Not 100% content with making gaming’s only Massively Open Online Racing game, developer Eden Games has also created a fully-fledged single-player mode for its latest venture, Test Drive Unlimited 2 (TDU2). And, whether you’re interested in a story-driven campaign or not, that’s where your TDU2 experience begins. The rag-to-riches story leads you on a journey from becoming a penniless valet shacked up in a grubby trailer, to the king of the road with a multi-million dollar lifestyle and an array of expensive cars stocked in your garage.
Things get off to a surreal start as the camera pans in on a rooftop gathering in an apartment on the sun-drenched island of Ibiza. In a scene reminiscent of a pool party in The Sims, good looking men complete with washboard stomachs and bikini clad ladies wave their arms in the air like robotic cardboard cut-outs. You then get to choose one of these lovely specimens as your character in the game. It turns out that your beautiful new play-thing is a valet who dreams of the riches enjoyed by his employer, Tess Wintory, the pampered host of a reality show based around car racing. Sadly, the closest you get to sampling this celebrity life-style is to drive Tess in her sexy red Ferrari V8 to the T.V. studios. Tess, impressed by your skills behind the wheel, kick starts your career as an up and coming racer. The sky’s now the limit as you compete in tournaments, earn cash and purchase new cars, homes and expensive new clobber.
Seeing your character’s lifestyle and riches steadily progress by gaining licenses and entering competitions is an addictive format, made all the more appealing by a multi-tiered level-up system that does well to encourage you to keep playing. Making your way to the top comes at a price, however. Not only do you have to listen to some of the worst voice-acting we’ve ever heard in a videogame, but you have to rub shoulders with a host of annoying characters, while sitting through reams of cheesy dialogue that had us grimacing with embarrassment. It’s a bizarre narrative that will have limited appeal to anyone over the age of 16.
Things don’t get much better either as you embark on your first objective: to drive Tess to the studio in her Ferrari V8. Though the Ferrari V8 handles extremely well, and the streets, surrounding countryside and waterfronts of this beautiful island are suitably impressive — though nowhere near GT5 standard — there’s little sign of life or atmosphere. The fact that there’s hardly any traffic on the roads and no pedestrians whatsoever going about their daily business makes the area feel totally dead. We’ve heard a lot about the sheer scale of TDU2’s two areas of Ibiza and Oahu, but based on our first impressions we weren’t particularly looking forward to exploring them any further.
After spending many hours with TDU2, however, it becomes abundantly clear that there’s much more to it than first meets the eye. Indeed, the single-player campaign is just one small part of a colossal game that has so many different layers to it. Once you step into the persistent online world shortly after the introduction, the whole atmosphere changes as challenges unlock, you discover new areas and things to do and the streets start to fill with real people driving any one of over 90 cars that they’ve worked hard to buy. The single player-campaign becomes just another set of challenges that you can attempt in a sea of objectives and social interactions.
Ignoring the lame production values, the single-player mode is a decent way to make some easy cash as you rise up the ranks and prepare yourself for the real challenge of human opposition. You are constantly connected to this online world, so the island is brimming with life, but you can if you wish go about your business without dabbling in any of the social aspects of the game. There are hundreds of challenges and optional side-quests that earn you cash that allows you to build your empire, swell your collection of expensive cars and buy nice clothes and items for your home. There’s lots to do to keep you busy as a solo player, but rarely does it feel like a challenge — you just breeze along, grinding your way up to the level 60 cap without ever really feeling that you had to try that hard to do so.
The lack of challenge from A.I. racers, who rarely put up much of fight around the tracks, is largely to blame. You can block them off easily from over-taking and rarely do they seem to put their foot down or try to challenge you on the straights. The only time you really feel in danger is if you end up careering into a tree, or spin out around a corner. Keep your car on the track though and inevitably you’ll win the majority of your races.
