Test Drive Unlimited 2

The Test Drive franchise has been around for a long, long time. Indeed, I remember reviewing it about a thousand years ago on the Commodore 64 home computer when the series debuted in 1987. It was an incredibly ambitious game for its time, featuring “real” exotic cars in a “real world” environment, something that no other home racing game was doing at the time. I remember thinking how cool the idea was, but ultimately gave the game a middling rating because while the concept was good, the execution just wasn’t quite up to par.

Fast forward to today, and here I am almost a quarter of a century later, playing the series again. And I’m getting a serious feeling of déjà vu.

Like its great, great, great 8-bit grandfather, Test Drive Unlimited 2 features real cars in a real-world environment. But in between the original game and the latest one stands many evolutions of gaming technology, so now instead of a single road, TDU2 features two entire virtual islands, Ibiza and Oahu, that deliver literally thousands of miles of open road to drive around. The game also features a storyline in which you choose a character who you can level up and customize RPG-style, and a ton of virtual items you can buy, from clothes to houses. Oh, and cars of course. After all, this is a racing game.

The game starts out with a fairly long cut scene that essentially sets the storyline, and enables you to choose your character. My initial reaction to this was not particularly positive. The character animations, voice acting and general atmosphere are cheesy to say the least, and some of the characters themselves look quite odd. Like the modelers didn’t quite have enough time to give them the finesse they might have wanted.

Soon enough, though, you’re behind the wheel of a car and have the chance to take it for a spin on the open road. And almost immediately you’re aware that TDU2’s handling engine is pretty rudimentary. It’s arcadey in feel, but is unfortunately a bit clunky and lacking polish. There’s no real feeling of weight transfer, and the overall impression is more like an old-school arcade game than a modern physics engine. That’s not to say it isn’t fun – it’s just not much of a driving simulation, so you end up spending time figuring out the parameters of what seems like a basic mathematical handling engine, rather than feeling like you’re learning to control a virtual object with inertia in an environment. It doesn’t take very long to get to grips with – particularly if you’re an experienced racer – and left me with the impression that the game is probably better suited to more casual players who like immediate, arcadey fun, rather than hardcore racers who like the complexity and challenge of stuff like Gran Turismo and Forza.

The game offers plenty of racing opportunities, and there are a wide variety of challenges, AI characters to beat, and lots of places to explore. There’s also a lot of stuff to collect in the game. All work together to deliver a very broad and comprehensive racing game whose concept I really like a lot. It occasionally feels a bit grindy – sometimes driving from location to location can take a bit too long (fortunately you can skip a journey once a road is unlocked, but first time there you have to drive the distance) and sometimes I felt forced to enter arbitrary races to grind more cash – but overall this is a game that offers something different compared to most racing games, and features a lot of content that its fans won’t tire of quickly. And even if you do play out the game’s content, social competitive racing is nicely integrated into the gameplay to further deepen player involvement and deliver a long-term challenge.

But the big problem is that while the idea of the game is absolutely great, and it packs a ton of content, it just feels like the developers bit off more than they can chew, and the end result feels like quantity, not quality. The car graphics feel a little dated. The landscape modelling is decent, but not fantastic. The player models and story are just about ok. The handling engine just about does the job, but not very well. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. And it’s a real shame, because there are a lot of nice ideas that are unfortunately stymied by the execution.

If the developers get the chance to continue to develop the game’s basic premise with another sequel or two, I think it could actually be a contender, because it has all the basics to be a great game. It’s just that it’s not quite ready for primetime yet. It’s fun, it’s certainly got a lot to offer, but at the end of the day it just isn’t quite polished enough. Ironically, I can quote myself from 1987 and it’s still just as apt today: “Test Drive falls short of its potential in many fields. It could have been special… but unfortunately missed the mark.”


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