The drive of your life?
With the likes of Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Project Gotham 3 ruling the roost of next generation console racing games, a newcomer to the track had best be something special to knock these two off the top spot. Whilst Burnout Revenge is a fun and engaging arcade tear-em-up and has massive appeal on Xbox Live it's the turn of Test Drive Unlimited to offer something new to the table.
There's no real story in the game, it's about you taking on the role of a wannabe speed jockey and flying out to Hawaii where you hope to become one of the elite cadre of drivers on the island. Hop a plane and you're there, buy a new car and a house and you're on your way to amassing a fortune in cars, clothes, bikes and more.
That's the bottom line for the story.
Gameplay - Single and Multi
Whilst TDU is another racing game it does try something a bit different, the whole of Hawaii is open for you to explore and drive on endless stretches of roads, punctuated by various shops and car/bike dealerships - there's the obligatory AI traffic and if you're online then the whole world is populated by random players from all over Xbox Live.
So it's really an MMO racing game that lets you explore and race with or against other drivers. The problem with this is, it's been done in somewhat of an archaic manner. The match up severs are clunky at best and they don't allow you to populate your world with friends that are on your Xbox Live friend's list.
When you're offline the world is populated with AI drivers so you can still get your fix of instant race challenges.
TDU plays just like any other racing game in that respect; you earn cash from racing across various challenges some of which you'll need a specific class of car to play:
Race: typical race challenges, although some of these like the 1,000,000 dollar 'Millionaire's Challenge' last nearly an hour and are extremely frustrating at times especially when you're caught out by the dodgy traffic AI.
Speed: Speed trap races, amass the right score to win the gold, go as fast as you can past a camera and try to get the speed you need.
Delivery: Take an exotic sports car from A to B without getting a dent on it for a big bonus.
Model: Pick up a good looking babe from point A and deliver her to point B, some models will only ride with you if you're in the right car. You get clothing vouchers from these challenges that can be spent in the various shops around the island.
When you're not racing in the single player challenges, you're racing against multiplayer opponents, either from the multiplayer races littered around the island or a quick instant challenge.
You just flash your headlights at a racer and they'll either accept or refuse. Then it's time to pick a route, a prize amount for instant challenges can be set ahead of time and you're off.
Whilst this idea works well, you can turn off online interactions if you're getting too many people flashing you whilst you're trying to explore the island. We found that during the course of the game we encountered people just wanting to ram into us and then litter the chat with abuse, in that way it reminded me of a classic MMO.
And with no way to kick players from your area you just have to bite the bullet.
Each island is instanced for that session and the servers have been up and down most of the time during the first few weeks. There has been at least one patch and this improved the experience in game overall, but seemed to have taken some of the features offline for a while.
Speed freaks beware, there are cops in TDU and they will bust you if you draw too much heat. There's a lot of money to be made in the game, and lost to traffic cops - be warned it's not much fun to sit in jail for around 30 minutes in the game if you're caught too many times and run out of cash to pay the fines.
As you explore the island you'll unlock new areas to visit, new showrooms and a few specialist places. Eventually you'll unlock the custom paint shop and the high end tuners, the tuning isn't as involved as some games of this type but it's enough to give you an edge over the competition and to blow some cash.
You can join or form race clubs, these are one way to race with your friends and it's nice to see that your avatar appears in your club house. It's a shame that you can't however see your friends on the same island as you - we tried this several times and perhaps they'll add the functionality in a patch. There's also no way to actually explore the island with your friends outside of a long race, and that's a bit of a let down to be honest.
Split screen racing or system link would have been a nice feature but the developers seem to have forgotten that not everyone actually has broadband and a good enough connection, let alone access to Xbox Live. So in short in this respect it's not quite a good SP game and it lacks a lot as a MP game. But there's no monthly fee and that's a bonus.
There is a lot to do on the island, but it's pretty much just all about cruising around, racing, picking up cash and spending it to gain more and more material things. Stocking cars in your garage, getting better and bigger houses are pretty much the driving forces behind the game. You can buy/sell cars in an online auction house and even create challenges for people to compete in, in the drive in, so there's always going to be newly created player content.
You need good controls in a racing game and TDU doesn't disappoint, there's a good mix of driving options available and the game can be configured to allow for novice or expert drivers, you can have full control of the car's braking and handling or you can set the driving aid to full and not have to worry too much about spinning out etc.
Apart from this the controls in the game are your standard fare, accelerate and brake on the right and left triggers. You flash your lights with A and the D-Pad controls various functions such as the GPS system, driving aid and the radio.
