Test Drive Unlimited REVIEW

Test Drive Unlimited Review (Xbox 360)

The basic framework of Test Drive Unlimited is simple and familiar: get the best car you can afford, race in various events, win money, buy the next best car, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s your industry-standard car collecting/driving/racing game, featuring licensed cars, various race types, and little else. Realistically modeled locations are also nothing new, so Test Drive Unlimited ups the ante by serving up an entire island. Not a small one, either: Oahu, vacation destination for many, is your playground. Over 90 vehicles and thousands of miles of Hawaiian road might be enough for some games, but then Test Drive Unlimited pulls its pocket aces: an online experience that’s so revolutionary, they’ve created a new acronym to capture it: "Massively Open Online Racing". If Ferraris and Lamborghinis are more your speed than elves and wizards, this is the massively multiplayer experience you’ve been waiting for. Move over “MMO”, here comes the “MOOR”.

You’ll begin the game by choosing one of a few people who have gathered for a flight from the mainland to Oahu. This establishes your basic character type, though later you can change clothes, hairstyles, and some limited physical characteristics. It’s not as deep a character creation system as many other games, but since you’re spending most of your time in a car, it serves its function well enough. Once you land in paradise, you’ll need to begin the meat of the game: buying cars, buying houses to put those cars in, and exploring the wide-open world of Oahu.

The driving model itself is firmly in the middle between a sim like Forza Motorsport and an arcade experience like Burnout. It all feels vaguely realistic, and the driving model is consistent yet reflects each vehicle's strengths and weaknesses. It's just that there are few extremes, and the game tends to help you out through bits of extremely challenging driving that a sim title just can't allow. The arcade side of the driving comes to the fore not when you're driving well, but when you've made a mistake. Sliding off road is usually only a moment's recovery, and you don't bleed off the speed you should. Damage is also tailored for the arcade end of the spectrum, as you'll never suffer real lasting damage in a race or even riding freely around the island. In a race setting, you’ll lose a touch of speed, and when cruising the island you may incur the wrath of the police. In any setting, however, if you want to use your million-dollar McLaren F1 as a battering ram, there will be no lasting effects.

Both when driving around Oahu and racing in single player modes, the AI of the drivers you'll encounter is one of the delights of the game. They are unpredictable and have varying personalities. On the road, some will swerve to avoid you. In a race, some will get aggressive. There's a pleasant variability to it all, however, that makes the shift from AI to live players on Xbox Live a small transition.

It's probably a bit pointless to talk about sexism in a racing game review, but there's an element of Test Drive Unlimited that really underlines why console gaming can seem so alienating to those possessing two X chromosomes. See, TDU's Oahu is writhing under the effects of a plague heretofore unseen in western civilization. In something out of the survival horror genre, a debilitating zombie state is overcoming the island's 30 top models. Plum tuckered out almost to the point of death by a hard day's shopping, they'll wait by the side of the road, waiting for passing strangers to ferry them home with their purchases. Not only must these seemingly zombified hotties be brought home, it must be done with great speed as often even driving city streets at 150 miles per hour won't get them home fast enough to satisfy their condition. As if the speed wasn't enough, they'll complain bitterly if you drive off-road or hit another car, to the point where they'll demand you stop the car to let them out. It's seems like a bad joke from a FOX sitcom, a suffering male's view on how impossible women are. Granted, there are also well-dressed male hitchhikers who are similarly afflicted, but the game's creepy pursuit of lazy women (even if your character is female herself) is a bit of stereotype I could have done without. Just to reiterate: this game features - as a central gameplay concept - lazy women who do nothing but shop and nitpick about your driving.

