Friday, May 25, 2007

Test Drive Unlimited Review

Test Drive Unlimited, developed by Eden Games and published by Atari.
The Good: Large persistent real-world location to explore, lots of assorted races to finish, decent selection of cars, usually seamless multiplayer integration, auto-save
The Not So Good: Should be easier to join live multiplayer matches, intermittent online connectivity, limited console interface, needs class-restricted multiplayer races
What say you? A good single player game, but the massively multiplayer aspect is missing due to some fundamental flaws: 6/8

For every successful MMO game, there are five or six failures. Remember Motor City Online? Yeah, me neither, but apparently it was one of the first attempts at a MMOR game (the “R” stands for “rutabaga”). It failed miserably, but there is still an audience who’d like to drive and race in a persistent online environment. Enter Test Drive Unlimited, a game that takes the arcade racing series and brings it to Hawaii, specifically the island of Oahu. Test Drive Unlimited is similar to most arcade racing games in that you participate in races to earn money to buy new cars and upgrades, except now you can do it with and against other players over the Internet. Will Test Drive Unlimited fill this gaming void, or provide another piece of evidence against MMO racing games?

The fact that Test Drive Unlimited features the entire island of Oahu is impressive, so it’s not surprising that the level of detail could be better. It’s obvious that the game uses the major roads and real topography of the island and fills it in with repetitive textures and buildings. It looks good, but it still feels like you’re playing a game instead of driving in a real place. The mountains and cities in the background are real places you can drive to, so that adds to the realism of the game’s setting. Oahu is a very good place to set the game, as the island features curvy mountain roads, large expressways, and urban environments only a few miles from each other. One impressive feature is the transition from the game map to your car: the game zooms in from a satellite image of Oahu all the way down to your vehicle in a Supreme Commander-like transition (although this one is much nicer). Still, each part of the island looks like all of the other parts with the same trees and buildings, and the repetitive cut scenes get annoying after a while. One of the problems with having a console game on the PC is the user interface: This game was obviously designed with a gamepad in mind, and some features that should be present are not. Drop-down menus are completely absent in the game, which makes finding a selecting vehicles a chore. It’s nice to see the developer took the easy way out in porting Test Drive Unlimited over (although the constant auto-saving is a nice carry-over). The car models in Test Drive Unlimited are well done, with impressive levels of detail with the brakes and interiors. Still, you’d expect a contemporary racing game to feature detailed car models, so this level of quality is almost a given these days. The sound is typical for a racing game: seemingly authentic engine sounds and environment effects, including the sound of telephone poles flying by a high speed. The GPS voice has a nice comforting effect, and there is the ability to import MP3s into the game and play them through the radio (hint: use the numpad 6 key to change stations...of course!). Although Test Drive Unlimited isn’t the best looking game out there, the game does a good enough job presenting a realistic environment to race in.

