Ever dreamt you had it all? Beautiful partner, sweet crib, stylish clothes, good-looking friends, a garage full of fast cars, and more money than you knew what to do with. That life appears to be yours at the start of Eden Games' Test Drive Unlimited 2. Sadly, after a short cruise around Ibiza in a shiny new Ferrari, reality hits home and you're just a daydreaming valet - that is until you drive a moody TV presenter to an appointment, as if she's incapable of driving herself, and are then given a place in a massive televised racing competition for your efforts. It makes little to no sense, but get used to it, as you're going to have to suffer a lot of nonsense in order to see all Test Drive Unlimited 2 has to offer.
Putting TDU2's problems aside for a moment, the idea is that you get to live the life of an up-and-coming racing celebrity and all it entails. So you're driving lots of flash cars, but also buying new clothes, getting cosmetic surgery and expanding your property portfolio. You'll start off on the gorgeous island of Ibiza before eventually being able to cruise around Oahu, Hawaii, with the goal being to compete in events and reach the distant level 60 - a rank determined by in-game accomplishments across four areas: Collection, Social, Competition, and Discovery.
The wonderful open environment is the star of the show. Whereas the recent Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was open for exploration, it was essentially a series of connected freeways without any normal streets. In TDU2 you get a complex road network complete with everything you'd expect, from dull but essential motorways to tight streets that snake between old town residential buildings.
When free-roaming you can earn money with a fairly clever risk/reward system called F.R.I.M. (Free Ride Instant Money) that sees you building cash before banking it - slip up before banking and the counter will return to zero. You are also rewarded for exploration and finding hidden items (encapsulated within the Discovery section of your overall rank), but the real meat of the experience lies within the racing championships. These are groups of races, time trials, speed runs and more, with a tiered points system for placement eventually resulting in a final leaderboard. You earn more money the better you perform, alongside points which go towards your overall rank.
It's not just racing slick sports cars on tarmac, either, with plenty of off-road racing also available. Racing on city streets can take some getting used to, as the racification (thanks PGR4) of the courses is minor, leaving you to rely on the GPS rather than massive great signs with arrows on. Dirt racing, on the other hand, feels more natural, with a far gentler learning curve. Things do eventually become easier on tarmac, but you'll always need to have your wits about you, as corners aren't nearly as obvious as in other genre titles.
While TDU2 prides itself as being a game for car fanatics who can think of nothing better than collecting loads of expensive motors, the handling model employed is nothing like you'd experience in racing sims like Forza and Gran Turismo. There are three handling options, with the Realistic setting being the most difficult, but no matter what you choose TDU2 feels like it's got two of four wheels stuck in an arcade racer. The result is a game that I didn't really click with until I'd invested a lot of time racing around the islands - and even once I'd accepted the handling and grown to like it, something still felt a little off.
Buying new cars is semi-enforced by car restrictions, so for example, to enter an asphalt level 5 championship you'll need an A5 level car, whereas to enter an off-road level 6 championship you'll need to have a B4 class car. It's simple stuff, but it does mean you'll always be hopping between vehicles.
You'll also need a license to take part in each class, meaning even more driving through cones - something you'll never have to do in the main game. These are dull affairs under the pretence of teaching you how to drive, but in reality they're incredibly easy time trials which do little more than confirm that, yes, wet roads are slippery. They're completely tedious, outdated and frustrating.
TDU2 was no doubt meant to be an aspirational experience, giving everyone a chance to cruise around beautiful islands, but that sense of cool and style is almost entirely ruined by the way Eden has tried to wrap up the driving in a glossy, yet low-budget TV show that's bloody awful. This embarrassing attempt at making the game cool makes everyone in the story, including your character, seem like a vain, personality-free poser who cares more about the colour of their shoes than the health of whoever was driving the car they ploughed into a few moments earlier.
Every time my completely gormless, plastic-wannabe model opens his mouth it's impossible not to die a little inside, knowing that in order to progress I have to suffer what can only be described as an AmDram recreation of The Hills, or something equally as detestable and shallow. Outside of the driving everything is painfully wooden. Everyone, including the poor sods that have to stand around looking cool at driving schools, is essentially a shop-window mannequin brought to life, reading from a script that would have been looked down upon by the writers of Saved by the Bell.
Sadly, some of this unbearable posing makes its way into the online component of TDU2, which is tightly woven into the core experience. If you're signed into your platform's online service, you'll see other players driving about in your world, and they'll appear in the hub areas wandering about in their mostly awful outfits - if they bother to get fully dressed at all. It might be an unlucky experience on my part, but most of the other players I've come across have been annoying to the extreme. For some, it seems as though they alter their personality to match their hideous in-game avatars.
A big chunk of your level progression is reserved for online interaction, which is a shame as playing solo was generally a lot more fun. Setting up an in-game clubhouse and making friends with people all adds to your rank, while competing online, either directly against others in race events or in custom-made competitions, gradually contributes to your overall score. Instant challenges, initiated by flashing your lights at a passer-by, are designed to seamlessly get you racing with fellow players, but all too often you're in completely mismatched cars, making the result inevitable and the race pointless.
TDU2 isn't on par visually with the best of the genre (it may well weep slightly when looking across at Hot Pursuit), but the two huge, open islands impress due to excellent lighting and massive scale. A snapshot of the game in action would reveal a title many years behind the curve, and in motion the frame rate drops far too often, but for some reason it's got something about it. If you enjoy watching the Top Gear trio drive fast cars around roads that seem to disappear into the horizon, this might be the closest you'll ever get.
Accompanying you on your journey around the islands is music from two radio stations, and while tracks are easily changeable on the fly the music starts to repeat very quickly. There are some reasonably big names on the soundtrack, including Deadmau5 and Ellie Goulding, but much is forgettable.
There is every chance you'll hate Test Drive Unlimited 2. While I've grown to almost love the freedom and sense of exploration, the driving takes a lot of getting used to and the developer's attempt at making the experience cool falls completely flat. Add to that a progression system that doesn't really let you play how you want, forcing you to take part in every aspect of the game's Collection, Social, Competition and Discovery elements, and it seems as though Eden is actively trying to make the experience tedious.
For whatever reason, though, it's possible to become hooked, eager and willing to explore the island and collect as many cars as possible. It's just a crying shame that you're going to have to spend a fair amount of time being the egotistical spanner Eden clearly thinks you want to be, paying for countless haircuts, face lifts and fashion lines. Please Eden, next time just focus on the driving.