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.

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.

Driving around the island itself is fun (and can earn you achievement points), and the GPS means navigation is never a problem. Press right on the d-pad and the overview map is brought up, on which you can set waypoints and target certain events or buildings. 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 connected to Xbox Live 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, and there's a great system that lets you create and enter user-created challenges. For example, you create a time trial event, but other players need to pay to enter, with the winner taking a big prize and you a small cut. There's also a nifty club system (which of course costs money) and the ability to trade cars online. It really does feel like you're part of an exclusive car loving community.

But it's not just cars - you get to buy and race in bikes as well, and these can be mixed and matched in online races. It might be a personal thing, but I found the bikes a little awkward to control. In fact, control in general will be the biggest area of concern for most gamers. TDU uses a somewhat realistic driving model, but the result takes a little getting used to. This isn't Project Gotham, but it's not Forza either, and 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 like they do in PGR3.

For a free-roaming open world game, TDU looks rather beautiful. The island environment is one of the most pleasing to the eye ever seen in a video game, 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, complete with working dashboards and animated gear changes. Had the frame rate remained smooth and pop-up not been a problem it would have been a showcase title for the system, but things bog down now and again and objects pop into view fairly frequently. That said - it's still a game to show off your HD TV with.

Bikes also make an appearance, but are a little tricky to handle.

Maniacs will be disappointed to hear that crashes have no affect on your car, either performance or appearance wise. NPDs (non-playing drivers) get into all kinds of trouble though, and their cars aren't immune to the laws of physics. After a rather badly timed overtaking manoeuvre you can ram headfirst into an oncoming car, which will react and dent petty realistically. We're not talking Burnout levels of destruction, but the effect is more than good enough. Sadly, the NPDs 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, especially during the high risk delivery missions.

Little details go a long way, and TDU is full of them. The radio can be controlled entirely using your left thumb (not advisable while at high speed), the GPS is complete with voiced instructions by a calm sounding lady, animals can be seen in the forest areas, you can get tickets from the police and spend time in jail, and stats are tracked for just about everything. The achievement points tied to the game are also used brilliantly, in a way that makes every moment in a car worthwhile. Simply driving a certain number of miles (one achievement requires you to have driven 5,000 miles!) gives you points, while progression in all of the game's main events also earns you points.

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 part of a club, 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 some - like the frame rate and lack of tuning options - could be seen as game breaking faults, but if you're not bothered about the technical side to driving, Test Drive Unlimited is simply wonderful. It's a breath of fresh air to the racing genre and features some of the best online integration to date, meaning it'll remain in your 360's disc drive for quite some time.