Thursday, February 24, 2011

Test Drive Unlimited 2 Review

Test Drive Unlimited 2, developed by Eden Games and published by Atari.
The Good: Two large islands to explore containing many destinations, persistent online connection populates world with nearby human drivers of similar rank, create custom open challenges for other drivers with cash rewards, both competitive and cooperative multiplayer races, gain experience through multiple means, large roster of vehicles, variety of race types, ability to create or join clans, earn and bank money performing stunts
The Not So Good: Unbalanced arcade driving physics feature exaggerated braking and cornering abilities even on “hardcore” setting, tedious mandatory license system, boring story mode with terrible unskippable cutscenes, no difficulty settings makes early races trivially easy, minimal car damage, robotic AI, initially limited roster of multiplayer races
What say you? A predominantly online racing title with impressive features but very questionable driving and laborious progression: 5/8

While driving around in my reasonably priced compact car, I always wonder what it would be like to drive that car, as I out-accelerate them with my boxer engine and all-wheel drive. Well, thanks to the awesome power of computer driving simulations, you need to wonder no more! Take to the streets or the track in the car of your dreams…or nightmares. One of these simulations was 2007’s Test Drive Unlimited, a continuation of the franchise that stuck you on Oahu with everywhere not covered by water to race and explore with other human players. Or, at least, that was the plan, as the multiplayer functionality provided by Gamespy (who?) left a lot to be desired. Time for a sequel! Test Drive Unlimited 2 adds in a new island, Ibiza, and a host of multiplayer options and other features to hopefully complete the perfect driving experience.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 looks nice. The game features two detailed island environments with plenty of varied buildings and roadside objects like signs and trees to stare at as you accidentally drive into a fence. I’ve never been to Ibiza, but the island of Oahu seems to be a fairly accurate recreation, at least regarding the placement of roads and major landmarks. Test Drive Unlimited 2 also has nice weather and time-of-day effects (rain drops, particularly, look very wet). The cars, as you might expect, are also quite detailed, exhibiting a reflective sheen usually reserved for the showroom floor. The in-car view is decently detailed, although only the speedometer and tachometer displays actually work. The cars rarely display dramatic damage, though, remaining in their original shape even after tumbling end-over-end thirty-seven times. Still, I was pleased with the overall graphical presentation. The sound, however, is a different animal: while the engine effects seem to be realistic, the voice acting is atrocious and there are only two radio stations to listen to (I have not observed an ability to import custom MP3s). It’s clear which avenue received more development time: screenshots sell games.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a racing game. In it, an apparently homeless valet (that’s you) is given a spot in a prestigious racing series, a car, and a mobile home by someone who initially wanted you fired for daydreaming while parking their car. This is pretty much representative of the game’s nonsensical “story” that you’ll try your best to ignore; unfortunately, ignorance is mostly impossible because you can’t skip the terrible cutscenes to avoid the painful dialogue. The game takes place on two islands: Oahu from the original game and Ibiza. The game worlds are populated with lots of locations to visit using the map (which features a slick zoom in, zoom out animation): races, shops, homes, cars, and other players. If you have previously visited a location, you can instantly teleport to it; otherwise, you must jump in your car of choice and use the GPS. In either case, you never have to get gas: the future is here!

The main motivation of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is to gain experience, unlocking additional cars and features, and there are four ways of doing this. The most traditional is entering races; more on that later. You can also earn points for collecting vehicles, homes, clothes, getting a haircut, or undergoing plastic surgery. Additionally, exploring the island (previously surveyed roads are highlighted in blue), taking photos, or finding wrecked cars gain points. Finally, you can make friends, join clubs, or undertake challenges uploaded by others. It’s nice that Test Drive Unlimited 2 gives you more things to do than simply race.

A big selling point of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is persistent multiplayer: the game automatically adds human players that are near your location and at a similar level in the game for competition and cooperative play. The upper limit seems to be around thirty players at a time, though a single race is always limited to eight participants. You can join an organized club that can challenge other clubs to race events, a nice integration of clan-like features. Another promoted feature is the ability to walk around shops, but this is an insignificant addition: the developers could have simply listed your options at each location in a menu, but I suppose this is marginally more immersive at the expense of taking more time. Test Drive Unlimited 2 doesn’t suffer from severe console-related limitations: I was able to fully configure my gamepad and use the mouse, though the game immediately started without letting me change the default widescreen windowed resolution.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 has a variety of races you can undertake during your time on Oahu and Ibiza. If you spot another human driver or an AI boss, you can flash them (using your headlights, you pervert) and wager on a quick race. You can also participate in championships and cups, divided according to which cars are allowed to compete. First, though, you have to do a tedious racing school that tests basic skills (cornering, braking, driving in a straight line) for each new car class: boring and repetitive, a deadly combination. Test Drive Unlimited 2 has five basic race types: traditional races around a circuit, eliminator mode (where the last place racer is abolished after each lap), timed races, speed mode (where you must maintain a certain threshold), and speed trap (where you must record the fastest speed passing by a set of radar detectors). There is a time penalty for going off-road during certain events, but for the most part it’s just a matter of following a predictable checkpoint-laden path to the finish. Test Drive Unlimited 2’s lack of difficulty settings makes the first few championships really easy for anyone who’s driven a virtual car in the past.

