Review: Test Drive Unlimited 2

Massively Open Online Racing Rolls Again

Test Drive Unlimited 2: Review – Click above for high-res image gallery

It's hard to believe that four and a half years have passed since Eden Studios took its best shot at merging the open online gameplay of an MMO with a racer to create the original Test Drive Unlimited. Most would agree that the attempt wasn't exactly perfect, but that didn't stop TDU from being refreshing and incredibly fun to play. Really, who wouldn't get behind the idea of amassing a collection of gorgeous cars and recklessly racing them all over Oahu?

And so, similarly, who wouldn't get behind the idea of amassing a huge collection of amazing cars and racing them around both Oahu and Ibiza? Yes, this time gamers will be putting on their clubbing duds and hitting the Mediterranean party island as well, with the two rocks offering over 1,500 miles of roads – some of them unpaved. A lot has changed on this second trip to paradise, but even more has stayed the same. Is there enough new to make this journey worthwhile a second time?

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Obviously the biggest addition here is that second island, Spain's party destination of Ibiza. If you're hip, you probably have a couple of Paul Van Dyk bootlegs recorded at some club or another on the island, but even if you've no idea how to pronounce the place, it still serves as another good opportunity for free-range vehicular tomfoolery.

It's in Ibiza where you'll begin your quest to greatness, employed as a meager valet who gets a big chance to impress in the Solar Crown, a series of races in a variety of cars that will test your mettle on and off the asphalt. Yes, this year you'll find yourself on the dirt, though sadly you'll be trapped in a series of overweight luxo-SUVs most of the time while you're doing it.

Also new is a three-class system for autos. A is for asphalt, with choices ranging from Caterhams to Chargers, plenty of exotica filling the gap between. B is for the off-road beasts, with tedious choices like a VW Touareg V10 TDI or more curious ones like the Spyker D8. Finally are the class C classics, your Corvette C1s, Daytona Coupes and the like. Each class has multiple levels of cars, and each level has its own series of single-player race events.

Races take place on the roads, sometimes with traffic and sometimes without, and are pretty evenly split between point-to-point events and tighter courses over multiple laps. Plenty of other event types are on offer too, including the self-explanatory Time Attack and more exciting Speed Trap, where you need to score the highest average velocity through a number of speed cameras. These various modes will definitely keep you entertained and, if you're successful enough, keep your bank account stocked.

For the early few events you'll be struggling to scrounge up enough cash to buy cars for the next class, as well as garages to fit them in. But, stick with it and soon you'll have coffers so full that you can afford to splurge and buy that third cliff-side manor overlooking the beach. Or fourth.

But playing offline is just half of what's here. Scattered throughout the islands are a number of fixed multiplayer challenges that you can join whenever you like. If those don't tickle your fancy, you can head to any of a number of meeting areas and define your own challenges. And yes, if that's all a little too organized it's still possible to just drive up to any other player on the streets and flash your lights to get a race on.

Just like in the last TDU, you'll see not only AI-controlled cars making virtual commutes on the rendered roads here (NPCs in MMO terms), but you'll also come across a series of human hooligans generally making a mess of things. You need to cover the roads to discover new challenges, car dealerships, tuner shops, clothing stores, and myriad of other distractions, so the roads are never short of real-life opponents. Races and special events, though, are fully instanced – you won't have to worry about interference from non-competitors.

The online aspects of the game are much improved compared to the predecessor. It's far easier to form guilds and recruit members into your team and then keep in touch. One generous member will need to buy a clubhouse for everyone to meet at, but from there members can donate to the guild and everyone can invest in improved facilities. Teams can even buy cars stored in a communal garage, checking them out as needed.

There are communal co-op online events, too, though we can't say we found many of them particularly appealing. One has a team of cars racing through a series of checkpoints, though only one person at a time can see them, and that one driver changes after each checkpoint. It's up to the others to follow. Another requires that all team members stay a fixed distance apart from each other – good for those who are really into synchronized drifting, a bit of a bore for anyone else.

More fun is the online cops and robbers game, where gamers take turns chasing and being chased. Officers are stuck in rather unwieldy cop cars but have the tasty advantage of an EMP that can disable the crook. There's also a High Stakes mode where everyone throws down up to $50,000, winner takes all, and an online casino where gamers can gather even more cars and cash. That cash can then be spent on new furniture for houses, clothes for your online avatar, even plastic surgery to get rid of that unfortunately pre-Cambrian brow ridge.

Needless to say, TDU2 is trying to be quite the online destination and time suck, but it's the gameplay mechanics that are most important to make it all work, and for better or worse little has changed in that department. The game does now feature car damage, so you'll be scraping fenders and crumpling bumpers, but none of that actually affects how cars drive. Dynamic weather has been added, with frequent rain storms drastically decreasing grip and making AWD cars a good idea.

There are just over 100 vehicles to choose from here, a paltry number by modern standards, though each is fully detailed in and out. Like in the last game, you can roll their windows down and, if they're convertibles, drop the top while you're driving, though we were disappointed that there isn't much of a boost in wind or engine noise when doing so. Engine notes range from stirring to overly digitized. The Zonda F is quite thrilling, while the SUVs groan like something from the original Test Drive on the C64. And the motorcycles, which in the last game proved to be such a handful? They're gone for now, though we wouldn't be surprised if they get resurrected in downloadable content form down the road.

Driving physics offer good feel but low realism; grip is far too high and drifting is far too easy, but it's a better game for it. This isn't the kind of game you should be playing if you want to impress your driving instructors, but it's certainly challenging enough to ensure that those with the most skill will win the races in the faster, harder to drive cars – assuming they can avoid getting hip-checked into a palm tree, anyway.

Those palm trees look more or less just like they did in the last game. In fact, not a lot has changed visually. Character models are particularly robotic looking, especially the embarrassingly tacky zombie strippers who gyrate around your car should you have the misfortune of stopping at any of the car-washes. Car models are good enough but lack the attention to detail and pixel-perfect rendering of your Forzas and Gran Turismos.

There have been graphical improvements and tweaks made here or there, especially when it comes to the new weather effects. There's also a proper photo mode, taking a cue from the later Gran Turismo entries and letting you generate impossibly polished screenshots like the ones scattered throughout this review. But, when actually playing this game, the updates are generally subtle and hard to notice, even when playing back-to-back with the original. However, that lack of graphic fidelity is quite handily offset by a complete lack of load-times: You can warp from one side of the island to the other and not suffer through a single loading screen.

Despite the big time gap between this sequel and the game that came before it, this doesn't feel like a reinvention. It feels like more of the same, and that's not exactly a bad thing. The first TDU was a hit among racers looking for a bit more than tiresome car collecting, and the enhanced online functionality here for guilds and matches will surely keep many a modern, socially-minded gamer entertained.

For those who can never make it past the first corner in an online race and prefer to stay offline, there's less to offer here. The car selection is a bit too limited (surely making way for downloadable extensions to come), the proliferation of boring SUVs makes the off-road racing tedious (frustratingly the Subaru WRX STI can only be used in on-road races), and after the tenth or fifteenth asphalt championship they all start to blend together. Sure, there are over 1,500 miles of roads here, but not quite enough vehicular variety to make it feel truly fresh.

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