The first Test Drive Unlimited was revolutionary in several ways. It really captured the persistent online world of a racing game, complete with seeing other players driving around a massive map full of races and challenges to complete. I was a huge fan of the original and, when they shut down the servers and announced a sequel, it was time to play the waiting game. Well, Eden Studios has finally unleashed their newest massive open-world racing game upon the world and the results are a mixed bag. On one hand we have a lot of improvements to the formula, but on the other, there are some questionable decisions that actually hold the title back.
The first thing I want to get out of the way is the storyline. For TDU2, Eden Games decided to create a story where you choose a character at the outset and begin an adventure, progressing from valet to professional race car driver. My issue is that it seems to take a front seat to the rest of the game. For the first hour, I was stuck watching cut scenes with some truly atrocious dialogue between stereotypical characters that I simply did not care about. It was obvious most players don’t care about their persona as, online, almost everyone has the same avatar, and very few of them are playing dress-up.
This is all a non-issue to most players as the real meat of the game is about the cars. Once you get past the drawn out opening sequence, you finally get to purchase your first ride and start exploring the massive island of Ibiza. If there is one thing this game does well, it is real estate. This island is enormous, much like Oahu in the first game (which is unlockable once you reach level 10), making this one of the largest racing games ever created. This is also where some of my first issues crop up. As you drive around the roads, they are marked as travelled. Once travelled, you can fast travel by selecting a spot on your map. Until they are travelled, though, you will have to drive to each destination. I know this sounds like common sense, but having to go from one side of the map to the other for one event early on can really drag the pace down.
Still, if you can stomach this tedium, there is certainly a lot to do in TDU2. You can literally drive anywhere, at any time, and there are random encounters that you can do for money. The game tracks your level progress through a series of different gauges including social and exploration. Almost everything you do in the game levels up these various gauges, thus unlocking more events for you to enter. This also unlocks more customization options for your in-game avatar, but like I mentioned earlier, playing dress-up was not appealing, and earning a new pair of leather pants didn’t change that, at all.
There are several ways to earn money within the game, as well, which can be used to purchase new cars, upgrades and, of course, places to live and store your rides. The first new addition will be introduced to you shortly after you get started. The Free Ride Instant Money system, or F.R.I.M. as the game refers to it, rewards you for passing traffic closely, drifting, jumping and pretty much any other type of offensive driving. The money slowly builds until you either collide with someone, losing it, or you bank it. There are also casinos you can visit to gamble and, of course, the standard stranger missions. Money is never scarce within the game, but like everything else you have to discover the locales and shops before you start purchasing all the goodies.
Now we get to the actual driving and, sadly, it isn’t much better than the rest of the package. For the hours I sunk into the game, I still cannot quite put my finger on exactly what was wrong with it. I couldn’t find a camera angle that I preferred, and driving around the islands just felt off. Going into turns using the GPS resulted in several collisions with objects on the side of the road, and drifting only felt right in the off-road races. I am not sure if it was Eden’s decision to straddle the line between arcade and sim that threw off the driving so much, but whatever the case, the game just doesn’t sit well and no amount of practice will ever give you a solid sense of control.
The biggest problem with TDU2 is all of its little problems, when you start adding them up. For instance, in single player, the AI has a tendency to cheat its way to victory once you start getting into the later races. Also, license tests are boring and frustrating thanks to the one-hit fail mentality. As I have mentioned before, the exploration is tedious and F.R.I.M. really feels tacked on after a while. Amazingly, if you don’t bother to turn on custom soundtracks, the in-game music repeats far too often and the dialogue for the cut scenes is absolutely horrendous. When you add all of that up you get one massive collection of disappointments.
The online mode, which is a huge portion of the Unlimited series, returns here with a host of features. You can view user challenges in a central hub and challenge any racer on the spot simply by flashing your lights at them. Drivers are always there as long as you are online, which does add some community type style to the game. Unfortunately, servers on all versions of the game are having more than few issues right now, which makes playing online a less than exciting experience.
Visually, the game varies so often it is hard to keep up. One of my biggest gripes is that neither island really feels alive because of the lack of people on the streets and the way the cars manage to disappear and reappear without warning. I understand games this large have technical limitations, but most devs find clever ways to hide them. The weather effects, on the other hand, were stunning to say the least. The first time it rained in Ibiza, I literally stopped what I was doing to check out the puddles on the ground.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is an example of a good idea gone wrong. The first game was such a huge step in the innovation of the genre but, since then, online implementation has come so far, and the team behind this series seems to have fallen behind. When it works, there are moments of brilliance buried behind the rough exterior. Unfortunately, there are not enough of those moments to warrant a high recommendation. If you loved the first game, and are willing to be patient, TDU2 will definitely offer plenty of content. It is just a matter of whether or not you are willing to sit through all the tedium to get to it.
Review copy provided by publisher.