• Test Drive Unlimited is the game you want it to be. By presenting the player with a plane ticket, a few hundred thousand dollars and a massive open space Eden have created the epitome of sandbox gaming. Without a story acting as a backbone to the proceedings you are free to take out of the game as much as you wish at your own pace and in whatever order you want to, without boundaries or rules. Test Drive Unlimited is, for this reason alone, about as close to the much-maligned definition of Next-Generation as we’ve seen – in short, if you have anything like a passing interest in cars, this is essential.

    But lets get the ugly stuff out of the way first: by being as open as it is the developers have struggled with testing, and it shows. By the evening of the Friday launch day the drive-ins were crashing and anyone that tried to sell a car on the open market found their save game corrupt forcing a complete restart. By day two it was almost impossible to stay in touch with another driver for more than 10 minutes, and most of Sunday was spoilt by the servers being down for the inevitable repairs. Monday’s patch and a bit of tweaking was enough to get everyone up and racing again, and, touch wood, everything seems to be OK, with news of another patch due soon to complete the network troubles.

    But rest assured, if you’re still sitting on the fence with this one, by the time you’ve made it down to your local GAME Atari and Co will have the servers running sweet and all the functions fully operational. It’s understandable that there were a few teething problems, but the massive island of Oahu always manages to offer unprecedented freedom and reliability even when Live itself is switched off, such is the scope and flexibility of the single player mode. Seamlessly integrated into the online mode, the only difference non-Live players will have is that other racers are bots, and you won’t be able to take part in multiplayer races, trading, clubs and the aforementioned drive-ins. The experience obviously isn’t as compelling as it is online, but it’s still a worthy investment in both time and the £50 entry fee.

    Test Drive Unlimited

    Fire up Live, however, and everything seems to fit into place – you’ll be able to see, hear and feel the closest eight players to yourself at any one time (all online players are on the same island, but over different servers, much like Phantasy Star Online) and flashing another rival starts an instant challenge. It’s a little similar to the Tokyo Challenge series, but with a definite (albeit set by the challengee) finishing line, with stakes (but not pink slips, sadly) chosen by you. This alone is great fun, but join a car club with your friends and you can challenge other car clubs, and there’s always the drive-ins where players set challenges that you can attempt, the more people attempting the higher the prize.

    There are also (obviously) set races around the island, and the host can select car categories and manufacturers as required, keeping races as tight or as manic as can be, and there are also single player races, time trials, speed challenges and various courier and hitch hiker missions too – which are tense affairs (a perfect run brings a sizable financial bonus) through traffic and windy roads. Progression through the five ranks in the game is actually based on achievements gained, and these are won not only by the races and tasks mentioned above, but also various other methods too such as miles driven, houses bought and even the number of Ben Sherman t-shirts in your wardrobe. Dressing up your avatar seems a little pointless when you rarely see him or her (you can’t get out and walk around the island, sadly) and clothes are far too cheep to make it worthwhile, but might please those into The Sims.

    Your house (of which there are many to purchase) acts as your base, with a limited space garage attached from which you can select your vehicle of choice, but with lots of other things integrated here too, such as the 360’s finest Achievements visualisation yet seen within a game. You can buy and sell from your house, check out Marketplace downloads and generally keep track of your progress. Buying houses isn’t cheap, but they are a worthwhile investment for those wanting to build their car (and ultimately bike) collections up.

    Cars are divided into 7 divisions – A (the fastest) though to G, and prices vary accordingly. The fastest machines such as the S7 and the Maclaren F1 GTR might take a while to work up to, but you can always rent cars from the various rental shops in the meantime if you’re desperate for a car in a certain class (some events are locked to slow G-class Muscle Cars, for example). Also dotted around Oahu are tuning shops, although car upgrading is elementary and much too simplified for players used to Gran Turismo. Visual upgrades are limited to paint jobs and a few rims, although some cars such as the Ford Mustang can undergo severe aesthetic changes at the right garage.

    The cars themselves look wonderful – excellently modelled and weighty enough to look almost real whilst on the road. With a high definition display the draw distance appears infinite and the buildings and trackside detail is probably the finest seen yet, with trees and foliage courtesy of Speedtree, the same middleware used in Oblivion, although it appears to be a step above with less draw-in and higher resolution textures at greater distances. The frame rate’s locked at a reliable 30 FPS with little fluctuation, and the adjustable motion blur compensates when needed. Add that to the user-set shakey cam and the sense of speed down one of Hawaii’s major motorways in an Enzo is unmatched, and a terrific rush.

    Eden have even got the engine sounds right, something rarely successful in racing games and often an afterthought. The different whines and roars of the engines are easily distinguishable and keen gamers will be able to detect the car behind just by it’s grunt – the high end Ferraris sound incredible but the big American classics sound just as real. There’s an emphasis on exotics, though, so those looking for the next Need for Speed might be disappointed – tuner cars are limited to the 350Z and Skyline R34, but there’s a few Audis and eventually Lexus at the lower speed end. With the right group of friends these cars make for a totally different driving experience and a tour of the island (all 2+ hours worth) is a great must-do at some point.

    So, Eden have pulled off almost what they’ve promised. TDU is a wonderful game with plenty to do, the largest open space even seen in such a game, and with promise of lots of downloadable content it’s hopefully a long lasting one. Price issues aside (the game costs nearly three times as much here as it does in the US) Atari have to be commended for supporting the game for such a lengthy gestation period, and we here at TotallyGaming really hope it pays off. Great stuff.

    Score: 9/10

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