Another type of mission, "Vehicle Transport" is equally strange in such a realistic setting. As a current job-hunter, I sure wish I could find these people who are willing to pay almost a hundred grand to someone who will undertake the onerous task of driving their Enzo Ferrari 30 miles. Outside it's absurdity, these missions are among the game's most interesting, as it directly takes an old MMO trope and applies it to the driving game: time is money. There's no time limit on these missions, and money will be lost for every ding on the vehicle. If you want the healthy sums of money involved, all you need to do is take these very long drives at slow speed. If you can spend 40 minutes to take the trip, you'll be assured of a healthy payday. This is very much in keeping with existing MMO economies, where those who invest more time in the game get more out of it. It's also a very different experience than most driving games, where safe driving is paid more than load screen lip service.

Perhaps the primary thing that drives a remarkable MMO is an economy, and Test Drive Unlimited makes some strides in that department, though it's too early to tell if it will take on a life of it's own. There is a marketplace for trading and selling cars, and that's to be expected. What's far more interesting is Test Drive Unlimited's answer to the old MMO standby of "crafting". In a game like World Of Warcraft, one of the ways to make money is to make items that other players need and sell them. Some players focus on this aspect, opening up virtual business, and virtual economies are becoming the subject of dissertations everywhere. Test Drive Unlimited allows budding track designers to put their money where their mouth is by creating single-player challenges, sharing them with the community, collecting virtual entry fees, and paying out rewards to those who succeed. It ensures that the game will continue to grow and expand, and allows creative designers to earn in-game money. Both car trading and the sharing of challenges are shut down as of this review, as Atari quickly pounced upon some release-day bugs and got a patch out to prevent problems while they worked on a solution. There are at least some interesting ideas at play here, and it'll be worthwhile to look back in a few months to see what's developed.

One area where the seams show in this odd amalgam of Everquest and Gran Turismo is when trying to actually meet other players. The lifeblood of an MMO is the player base, and the connections you'll make. Not only do technical limitations limit how many players you'll be able to see at one time, but it's often hard to even challenge people when they're shooting past at 130 mph in the other direction. Since the whole game relies on proximity voice chat, there's no mechanism from the general area chatting that is simultaneously the curse and joy of the MMO. I know there are many other players tooling around this virtual Oahu, but since it's often so difficult to interact with them, it can often feel like a bit of a ghost town, with other players flickering in and out of existence.

The biggest problem with the multiplayer racing is that it is primarily an endgame, best saved for when you've already acquired the fastest cars the game can offer. Since ranked races do not have limits on what vehicles can enter, it's typical online survival of the experienced where you will need to have a Saleen S7 Twin-Turbo in your pocket if you want to compete. Some races in each of the vehicle classes would have helped ease new players into the game, as well as provide a use for all those low-level cars littering the garages of high-level players.

The presentation is uniformly excellent, as everything from menus to graphics to sound are all of the highest quality. The game looks drop-dead gorgeous, and the first time you slow down a bit to look out your window and watch the sun go down over the sea with flocks of birds circling in the distance you'll appreciate what next-gen gaming can truly mean. The biggest "wow factor" comes from the in-cockpit view, where such subtle things as the shake of a motorcycle or smudges on the windshield make it the most usable and immersive first-person view a driving game has yet offered.

Another innovation Test Drive Unlimited offers is it’s handling of Xbox 360 Achievements. Each Xbox 360 game offers them, and each Xbox 360 game handles them in one of two ways: hand them out as you complete major story events, or hand them out for in-game achievements unrelated to progression. In neither of these approaches do the Achievements actually matter: they're just being awarded as a separate, secondary bonus. In Test Drive Unlimited, Achievements are the main gameplay mechanic. You'll level up based on your Achievement points, and you'll complete the game only by maxxing out the 1000 points that are available.

Equally worth noting in the list of experiments is price: Test Drive Unlimited retails for $39.99, twenty dollars less that most 360 games while providing at much more gameplay than most of what's on the shelf. You’re buying in on the ground floor of a great experiment, and it will take a few months to see if it all truly pays off. Without a bustling online community, Test Drive Unlimited is a pedestrian entry in the racing genre, but for those who are willing to invest the time into it’s multiplayer world this could turn out to be the most bang for your buck the Xbox 360 has yet seen.

Test Drive Unlimited Score
out of 10