Test Drive Unlimited somehow managed to sneak up on me when it arrived on the Xbox 360. Now it's arrived on the PS2 and my expectations have been increased ten-fold. This port to Sony's last-gen console isn't bad, doing things that didn't seem possible on such old hardware, but a number of key features have been removed that significantly change the experience.
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. Sadly, this is one element that's been cut down on the PS2, with you no longer having any control over your character's appearance. Still, 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 beforehand, 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.
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. 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. There are hundreds of them, and winning a medal in each will earn you cash and increase your in-game rank. Some events come with car restrictions, while others are open and favour the player with a fast car. All the missions that earned you tokens for use in shops on the Xbox 360 and PC have been axed, but a few new challenges have been added and you can now earn rewards for your driving style, in a system similar to that seen in the Project Gotham Racing series.
Because money is so vital and new cars must be bought to calm your desire for new things, you get hooked. Driving around the island itself is fun and the GPS means navigation is never a problem, although the large overview map is rather sluggish on the PS2. If you're feeling lazy you can even teleport straight to a location, assuming you've been there before. Filters can be applied to show where real-life online players are cruising, but this is only part of the online integration.
It's not technically an MMO, but TDU certainly has similar elements. If you're online you'll see other drivers on the roads (although you can't see everyone), and a simple flash of your headlights sets up an instant challenge. You set the destination point and you're off. Other locations on the map are already set up for online races, although finding other players to race against isn't nearly as easy as it is in the Xbox 360 game. And this is where the online modes end, with the car clubs and custom races that made the next-gen version so great nowhere to be seen on the PS2.
Control will be the biggest area of concern for most gamers. TDU uses a somewhat realistic driving model so finding out how far you can push the vehicles will cause more than a few spin outs for the first few hours. Tweaking the steering sensitivity and turning off the driving assists helped improve things, but at times you'll wish you were cruising around in cars that handled a little more forgivingly.
For a free-roaming open world game, TDU looks rather great, although clearly a big step below the often beautiful Xbox 360 and PC versions. The island environment is still one of the most pleasing to the eye you'll find on the PS2, and when bathed in sunlight it looks truly stunning. Car models are equally impressive, with some fine attention to detail on the exterior and interior, although the frame rate does take a hit fairly regularly.
Maniacs will be disappointed to hear that crashes have no effect on your car, either performance or appearance wise. Sadly, the non-player drivers frequently demonstrate near suicidal levels of intelligence, turning blindly into traffic or simply ramming into each other for no reason. If you're a motorway driver you'll also find their incessant lane changing a nightmare, with many high speed crashes being completely unavoidable.
Little details go a long way and TDU is full of them. The radio can be controlled (not advisable while at high speed), the GPS is complete with voiced instructions by a calm sounding lady, and stats are tracked for just about everything. The one thing that's missing that worked brilliantly in the Xbox 360 game is Achievements. These were implemented brilliantly and their absence here makes prolonged play a little less satisfying.
The strange thing about Test Drive Unlimited is that it grows on you without you really noticing. Before long you'll own numerous properties, be thinking about buying your tenth car and you'll have clocked up a thousand in-game miles. Its faults are there to be seen and this PS2 game lacks numerous key features, but Test Drive Unlimited is still a unique game experience. It's a breath of fresh air to the racing genre and features some of the best online integration to date, although you'll be better off getting hold of the far superior Xbox 360 or PC versions.