That’s not to say that handling cars is simple; it’s not, especially early on when you haven’t got access to the high-powered cars. Driving sits somewhere between arcade and simulation as you hurtle down straights as if playing Ridge Racer and then have to apply the brakes heavily in order to navigate corners. Cornering and weaving in and out of traffic takes some getting used to because most cars feel like they’re being held down by invisible weights. Nonetheless, it’s something you get used to after a while, and playing with ‘no assists’ turned on certainly gives you more control over the vehicles. From Alfa Roméos to E-type Jaguars, there’s a good roster of motors on offer too. And as you progress, you can feel how your performance improves as you gain access to the more expensive cars.
Inevitably, TDU2’s strengths lie in its multiplayer offerings and social interactions. Like any good MMO, you can easily find yourself on the way to carrying out one objective, and then you’ll end up spotting something else of interest that will divert your attention. Soon, minutes can turn into hours as you pop to the barbers for a hair-cut, grab upgrades for your car, challenge online players to races, or even just cruise around enjoying the various pleasure that the scenery brings as it changes from the starry skies at night through deep sunsets and violent thunderstorms. The list of things to do is practically endless, but the most satisfaction we’ve gained from the game is competing against, meeting and joining forces with like-minded gamers.
As you drive around the streets, Instant Challenges occur frequently, allowing you to jump immediately into a race with a human opponent and play for cash. It’s a smooth process that simply involves driving near to another player and then choosing to challenge them. It’s a great way to pick up quick cash and you also get the chance to play a revenge race if they emerge victorious. From there, the multiplayer offerings get much deeper when you discover the Community Racing Center, where you can stop off and pick up or set a custom challenge to all online players. You can browse through the lists of set challenges and partake in quick objectives for quick bucks, or gruelling challenges for huge rewards.
Co-op multiplayer tasks serve well to bulk out the content and give you even more ways to earn cash and level-up with modes like Follow-the-Leader, where you have to take turns to pass through checkpoints; and cop chases, which never really cause the excitement that you get from speeding through the packed streets in a GTA game. The highlight, however, is creating a car club with other gamers where you can swap cars, share cash, and gain access to exclusive cars. Creating stickers for your crew and getting everyone’s car kitted out so they all look the same adds a personal touch. There are Club leaderboards, inter-club challenges and multiple tiers that your team can progress through, competing against other clubs. It’s a solid infrastructure and is likely to be where the majority of TDU2’s community will end up further down the line.
Whatever activities you do decide to partake in, whether it be driving around the island searching for collectibles, or working your way toward getting the best home in town, TDU2 rewards you very well in four areas: Competition, Discovery, Collection And Social. It’s never that long before you see your score rising in each of these areas, and — like any MMO — it’s an addictive mechanic that encourages you to explore and try out a variety of things that at first glance you may not be interested in, such as taking photographs around the islands. It’s further proof that Eden Games has designed TDU2 to appeal to a cross-section of gamers, some of whom will revel in customization and while others will just want to race.
Considering TDU2 has so many different objectives and layers to it, Eden Games has done a fantastic job at designing the interface and menu system. You can pin-point certain objectives on the map with ease, set waypoints, warp to a specific player in-game and keep track of all your activities with little effort. Your home also becomes quite an important place to visit because it acts as a hub where you can access news, leaderboards and see in-depth stats on all your activities. So, even if decking out your pad isn’t something that you’re initially interested in, you soon get drawn into the whole world of customization.
TDU2 is a game that sends out a few mixed messages, especially near the beginning when you realize there’s a hundred-and-one different things that you can do, some of which will probably have no appeal to you. It even tries a little too hard to cater for different age groups, gaming abilities and gaming preferences and as a result doesn’t get some things quite right, particularly the story-line and the clunky car handling. Nonetheless, there is something for everyone here and we’ve loved the social aspect of challenging players and visiting the Community Racing Center, where we’ve already started the ball rolling with our own car club. The four tiered level-up system is also particularly innovative, encouraging you to progress through the levels and adding vast amounts of replay value. Overall, while TDU2 isn’t quite as polished as we hoped it would be, there’s more than enough content on offer here to keep us coming back for more.