In Test Drive Unlimited, you race on the island of Oahu, completing races to earn money to get better cars. The game starts with a tutorial where you get accustomed to the driving physics and purchase your first house to store your automobile collection. There are a number of different challenges you will encounter: classic races against the AI, timed rally-style checkpoint events, average speed events, transporting models and hitchhikers to destinations for points to purchase new clothes, or transporting goods and vehicles for serious money. Cash is pretty easy to come by in Test Drive Unlimited and the game doesn’t arbitrarily limit you to stretch out the single player experience. In about three hours, I purchased three vehicles and advanced to the third skill level. The vehicle transport and courier missions are where you earn the serious money. The races run from extremely easy on the beginning level of difficulty to quite challenging as you work your way up the ladder. The inclusion of slow traffic on narrow streets heightens the challenge. Test Drive Unlimited integrates the multiplayer aspects right into the game: if you are online, multiplayer races and other drivers will show up on your map and in your game just like single player events. You can challenge any other driver to an instant challenge if you flash your headlights at them, although in my experience they rarely accept. Multiplayer races that have active players should be more evident on the map, as every single race shows up whether people are playing it or not (the use of filters on the map should extend here). The game includes a browser to search for games, but why have a browser and a map? It seems redundant to me. The multiplayer races are also rarely class-restricted, so everyone will be using class “A” vehicles that have had the game much longer than you have. This makes multiplayer races a good thing to avoid until you’ve finished the game and unlocked everything. I’ve also experienced connection issues with Gamespy while playing Test Drive Unlimited: the game not connecting to the server when I start it up, or losing connections during the game, or not showing any servers, et cetera. Gamespy integration into PC games is generally hit or miss, and it’s more miss in Test Drive Unlimited than it should be for a supposedly MMO game. This is sad for a game that advertises itself as being massively multiplayer: you can't really play multiplayer unless you've unlocked all of the top-level vehicles (since all of the games are fixed at no class restrictions) and connectivity issues abound. Once you achieve the third experience level, the editor becomes available (accessible from the pause menu (“P”), not the escape menu…of course!) where you can create single-car timed or speed challenges for everyone to download (but not races (single or multi player) for some reason). Here, you can restrict the classes (although most people don’t) and set the level of traffic and police involvement for added difficulty. The winner of each event (they last about three days) wins the cash put down by the author and all entry fees from participants. Unfortunately, only the winner gets the cash and there seems to be some “questionable” times on some of the challenges.

If you’re not racing in Test Drive Unlimited, you’re usually driving to a race. You see, you can only race at places you’ve driven to previously, so you must explore the island to unlock new races and discover new locations. The game’s GPS unit will give you good directions to your destination and navigating around Oahu is pretty simple, although some of the expressway exits are confusing. You earn achievement points from driving around and racing which increase your experience level and unlock more difficult events. Money you earn from placing in events can be used to purchase new vehicles and homes, or upgrade existing cars. There are a number of locations in Oahu other than just the races: clothing stores to alter your appearance, clubs to start a clan, diners to play user-created missions, car and bike showrooms, rental agencies for new houses, and high-end tuners. Upgrading your car is a simple affair at a high-end tuner, as each vehicle has three packages to choose from that increases the car’s stats (and may change its class). I like the simplicity of this model, as there are too many games that make you upgrade every single part on the car instead of grouping them together as one big package.

Test Drive Unlimited is a decidedly arcade racing game, namely due to the unrealistic braking present in all of the game’s vehicles. Still, there is some skill required to maneuver the vehicles in the game at high speeds and I prefer a more approachable game to realistic physics with a steep learning curve. Test Drive Unlimited bridges the gap between the unrelenting realism of RACE and the completely arcade (but extremely fun) Trackmania. Test Drive Unlimited also has a slew of bikes to command, which are faster and twitchier than their four-wheeled counterparts. Test Drive Unlimited does unlock a hardcore more when you attain the highest experience level which offers more realistic handling, but you can’t play it in any solo challenges.

Despite the fact that Test Drive Unlimited caused my power supply to die, I found the game to be a very solid racing game. We’ve experienced similar racing action before in the Need for Speed series (and, of course, Test Drive), but the combination of a high number of challenges and multiplayer options delivers a unique racing experience. Test Drive Unlimited features a good selection of cars from famous and not-so-famous manufacturers, and the island of Oahu is ripe for a large variety of races in a number of different settings. The arcade physics are easy to get into and the game should appeal to a much wider audience than a more hardcore title. The single player game will keep you occupied for a while, and user-created matches and multiplayer races are there after you’ve finished. Some users might find the game repetitive after a while, especially since the multiplayer aspects of Test Drive Unlimited could be implemented a lot better. This is really the main thing that holds Test Drive Unlimited back: joining and creating multiplayer matches need to be easier. Due to the Gamespy software, irregular network availability, and lack of filters for indicating populated servers, joining a multiplayer game is a chore; it’s just a lot easier to play against the AI than try to find people to race against online. The game seems to put people on different servers and you can’t see everyone online at once, which makes the instant challenge mode kind of silly. Still, Test Drive Unlimited is a great idea and it’s executed well for the most part. With a little polish here and there, Test Drive Unlimited is a game you could enjoy for quite a while.