For one reason or another Test Drive Unlimited fell off my anticipation radar. Perhaps this was due to the game launching in the UK at full price, while our North American chums got it at a budget $40, or maybe it was because of numerous delays. Whatever the reason, I'm glad my brain decided to believe Test Drive Unlimited (TDU) wouldn't be anything special, as it made my drive around the Hawaiian island of Oahu a very pleasant surprise.
Eden Games' ambitious sounding racing game isn't the easiest to understand. It's not that the concept of racing is something new; it's that this is more than a racing sim - it's a racing, lifestyle sim. You won't truly get a sense of what the game is all about until you start playing, arriving in Oahu with $200,000 in your back pocket, ready to spend on a swanky pad and new car. Of course, you'll need something to potter about in before hand, so you hire a car from a rental place, giving you the chance to cruise around in some impressive rides right from the start.
Once you're in Oahu that's it; other than a New game/Load game option when you boot up, everything else is handled entirely as if you're a real person living the high life on a tropical island (albeit a person that can't walk). Everything is seamless, and the sim aspect really shines through in all areas of the game. You need to buy a house for somewhere to live, but also so you can store more cars, so the obvious thing is to drive to the real estate agent - and that's what you do. If you want a new Ferrari in real life you wouldn't buy from a menu, you'd head over to the show room and have a look for yourself, and the same is true in TDU - complete with the option to inspect each car and go for a test drive.
Everything about the game is immensely slick, even the characters. While you don't get the customisation options seen in the likes of Saints Row, you do get to choose from a number of model-like characters, both male and female. Clothes stores are also scattered about the island (which you strangely need to win tokens for, as they don't accept cash), so you can play dress-up, but plastic surgery isn't an option. This simple approach to customisation carries through to the cars themselves.
'TDU isn't about spending hours in the garage tweaking the gear ratios on your new TVR; it's about buying that new TVR, kiting it out with some upgrades, and then cruising around the island...'
Cars bought can be upgraded by purchasing upgrade packs from part dealers, but customisation is very limited. If you're hoping to 'trick out' your ride, this isn't the game for you, and it's not for performance tweak experts either, as it's all handled in a simple, streamlined fashion - upgrade kits increase car stats in certain areas and that's it. The driving experience can be tweaked a little though, with seat height, steering sensitivity and driving assists all being changeable. You'd think this lack of detail in an area so important to simulations would be a weakness, but it's nowhere near as much of a problem as it sounds.
TDU isn't about spending hours in the garage tweaking the gear ratios on your new TVR; it's about buying that new TVR, kiting it out with some upgrades, and then cruising around the island, perhaps taking a few snaps as you go (yes, there is a photo mode, although it's not as good as that seen in Project Gotham Racing 3). Of course, there's more to the game than that. In fact, there's an awful lot more, both for the solo player and for people online, although the line between the two experiences is somewhat blurred.
Oahu is a huge island in the context of a video game, and dotted around its roads are plenty of challenges. These take the form of standard races, time trials, speed challenges, elimination races, hitchhiker missions, deliveries and more. There are hundreds of them, and winning a medal in each will earn you cash (or clothing store tokens) and increase your in-game rank. Some events come with car restrictions, while others are open, and favour the player with a fast car. It's not always just about speed either; numerous events deduct winnings or penalise time if you damage your car or stray from the road. It's more than a little annoying to wave goodbye to a perfectly good time by hitting a lamp post on the final corner, but it adds a sense of risk and reward to proceedings.
Because money is so vital, and new cars must be bought to calm your desire for new things, you get hooked. Delivery missions are great to earn huge chunks of cash, even if they take a lot of concentration. Delivering a car to its destination isn't about speed, but what condition it arrives in. Driving a Ferrari 15 miles in traffic might sound easy, but when every bump reduces your earnings you're not going to be moving at top speed, so they're tense, rather time consuming missions. Get it there undamaged and you'll get a nice bonus too, meaning, perhaps for the first time in a video game, you'll want to stop at traffic lights. Racing at high speed is more than a little hairy, with slightly nervy twitches causing some unpleasant out of control spins.