There are moments in Test Drive Unlimited 2 when everything snaps together perfectly and you get an all too rare, blissful, zen-like rush of pure joy. If it’s the right time of day with the sun setting on the horizon ahead, an open road at 150mph and Paul Van Dyke blasting through the in-car radio like Kevin and Perry going large, it’s a dreamy, unworldly sensation that could only be captured with all the variables firmly in place. TDU2, when it works, is breathtaking.
But when it doesn’t, it’s a wreck. Take, for example, the risible voice acting and character animation that makes up almost everything off the asphalt: the cut-scenes, horrendously produced and unskippable, are meant to portray a Second Life-esque overarching bubble but end up looking amateurish and occasionally verging on embarassing, the interaction between these dumb, vapid avatars sub-PlayStation Home. The game is filled with this exposition, and for the right reasons, but the implementation is terrible.
But Test Drive Unlimited 2 succeeds: not in spite of the RPG aspects (which we’ll come back to), but because of them.
It’s an interesting conundrum: where does the driving genre go now that Gran Turismo 5 has sewn up the hardcore sim angle and the likes of Need for Speed have captured the arcade, drift-heavy crowd with regular annual updates? The only path open to a game wanting to squeeze in betwixt these behemoths is the one marked convergence, and although it’s fair to argue that the first Test Drive paved the way, the sequel expands on the notion of presenting a lifestyle sim rather than a racer to all new levels.
And speaking of levels, taking into account the San Andreas-like hairdressers, frighteningly liberal cosmetic surgeons and countless boutiques, this is a role-player than manages to tap into every aspect of your progress with alarming completeness. Find a new bit of road you’ve not driven on? That’ll boost your Discovery rating. Join a club? Community stat +1. Win a race: Competition. Buy an expensive yacht and accompanying six-car garage? Collection.
These four markers: Discovery, Community, Competion and Collection, all go towards your total rating, which creeps up in levels accordingly as if Square were behind this game, not Atari. And whilst you won’t be fighting invisible monsters you will be hunting out wrecked cars, venturing off-road in a SUV and taking photographs of particular scenes all in the name of your virtual standing amongst your peers. Cars can be bought with cash, but your level must be earned the hard way.
Does it work? That depends on the player, because, and this is where Test Drive 2 falters slightly, the racing isn’t actually that much fun. Yes, there are highlights, and they’re wonderful, but on the whole what Eden have developed is a competent but slightly bland set of physics that do little to excite hardcore racers beyond the questionable thrill of the unknown. These aren’t race tracks, or pre-built courses, these are streets, filled with hills, ninety-degree corners and lined with houses.
Ibiza, where the game is set (at least until you open up the airport) is a varied island topographically, and it makes for some interesting challenges behind the wheel. But the engine driving the game isn’t as precise as the ones under the bonnet of the cars you’ll race. Clipping a stone can throw the vehicle around one-eighty with a weightlessness rarely seen, for example, and given the rubber banding a final corner accident can mean a frustrating restart. At least the load times are tiny.
But I’m guessing that this isn’t really the point. Certainly, I’ve had the game for a week now and have spent most of my time exploring, driving, and enveloping myself in the overall experience, something which Test Drive Unlimited 2 actually does quite well, despite its flaws and shortcomings. I don’t know how that would translate into the opinions of others but I’ve always been a sucker for a world ripe for just inhabiting, even if this one is slightly soulless – something that could have been rectified by allowing the player to walk outdoors.
Those that have pre-ordered will get access to the Casino, another potential distraction from the racing, but even without the poker table there’s more than enough here to occupy your time: car showrooms, license tests, hunting out hidden cars with a metal detector, and then there’s the social aspect – setting up clubs, going on cruises with mates, tuning (and decorating) your cars and saving up for the Ferraris. All things that you’d normally find split up amonst multiple games of multiple genres.
And then there’s the graphics: away from the ugly avatars, the game is beautiful when photographed in the right conditions but, on PS3 at least, hardly smooth in motion – an issue somewhat balanced out with lovely day-night transitions and gorgeous rain effects but the often sub-30fps frame rate a problem when racing. The engine notes, however, are pitch perfect, raspy, brutal and loud, something even the likes of Polyphony never seem to get quite right. Swings and roundabouts again, then.
So: it might not be the perfect driving game, not by a mile, but at least TDU2 tries to offer up something different, and it’s perfect for some TSA Meets…