Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown Preview – the first truly social racer?

With a freshly announced release date in September, the long wait for a new Test Drive Unlimited is coming to an end. Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown will invite players to visit Hong Kong Island for a unique driving and racing experience.

You see, Solar Crown is as much about the racing as it is the social aspects. Most racing games only give a cursory nod to your avatar’s customisation with a bundle of race suits to wear, but Solar Crown doesn’t just let you change how you look when in the cockpit and on the podium, it invites you to step out of the car at various times. There’s the lobby of the Solar Hotel – a fictional spire built into the real-world setting – and there’s both open and private areas to the hubs for the Streets and the Sharps, the two rival car racing gangs of the city. You’ll even walk around car dealerships, the workshop where you can upgrade your car, and more.

Starting by picking a Nissan 370Z as my starter car, the handling is fun and accessible by default. Of course, racing game experts will want to switch to having fewer assists, letting more of a car’s natural tendencies come through as you push it to the ragged edge in a race. KT Racing promise individualised handling and characteristics for all of the more than 100 cars that will be in the game at launch, and I look forward to more time with the game to see how they’ve pulled this off.

After picking that first car, though, players will have to be willing to embrace a tangibly slower pace to the progression. Where modern Forza Horizon games will fling so many cars at you to the point that they become almost meaningless, Solar Crown wants to make everything feel earned and desirable. Getting a new car should be exciting, it should be something that you want to drive and master, to upgrade to the max over time as you look to rise up the rankings and the leaderboards.

Through upgrades, parts changes, and driving presets, cars will be adaptable. Of course, you can soup things up to become a street racing demon with slicker tyres, engine upgrades and more, but there’s plenty of off-road areas to explore on Hong Kong Island, and you could make that street car happier on gravel and dirt paths. Alternatively, save up and buy a truck or SUV, which can handle the bumpy uneven terrain much more easily.

Of course, modern gaming sensibilities have shifted over the last 15 years, and so KT Racing has a tightrope to walk to make Solar Crown still feel rewarding to those used to more instantaneous gratification. While they want you to play for many, many hours to earn enough cash to buy a Pagani Zonda, for example, they won’t gate-keep the applicable hypercar races quite so hard, with a lower-priced option available to take part while you save up. And there will also be car-specific events, such as the race we encountered that demanded we first go and grab a cheap and cheerful 500 Abarth to take part.

While you might have to wait to take a car into competition or to show off to your friends that you’ve managed to buy it, that doesn’t mean you can’t try it out. At any time you can visit one of the various opulent car dealerships, each dedicated to a particular country or region, and test drive one of the cars they have there – it’s in the title, after all. This gives you a tight two-minute window to see what a car is all about, and see if it’s actually the car you want to save up for and buy.

One gaming trend that Solar Crown is following is the shift to always online shared spaces and seasons of live content. For one thing, each race you look to take part in is preceded by some matchmaking to try and combine AI with real racers, and there will be other players doing their own thing on the island as you roam, or in the social areas that you wander around with your avatar. Each season will have a competition for players to take part in, looking to rise up the ranks from bronze, silver and up through to the Solar Court, which grants access to a special featured car – an ultimate flex to demonstrate their racing prowess. The very best player will be crowned as the Solar King or Solar Queen – one per region and per platform.

KT Racing has been inviting a select few fans and community members to check out the game and give feedback over the past year, and that’s led to some tweaks and changes that will be ready for the game’s launch. A much-requested feature, you will now have a personal garage space that lets you view up to six of your cars, inspect them in private and get in physically before choosing to join the open world – the slightest disappointment is that you can’t drive out of the garage at this point. For this demo, it also felt like the game was just a little bit too restrained early on, forcing me to repeat races and hunt down speed traps to earn the experience needed to level up and unlock both car upgrades and a new set of races. Our demo wasn’t that of the full game, but getting the early game flow right is the high-wire act that KT Racing will have to get just right for the final release.

On the whole, I feel that Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown is coming together rather well. There’s so many more individual touches that show the different attitude and tone that it has to other open-world racing games, which will make it a breath of fresh air compared to the competition. I can’t wait to revisit Hong Kong Island in just a few months time.

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