But wait, there’s more! Events are randomly spawned races where you must transport someone or something to a destination. Some like a smooth ride, some want thrills, while others want to lose a tail or maintain a minimum speed. These quick affairs are a nice diversion from the more traditional races. Competitive multiplayer contests are limited to the speed, speed trap, and race modes; joining one is a confusing process, where you must join a ranked or unranked host, or create your own. The game interface shows the number of games at each location, but doesn’t display what type they are (ranked or unranked). Test Drive Unlimited 2 also has a limited selection of races at the lower experience levels. The game does feature cooperative multiplayer modes that are a bit interesting: “follow the leader” has one assigned driver who must pass through each checkpoint first, and “keep your distance” specifies both a minimum and maximum gap between teammates. Another intriguing entry is the chase mode: if a human player commits too many traffic violations, you can take the role of the police and attempt to pull them over. The final notable feature is a challenge mode: you can create custom races for other drivers, adjusting the number of laps, minimum speed, amount of traffic, and eligible car classes. You then put up a cash prize from your own account, and specify the entry fee (which you keep): pretty cool.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 features a large roster of vehicles to purchase: Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Subaru (my personal favorite) to name a few. The game also includes SUVs for off-road events (because everyone who owns an SUV uses it for off-road racing, right?). You can make very small upgrades to your car at the appropriate tuner shop, adjusting the acceleration, top speed, and handling. These minor upgrades usually add one or two ratings points, which is insignificant for the price. You can also deck out your vehicle with cool stickers, because nothing says “hardcore” like placing a giant pink heart on your rear bumper. While driving around the island, you can earn cash for doing stunts (jumps, drifting, and dodging cars): once you earn enough cash, you can bank it or save it and attempt to accrue more money. If you crash into anything, the bank is reset; a nice little diversion that gives you something to do on those long car trips to new parts of the islands. If you run into too many cars while near the cops (apparently, speeding is not frowned upon), you may get chased by the cops, some of which might be nearby human players as noted earlier.

The most annoying aspect of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is, unfortunate for a driving game, driving. The physics are on the arcade side of things, not as mindless as something like Split/Second, but certainly not up to the level of GTR Evolution or even DiRT 2, which seems downright sophisticated by comparison. While the cars in Test Drive Unlimited 2 accelerate as they do in real life, they brake and corner at outrageously inflated rates. This lack of balance means that if you brake too early or too much (likely if you’ve played any other racing game where you actually have to anticipate upcoming turns), you are screwed since you’ll accelerate back up at realistically slow rates. This is true even on “hardcore” setting, which turns off all driving aids but doesn’t make things any more realistic. I didn’t even want to see what full driving aids is like. The cars of Test Drive Unlimited 2 also have poor jump physics and really weird results when hitting roadside objects. Hit a curb? You might flip into the air! Hit a tree or bush? You might come to a dead stop! Hit another car head-on at 170 miles per hour? No damage! Yeah, the game description says it has damage, but I haven’t seen anything other than dirt on my cars after lots of crashes at very high speeds. You can certainly have an entertaining blend of arcade but challenging racing, but Test Drive Unlimited 2 falls way short in this area. The game also lacks good AI competition: they are outrageously robotic in their racing, following the same line in the same order. Just trying to spin them out is an arduous task, as they are stuck like glue to their pre-programmed racing lines. Traffic on the roads might change their plans slightly, but they are still far from convincing opponents.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 is the definition of dichotomy: the game has excellent features, especially in the multiplayer realm, but fails to deliver satisfying driving physics. That’s unfortunate, since most of the time you will be racing, since it’s, you know, a racing game. So, good news first: Test Drive Unlimited 2 has two large and detailed island locations to earn experience though varied activity like racing, collecting cars, discovering new locations, or interacting with others. Alas, you’ll have to pass dull racing schools to unlock new championships and earn the big bucks, but at least the races are varied: lapped, timed, and speed events all make appearances. You can also challenge other cars you spot on the road to quick battles, and undertake small events that randomly appear on the map. A big draw of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is the persistent multiplayer, and it’s handled well: human drivers who are nearby and close to your experience level will appear in the game world (up to around thirty at a time), where you can challenge them to a variety of competitive or cooperative racing modes. You can also create custom challenges for anyone: just trace out a path, set an entry fee, and whoever gets the best score earns your prize. You can also join auto clubs and challenge other clans for fun and profit. Test Drive Unlimited 2 also features nice graphics and a variety of real-world cars to parade around the islands. The story is laughably terrible, and so are the physics: the developers passed on realistic braking and cornering, completely disregarding the mass and inertia of actual cars, resulting in an unbalanced mess of driving. Driving the game takes considerable more skill than full-on arcade games like Split/Second or Death Track, but those expecting a simulation or even halfway decent racing will be terribly disappointed. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Test Drive Unlimited 2 will depend on whether you can stomach the car handling, as the rest of the game’s features are remarkable.