Test Drive Unlimited 2 Review
Not quite an unlimited experience, the sequel to the massively multiplayer racer proves to be more of the same
The original Test Drive Unlimited released back in 2006-2007, and it was an innovative title that combined racing and massively multiplayer interaction into one game. Sure, some areas were not very fleshed out, but overall this was a new foray that defied classification into a specific genre. Rather, it provided an interesting escape into a warm and sunny Oahu, where players were free to explore the whole island in a variety of high performance dream cars. Test Drive Unlimited 2 (TDU2) provides that same experience, on a higher level due to improved graphics and a whole new island of Ibiza to explore. Unfortunately, most of the game’s elements haven’t aged very well, and the game can’t hold up as either a good racer or a proper MMO experience by today’s expectations. Nonetheless, the game still provides a unique experience that will satisfy players who are looking for a title in this niche.
Right from the start, the game introduces players to an overall narrative in TDU2. While the original game featured little more than a string of races and cup events, this time around we’re introduced to a set of characters competing in the Solar Crown, the premier racing competition on Ibiza. Sadly, the whole thing feels overly tacked on, and the very poor voice acting and writing really make for some painful cutscenes. The dialogue feels forced and overly simplistic, and begins to often repeat itself during races. The voice acting isn’t much better, and the whole story is really just isn’t necessary. Being unable to skip any of the cutscenes or repetitive race introductions takes a toll on your patience after a while.
The game takes place on the island of Ibiza, which is beautifully detailed and accurately recreated. TDU2, much like its predecessor, is the perfect racing game for those who want to drive for an hour and never see the same intersection twice. The island is probably the best feature of the game, it looks quite stunning with a respectable draw distance and newly added full day/night and weather cycles. All of these visuals make for a believable, living world with its share of civilian traffic, various animals and airplanes crossing the sky. The transitions between weather and time of day are done fantastically well, and this is probably the only racing game in recent memory that has such a great atmosphere in the game world. There is a race event in the game that allows the players to take a trip around the circumference of the island – and at average speed of around 240km/h, it takes over 40 minutes to complete. That’s the kind of scale other games will have a hard time matching.
Thanks to this sheer size, the island encompasses tons of different scenery and locales, each with strong distinguishing features, and it’s refreshing to discover these new areas and their unique landscape. Not to be outdone, the game also has the updated island of Oahu from the first game – now that’s a ton of gameplay space. While both islands are beautiful and a joy to explore, they are fairly static. Almost all objects in the world are immovable – be it lamp posts, garbage bins, benches or fences. Really the only “destructible” scenery in the game is road signs, while everything else has the properties of solid rock, and a collision with the smallest park bench can easily end your race.
While TDU was fairly happy with being an arcade racer, TDU2 seems to have some trouble finding its racing identity. The game is neither a good sim or an enjoyable arcade, which leaves the players with frustrating controls and glitchy physics. The handling model feels too loose at lower speeds with high performance cars, but becomes stiff with slower cars or at higher speeds. It can be a frustrating experience at times, but after a while becomes manageable enough to get on with the game. There are three basic levels of steering assistance, but they also feel mis-configured and even the manual settings don’t often help.
The three car types in the game – Classic, Offroad and Asphalt – all handle relatively the same. From Bugatti to Audi, Ferrari to Mercedes Benz, the game’s car selection extends across a number of makes, models, and eras. All of the vehicles look respectably well designed and lifelike, with fully detailed interiors. All of the cars can be customized with new paint, salon finish, and rim colors. Players can explore the vehicle by opening its doors, rolling down windows, and taking off the roof (if applicable). It’s a level of interaction not often seen in games, and provides a great level of detail to the cars beyond the basics. All of the cars (except special prize cars) can be upgraded to increase their performance, and there are also decal shops which can further customize the look of the cars. There is a visual damage model in the game, but for whatever reason it’s most noticeable on civilian cars – bits go flying and serious body deformation takes place. Player cars, meanwhile, can hit a lamp post at very high speeds and not even break a headlight.
The game’s career progression is tied to completing tournaments in each class of vehicle, until the final Cup which encompasses all of the car types. Each tournament consists of 6 to 8 events, which can be undertaken in any order. However, once a tournament begins, players must finish all the races – quitting halfway through will mean that the progress will be lost. Both Classic and Asphalt tournaments are relatively straight forward, while the Offroad racing is often frustrating. Going off the pavement requires large SUVs that are able to handle the terrain – this also means they turn poorly and take time to accelerate. The back roads themselves can be quite frustrating during a race, as roadside rocks and walls can cause an unexpected crash effectively ending your chances of winning. While the scenery at these undeveloped parts of the island is nice, competitive races in these environments are frustrating more often than not.
Outside of the structured races, players are free to explore the huge island by traveling on any of its roads. Like the first game, the game world features side missions that provide extra cash. These missions include delivering a client’s car to a shop (letting you drive some of the best cars in the game, if only for a while), following a car, and others. The twist this time is that these side missions randomly appear in the world for a short while, and the player must begin the mission before the time expires. The game also provides the player’s cars with a system that tracks drifts, close calls and jumps – each adding up to provide a small cash bonus that can be “banked” at regular intervals. It’s a source of extra income that’s important in the game where cash is king.
