The best way to describe Test Drive Unlimited is going to sound like a no-brainer, but it’s uniquely true: it’s designed for people who love to drive. Test Drive Unlimited is the first mainstream massively multiplayer racing game, but before you think it’s like an MMO version of any other racer, it really is important to understand just how focused this game is on the actual act of driving.
In Project Gotham Racing 3, players drive to be stylish. In Burnout Revenge, players drive to cause mayhem. In Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo 4, players drive to enjoy their automotive customizations. But in Test Drive Unlimited, players drive for the sake of driving. The game includes multiple checkpoint, race, escort and speed-trap modes, but the core of Test Drive Unlimited is the simple act of cruising.
The game takes place on a fully realized island of Oahu, with roads criss-crossing the island and skirting around its perimeter. Scattered along these roads are challenges such as those mentioned above, each of which is restricted to different car classes or player rankings. As players progress through the single-player challenges, they earn money with which to buy houses, cars and tuning kits, as well as coupons with which to buy new clothes for their driver. Many of these challenges are just that (challenging), and therefore require either multiple tries with one car or exercising a bit of patience until a car in a faster class becomes affordable.
This all seems like pretty standard fare, until you realize three things. First, although there is a “fast travel” option, every challenge on the first go-round requires the player to drive there. This can be a total time-suck considering the island is mapped in its entirety. You think the literal act of driving isn’t important to the developers? Maybe you can explain why they included Achievements for driving 200, 400, 1,000 and 5,000 miles.
Second, driving to and through these challenges requires players to travel as responsibly as they would in real life. Again, this is not an arcade racing game; it’s really, truly about driving around Oahu like you would on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The passengers in the Top Model and Hitchhiking missions — and many of the challenges themselves, in fact — only allow for a certain number of videogame-esque shortcuts before calling the mission a failure. As a result, if you drive irresponsibly (i.e. as you would in most other videogames), you will fail miserably.
But it’s the third realization that distinguishes Test Drive Unlimited from other racing games before it: its massively multiplayer online functionality. As players cruise around Oahu, they of course encounter computer-controlled cars and opponents. But if they’re connected to Xbox Live, they’ll also encounter real-life players driving around the island in “their own, single-player” game. Each of these real-life encounters can be treated as an online challenge (flash the headlights), a chance to socialize (just start chatting), or an opportunity to trade/buy/sell vehicles and share user-created races. Regardless, these real-life encounters happen seamlessly within the context of the single-player game, and it’s not uncommon to have five or six people just driving around within a three-mile radius at any given time.
This social aspect of Test Drive Unlimited takes the racing genre in an exciting new direction, and its seamless integration with the single-player portion is sheer genius (as it would’ve been in the PC game Mythica, had that project not been canned). EA plans to do this with the next Burnout game, and it’s such an immersive feature that future racing games should consider implementing it, especially as more gamers use broadband.
That’s not to say the implementation of the online and a few other functions is flawless. For instance, the constant on-screen popup of players’ Gamertags can be frustrating as you try to navigate some of Oahu’s tricky corners, much as the Gamertags were distracting in Conker Live and Reloaded on Xbox. In addition, navigation in mid-mission is far too challenging due to the game’s color-coded roads. One of the Achievements in Test Drive Unlimited is to discover every road in the game (remember, it’s all about the act of driving). Consequently, Atari included a feature that automatically tells players they’ve traveled a road by coloring it blue on the map. However, when the GPS tries to indicate the most-direct route to a destination, it denotes that path with a green road. Far too often, those blue and green shades are so similar that you’ll accidentally turn down the wrong direction, screwing up time challenges and often leading to mission failure.
A story or campaign would have also been nice, as the act of driving likely isn’t sufficient to hold some gamers’ attention. The game starts out in a story-like sequence, but once players buy their first car and house, the driving challenges are the only glue holding the game together. Atari was probably focused on making sure the multiplayer aspects worked well (which they do), but gamers who are only able to play the single-player portion will find that they’ve been there, done that with most of the game.
For gamers who love the literal act of driving, who can’t wait for Sunday afternoon when they can cruise through miles and miles of countryside, Test Drive Unlimited is ideal. For players who appreciate technical feats such as seamlessly integrating the online and offline worlds, Test Drive Unlimited awaits your investigation. But for gamers just looking for a new racing game, remember that the meat of Test Drive Unlimited isn’t necessarily racing, but driving. It seems like a simple distinction, but it’s an important one.
- Overall: 8.3
- Technically, graphically and aurally it’s impressive, but if you’re not into the act of driving or not on Xbox Live, it’s best suited to be a rental. The multiplayer socialization and implementation is really where it shines.
— Jonas Allen