line wins a trophy/lot of money. This leaves developers to do one of two things: 1) develop entirely new concepts that break away from the genre (MarioKart and Burnout series) or 2) make the flashiest game with the fastest cars and most lavish environments (which is about every other racing title in existence).

Along comes Test Drive Unlimited, the latest installment of the Test Drive franchise. TDU comes from a long line of acclaimed racing games that goes back to 1987 (some of you weren’t even alive then). Eagerly anticipated in both North America and Europe, TDU boasts its trademark sports cars, expansive maps, and fast-paced action. But when it comes down to it, takes a lot more than flair to make it in a genre filled to the brim with imitators and wannabes. It’s about what’s inside (sort’ve like real-life racing). No goods underneath your hood, no kissing the pretty girl (or boy, however you swing).

Gameplay

Test Drive Unlimited defies norms. Whether it’s laws or common sense or the standards set by its predecessors and competitors, TDU changes the status quo for a highly monotonous genre.

While most racing titles are content with taking real-life locations and designing courses based on those cities but look NOTHING like the actual cities, TDU took the Hawaiian island of Oahu and modeled a real-life account of the island. Locals and those who travel a lot will actually recognize certain areas of the game. TDU allows you to explore the entirety of Oahu, using its roads as the courses for you and your buddies to race on. Once you get used to the streets, which may require some sight-seeing (it’s worth it), feel free to race on the pre-designed courses, or map one out yourself using the entire island and its roads as your canvas. A surprising change in pace for a genre that too often tries to “think big” with often mediocre results. Usually saved for the end of these reviews, the multiplayer mode is so essential to the gameplay that it must be brought up now. Test Drive Unlimited has broken down the barriers between single play and multiplayer play entirely; there is only the game. From the moment you finish the tutorial, you’re placed onto one of the online servers. Normally intimidating for gamers to be thrown into mix so suddenly, TDU’s multiplayer is so flawless in design that it’s almost as if you were playing single player with really human-like AI.

The single play offers a variety of gameplay modes to upgrade both your character and you car. Mission-based games, such as taxiing someone to a location (Crazy Taxi lives on!) or escorting a car across the island, allow you to get wardrobe pickups for your characters. The challenge mode allows you to earn upgrades for your car. Race challenge pits you against the AI, speed challenge requires you to reach certain rapidity in a certain amount of time, and time challenge is your standard time trial. While not as fun as challenging jabronis you meet on the street to a race to the next intersection, these modes allow you to upgrade and customize you car, which is, after all, what the Test Drive series has always been about.

For those social gamers out there, TDU offers a lot in the way of community; players can form Auto Clubs (the TDU version of clans) and challenge other Auto Clubs to races and the like. There is a lobby function that gets you in and out of games, where much trash-talking can be had. For those who are shy, there is hope; if you don’t feel like bad-mouthing your fellow drivers, TDU also allows you to sell your customized cars over Live. Gentlemen, start the haggling.

The cars themselves are gorgeous, and even if you don’t subscribe to Hot Rod Magazine, you will still appreciate the lifelike detail of the cars (and the satisfaction of racing a car that you will probably never, ever own in real life). Photographic and solid, the cars are an example of the level of graphics that Xbox consumers have come to expect from the console. The same cannot be said about the people. The character models for the game have all the personality of a Wal-Mart mannequin. Everyone bears a listless expression reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead. The same cannot be said for AI “pedestrians” because there aren’t any. In Oahu, the townsfolk never leave their homes. Probably out of fear of the faceless characters and kamikaze police that roam the streets.

It’s not all easy riding. A common complaint you will have is the AI of the police in TDU. The police force of Oahu flip-flops between being mediocre and impossible. As well as being practically infinite in number and unavoidable (think the town guards from Fable), the Oahu Police are sort of neurotic. Speeding will go unnoticed, but a fender bender gets them all riled up. After getting in so many accidents within a small time frame, the police will try to apprehend you. Their method? Ramming into you. This is the best part; every time the police ram into you, they chalk it up as an accident, and if you are caught, will bill you for it. At first, this is funny. But after being hounded by The Man for twenty minutes only to find you’ve been ambushed by a roadblock, and end up taking out half a dozen cars in the inevitable onslaught, you might have to cough up some quarters to the Swearing Jar.

Until you get pulled over by the maniac 5-0 and forced to fork over all of your fake money, take a moment to experience the handling of the cars. You can actually “feel” the weight of the cars you’re handling (although that just might be the controller itself).The only wrench in this gear is that all the off-road surfaces will remind you of the sand in the Mario Kart games; whether it’s grass, mud, or sand itself, you’ll grind to about half speed and your controller will suddenly have all the responsiveness of AOL customer service as you rumble and swear at your screen. With a game as highly customizable as TDU, it would be expected that the environment would be a little more detailed. The motorcycles, although a nice feature, aren’t noteworthy; they handle and operate just like cars, and there just isn’t the variety and detail in them that you find in the cars.

If the unrealistic nature of the character models and townsfolk brings you down, tough; get over it. On top of failing human anatomy and sociology, the developers of the game apparently flunked out of physics as well; when the down right imaginary smoke effects aren’t driving you mad, the questionable density and mass of the environment will. Don’t expect to be able to drive through those bushes for a short-cut; everything in Oahu has the properties of a brick wall and no matter what you hit, it will put a beating on your car. Driving into the ocean causes no displacement; just a loading screen before you’re placed on the road. Though annoying at first, these minor nuisances are avoided by just staying on the road.

Given these downers, TDU breaks a lot of ground in online playing as well as racing environments. Having these areas mastered, the Test Drive series can work on these other areas and have them improved for the next Test Drive title. Until then, there is plenty of trash-talking, street-racing, club rivalry and screenshots of cars you will never afford to last you over.

Graphics

TDU’s Oahu may be the prettiest environment in racing game history. The camera angles are pretty delicious themselves (the overhead view that zooms down is worth renting the game at least). The cars themselves are vivid and realistic, although regular gamers won’t appreciate it as much as car enthusiasts. You may actually find yourself cruising on the roads, enjoying the scenery…and avoiding the po-pos. Just avoid looking at the people, and your gaming pleasure won’t be diminished by their creepy generic gaze.

Sound

The sound of this game captures the essence of every driver’s worst nightmare; driving in a car with no muffler, a GPS system that sounds remarkably telemarket-y, and the same uninspiring music on all stations. In all fairness, sound effects and music have never been considered an essential part to the racing experience. Fortunately for you, these nuisances can all be turned off, leaving you with the freedom to blast your own tunes from your iPod or home stereo. You may opt to just turn down the volume of the car rather than off, as making the “vroom” noise with your mouth is never as satisfying as actually hearing it.

Replay Value

Individual results will vary. If you love racing on Xbox Live, this is your cup of tea.The customized racing, frequent opportunities to punk out other races, and the Auto Club “clan” feature will provide you with all the online play you could ever ask out of a racing game. If you’re more of a lone wolf (or the kind of player who gets no joy in “pwning noobz”), this game will give you adequate playing time, but nothing to write home about.

Bottom Line:

Even if racing games aren’t your “thing”, you should do yourself the justice of renting the game at the very least to experience its ridiculously addictive multiplayer and the stunning visuals of Oahu. If racing or sports cars are your thing, you probably already bought (or should buy) the game, and are only reading this because you have too much free time. And how is that helping the prime directive?

Related Links:

Official Website for Test Drive Unlimited

-Jimi Robertson




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