This is where TDU2 shows off its MMO roots. Unlike many games where cash only comes secondary to completing races, TDU2’s money system is crucial and yet very well balanced, making the player work for their income. Early in the game as the cash is tight, the players are limited to a poor shack with a two car garage. This means that the player won’t be able to purchase any more cars until he buys a new or better home to store his collection of vehicles. As you progress through the game and the cash flow increases, it feels very satisfying to finally buy that beach house with a ton of garage space, and put a few high class cars in there. And you'll need the space - for whatever reason, the game doesn't offer a chance to sell any of the cars - only trade them in when your garage is full and you want something new.
Like the original, the players in the game have Avatars which are secondary to the cars. Players can create their character and customize them almost endlessly, not only with new clothes and accessories, but also new faces and physical features. Whenever the player enters a building in the game, such as a car dealership, a sticker shop, or your home – the camera switches to first person perspective. At this point the player is controlling his character’s view of the world and can explore fully detailed interior spaces. Players can customize their homes and invite others for social gatherings, though this is one of the few places in the world where interaction with Avatars is possible.
It seems for an MMO, the game lacks some significant features. Sure, it is great fun to invite folks over to your home, but that’s after you’ve made friends. To make friends, you can only meet other avatars at Car dealerships, where everyone just looks at the different cars on display. It’s a neat space, but not exactly made for socializing. It amazes that the developers tout having the famous night clubs in the game - and yet there are no public places for Avatars to socialize. The only other alternative to make friends is to add usernames to your friends list via a search – there is no way to add people from the game’s overhead map of players in the area. The chat interface isn’t exactly user friendly either.
When it comes to car interactions, it’s still easy to pull up to a player and initiate pickup challenges, either ranked or not. The game lets you preview your opponent’s vehicle, so there are no complaints of player imbalances as the race starts. The game world contains various places of interest, such as car dealerships and mechanical shops. All of these locations must first be driven to though – TDU 2 features the clever exploration mechanic from the original game, which requires players to “discover” a road before they can freely teleport to it. When player drives, the roads change color indicating that this area has been explored, and any interactive locations in the area also become accessible. This promotes exploration at almost addicting levels, as you want to “uncover just one more mile” of this highway. Any roads traveled during racing events also become unlocked, which is very convenient for future travels.
Finally, to give everything a proper tracking system, TDU2 features a 60 level progression system for your character. The overall level is compiled from four different gameplay progression areas – Competition, Social, Discovery, and Collection. Fairly self-explanatory, these areas track your progress through the game, such as how many competitions have been completed, percentage of roads discovered, how many friends your avatar has, and the number of cars and homes you own. All of these tracking systems are fairly arbitrary and have no effect on gameplay (except requirement for overall level 10 to unlock Oahu). Still, like a good MMO, these stats always drive the player forward to get more done and buy more things.
Just like the problems with racing, there are issues with the online side of things as well. Although the game can be played fully single player – if the servers are down, it’s difficult to launch the game and play around with an offline profile, as a whole workaround is needed that users have discovered. Since launch, the game has suffered from some very lengthy downtimes and general accessibility issues, such as Clubs being offline (the game’s “guilds”). The game always places the player in an instance, with only up to 8 other players. That leaves the game world often feeling rather empty – and this limitation is likely due to the console versions’ inability to handle more concurrent players without performance issues. It’s also unclear how the game decides on who to place in your instance of the world – often players appear on the map that are over 10KM away. Surely, that’s not very convenient for any interaction to take place. There are also cases where civilian traffic quite simply vanishes or appears as you drive – likely causes of throwing the player into a different world instance. Many of these issues might get resolved eventually, but even by MMO standards, TDU2’s launch has been rough.
As mentioned earlier, the game world looks great and the game runs quite well on recent hardware. The framerate is a bit shaky at times, most of the time when the game is saving content. Apart from the in-game issues, the software seems stable and hasn’t crashed once in over 20 hours of play. While the visuals are mostly well done, the sound design and effects are very low budget. The sound of sand during offroad driving is a looping sound that can actually get very annoying, the crashes sound like bone crunches instead of metal scrapes. The engines of vehicles also sound underwhelming, but at least the ambient world effects are nice. The game has two radio stations, offering some excellent tunes, but sadly lacking in longevity and it’s not long before music starts to loop.
A number of years have passed since TDU, and perhaps the developers did not anticipate that their game will stand unique through all this time. While both the racing games and MMOs have made significant progress during this time, TDU2 seems to be stuck in the same era of yesteryear. The game offers a mix that is still unique and provides an excellent escape to a sunny location with fast cars, but the parts that makeup the experience haven’t made any significant progress in the sequel. It also comes across at times as a budget title, given its technical issues, lack of quality writing and sound design, and even the lower retail price. This sequel comes recommended to fans of the original, and those players who know what they want out of the experience. TDU2 delivers on providing a great location to cruise around, interact with other players, and build your virtual paradise – but if you are looking for a memorable genre-specific experience, it’s advisable to look elsewhere.