Open world racing games are nothing new. From Burnout to Need for Speed, a number of strong games in the genre are available on current gen consoles. One game that stood out was Test Drive Unlimited, a game that let racing fans roam around a huge island setting while interacting with other players occupying the same space via the internet. While fun in its own right, the game didn't quite live up to expectations. Now, the sequel, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is here and is an overall improvement on the first game. However, the game is held back by some glaring technical issues that stop it from achieving the full ambition of its design.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 has a scripted story that begins with you selecting one of seven pre-made characters. The character designs are decent for a game that focuses on cars but overall they are rather expressionless avatars that could have used more creative attention. Your character can walk around building interiors and interact with a number of objects from a first person perspective. This is actually a big part of the game, as you do everything from change your look to purchase new automotives in this way. The set up is that you are a nameless amateur driver given a chance at the big time by entering the Solar Crown Competition which aims to find the best racer on the island.
Associated with Solar Crown are a number of characters with big egos that serve as your rivals during races. The entire thing is presented as part of an ongoing television program, so the announcements and cutscenes before and after competitions are grating and cheesy. The actual driving and racing is enjoyable and capable of holding the attention of most fans of arcade racers. The game’s initial loading screen forewarns that the driving is not realistic. The sense of speed really hooks you once you work your way up to the faster vehicles.
The controls are a bit iffy at first. It feels awkward having to hold a face button for several seconds in order to be reset on the road. Cars have a tendency to oversteer, meaning you will become paranoid of slamming on the brakes in order to avoid losing control. But once you get acclimated the driving is actually good. The rival A.I. is a pushover. The true opponent is wrestling with the toy car-like handling of your car against the winding roads beset with oncoming traffic. There are several varieties of racing modes on offer in the Solar Crown tournament. There are time trials that pit your time on a course against the predetermined times of your opponents. There are races that either have laps or are one straight dash to the finish. There are speed clock trials where you and other racers pass by markers where a camera clocks your speed and the racer with the highest average speed wins. There are also off road challenges and different licenses you must acquire in order to advance. You earn points based on your position in each individual contest that accumulate towards a final score for a particular series.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a rather complex game. Around its core free roaming racing gameplay are a number of systems and features that provide a deeper experience than your average arcade racer. One such feature is the F.R.I.M. (Free Ride Instant Money), which gives you the chance to earn money based on your driving around the island Ibiza (and later Hawaii). Things like drifting, sustaining high speeds, and weaving in and out of traffic increase a bar that fills up to offer a certain amount of currency. You can either bank the money right away or continue driving through 10 levels in the hopes of earning more. If you crash or go off-road all that experience goes to waste, however.
While free riding there are a number of things you can do. You can challenge other racing cars to quick challenges by flashing your headlights. You can also locate drivers in need by finding them on your map and reaching their destination before the time runs out. Driving the long distances between races can be bothersome, especially if you make the long drive only to find out you don’t have the right car to enter a race. To mitigate this you can jump to nearby houses you own or other locales you have visited before. Other distractions include taking pictures of the island scenery and finding hidden car wrecks.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is at its best once you get into the full swing of things and you attempt to take advantage of all the features the game wants you to use. The size of your bank account becomes a genuine concern once you need to buy more and more properties to store your growing collection of autos. It takes a while to earn enough money so that you can buy things on a whim and until that point things feel slow and clunky. You constantly have to sell cars to purchase new ones to compete in series that offer more money and balance this with all the other things the game wants you to buy.
The leveling system is comprised of four categories that increase separately: Competition, Discovery, Social, and Collection. A maximum overall level of 60 is what you are striving for. Characters constantly call you on your cell phone to offer new events or suggest you do something else, often while you are on the way to an event already so you either have to turn down the offer or abandon your original destination.
Online multiplayer is a big part of the experience. In this area the game makes meaningful upgrades over its predecessor. When connected, you automatically come across other players driving on the same island. You can challenge them to instant races waging your virtual money against theirs. Unfortunately, the servers can be unstable, and when they are you would rather be offline doing your own thing than risking a sudden disconnection in the middle of a heated contest.
Graphically the game is inconsistent. On the one hand the lighting effects are pretty to look at and the islands are nicely conceived. The damage modeling, at its best, is pretty basic by today’s standards. The vehicle models are average compared to other racers this generation, but you do have a number of driving views and ways to customize your ride. As I mentioned, the character models are a bit wonky, but even though you cannot create your own, they too can be customized. This includes changing their hairstyle, clothing, and - creepily enough - plastic surgery. The results of your tweaking will not make your character any more tolerable to look at, so you might as well go crazy and amuse yourself.
The worst part of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is that it is a technical mess. The game froze more than once while playing. Texture pop-in is so prevalent you almost stop noticing it after a while. Sometimes computer-controlled cars will appear or disappear at random during free roaming. The physics also have a tendency to go haywire at the weirdest times. For example, on one occasion my car was stopped to a halt at top speed by an impassable two inch high obstruction, and on another my car went flying into the air and grazed the top of a skyscraper. I do not want to exaggerate the issue - when the game works well it can be really enjoyable, but the all too frequent mishaps break the flow.
The sound design fares as poorly as the rest of the presentation. The cars sounds are nice enough, but the voice acting is horrible. The characters are terrible one dimensional caricatures and the entire story is worthless. Skip it entirely. The soundtrack, represented by a number of different radio stations, plays decent tunes, but I soon turned it off.
Depending on how capable you are at looking past the game's shortcomings, you can stretch out your playing time quite considerably. Ibiza took me roughly 10 hours to complete and then Hawaii (Oahu) took twice as long because it's twice the size and there are twice as many events. Then there are all the extra goodies I described above, which I estimate will take close to 100 hours for completionists.
It is sad that a game with so much content and good ideas fails to come together as it should because of technical problems. While playing, I always thought I should be having more fun than I actually was. Still, fans of arcade racing will find something to like here if they can get past the half-baked presentation. When the game clicks on all cylinders it's like a finely tuned machine purring down a long stretch of pavement, however most of the time it feels like there are a few too many potholes along the way to fully enjoy the ride.