The game features one of the most comprehensive GPS and maps yet. There's a lot of functionality in the map and you can use it to port from one place to the next once you've unlocked the road or area, it saves on having to drive half way across the massive island to get to a race or a club. Zoom all the way out and you'll get a shot of the Earth with the credits for the game, an amusing touch.
You can set a GPS marker and your in-car voice will then give you pointers as you drive there. However sometimes the GPS seems to forget to tell you when a turn is coming up and sometimes it tells you too late.
There are a few noticeable issues with the graphics right away. They're gorgeous graphics but they're often plagued by some obscure tearing effects and definite cases of pop-up when the road's being rendered at high speed. None of these are sufficiently bad to spoil the gameplay but they do put a dent on the suspension of disbelief as a few trees appear as if by magic.
There doesn't seem to be much in the way of slowdown and the game features some dramatic lighting, shadow and metallic effects. The smoke and particle effects from dust and exhaust fumes as well as the burnt rubber are all done extremely well and the cars themselves look absolutely stunning.
The other vehicles and buildings, as well as the various people and avatars look fairly decent, they're not as impressive as the amount of graphical detail that's gone into making these 200, 300 bhp monsters come alive however.
TDU is a car enthusiast's wet dream. From the exterior modelling of the vehicles to the lavish, fully working interiors, each car has been realised and created with loving care. You can inspect these vehicles in your garage, in the showrooms and even open the doors and windows. You can only open the windows when you're in the car and you don't walk around the island on foot, to clarify this question that someone asked.
The other models, avatar and buildings are of sufficient quality but not as detailed as the cars/bikes themselves. The avatars of people are pretty much simple and it's obvious to see there are a lot of repeats in terms of character style and design for the AI and challenge mini-scenes.
Fortunately in your house there is a fairly in-depth character tweaking tool and you can also outfit your avatar with new clothes, these avatars appear in mini cut-scenes as you get in and out of the car, park up at a house and so on.
You can also see the driver behind the wheel of the car and the model operates the car's steering wheel and various features, like the gear stick.
As previously mentioned, the animation of the game is perfectly married to the models. Your driver actually operates the car; they change gears when you do if on manual setting or when you hit the correct speed on auto. They have a set of facial expressions and emotions through the various mini cut-scenes and interactions. You can see them moving their hands, talking and so on, when in a club house and it's all animated extremely well.
It's huge, it has a lot of small cities on the map and there are hundreds of miles of winding road. The biggest problem and best feature are all in one, it's huge, but that's the problem as well - once you've driven down the same stretch of road more than once the wide open spaces don't seem all that fun, there's just something that seems to be lacking in that respect.
Apart from this the island is extremely well designed and there's a lot of fun to be had trying to off-road a vehicle just for the heck of it.
The racer AI isn't too bad; it rises in challenge as you rise in experience from completing the various challenges around the island in SP. It's nothing brilliant but it does what it says on the tin.
The traffic AI is annoying however and will often do dumb things, they are the biggest cause of traffic tickets in the game and you should get a lot unless you're really careful. They cause a great deal of problems on the bigger race runs and unless you can avoid the stupid things they do, or plan ahead, you will lose valuable time and money if the cops catch up with you.
The game isn't about physics, in terms of object interaction, there's no car damage on the player cars but there's a low level of damage on the AI traffic cars and you can knock bumpers off, break certain things. The physics for the car handling is dependant on your level of driving aid, if you have the aid off, then you're going to have to learn to control every single class of car (or bike) and they all handle differently.
The audio department of TDU doesn't disappoint, it is packed to the brim with the sounds of various engine types, ambient noises from the island and the screech of tires. It's so good you can almost feel the rumble from a high performance sports car as it revs up at the starting line.
You have a small variety of radio stations to listen to, these vary between classic rock, classical music and other genres. The songs are catchy and there are a few nice tunes in there. If you're not impressed with the selection, you can always use your own playlist right from Xbox Live.
The voice work is limited both in the scope of the dialogue, that comes from the various challenges and the actual voice work itself. There's no much to say about it apart from it's passable but could have been done a lot better.
The chequered flag
TDU is a mixed offering, as a SP game it doesn't quite hold it and as a MP game it doesn't quite get it right. It's not a bad game but there could have been a lot more potential if the developers had of included system link and split screen, as well as allowing friend's access to your island. Even a custom player list that gives priority to your friends from Live compared to strangers.
A sort of preferred player list if you will.
It is a car enthusiasts game however and will attract those kinds of people, myself included. I thoroughly enjoyed the game and will continue to play it. I hope that the developers continue to support it through downloadable content and of course patches - perhaps even adding in certain features that were missing and redefining the race setup interface so matchmaking was a lot easier.
See you on the island.