Test Drive Unlimited 2 Multiplayer Preview
Though Test Drive Unlimited 2 can and should be considered an MMOG in many respects (as our recent interview with the TDU2 team proved), we may not see a traditional open beta or public stress test for the game between now and launch. That being the case, developer Eden Games and publisher Atari invited us to take on some of their developers in series of TDU2 multiplayer matchups and share our findings with Ten Ton Hammer readers.
We expected the same smooth online performance, glorious graphics, and impressive slate of cars as in the original. So, would TDU2 live up to our expectations? Could you have fair multiplayer competition even if you hadn’t sold a kidney to pay for elaborate racing sim peripherals? And, what about those nasty exploits that so sadly skewed the leaderboards in our original tour of Maui? Those questions were first and foremost in our mind as we kicked the virtual tires in a closed beta multiplayer preview of Test Drive Unlimited 2.
Massively Open Online Racing and Multiplayer Challenges
In TDU2, the islands of Ibiza and Oahu are ludicrously detailed sandboxes on a scope that few games ever approach. From two stunning renditions of real-life islands covering thousands of square miles to the minutest dashboard details for 90+ cars, TDU2 offers exceptional realism on a macro and micro scale. It’d be easy for players to get lost in the details of these cars or in the mountainous hinterland, but the game does an adequate job of keeping players connected through text chat, which is on-par with what you’d find in a typical MMO. Unfortunately, as of this printing, no integrated voicechat is available for PC players, so you’ll want to link up with clubmates via Vent.
For MMO players who are used to coordinating servers and factions with friends prior to logging in for the first time, TDU2 appears to use a kind of intelligent phasing. That means that while you’ll only see a selection of the total online players driving around the universe, you will be in easy contact with friends and clubmates. Simply press a button on your friends list and you’ll find yourself in close proximity to your friend. Better yet, your friends can invite you to participate in a multiplayer challenge and be instantly transported to the race “lobby” (where you can walk around other cars, open the doors, and even get in opponents’ cars – what better way to taunt your rival than by creasing the seat leather?).
Every challenge is, in essence, a multiplayer challenge, since you’ll always be competing against other players’ times on the leaderboard. But TDU2 offers a variety of head-to-head competitive formats, most of which were found in the original. All challenges start from a standing stop, and the challenge creator (or first in) can set vehicle class restrictions and whether or not collision is allowed for the racing challenges:
- Race – The simplest and most numerous challenge type: follow the checkpoints and the first player across the finish line wins. Races are as varied as the landscape of the islands, ranging from flat and relatively straight races in classic cars (a joy to drive for new and keyboard / mouse players, since they’re relatively underpowered and easy to control) to curvy mountain roads in off-road vehicles.
- Speedtrap – For this challenge, players race each other to post the best speed through 3-5 radar “traps.” Unlike the offline version, human players won’t always choose the same route as you do, leading to some interesting results (read: head-on collisions).
- Speed – Compete against other players to find the best route and earn the most points. The more you go above a specified minimum speed, the more points you earn. In our playtest, this was the least multiplayer-y of the head-to-head challenges, since you’re not likely to run into other players in a full throttle drag race except for briefly at the starting line (or if, of course, another player is gunning for you, but this would lower their score).
TDU2 also offers several innovated co-op multiplayer formats ideal for friends and clubs and fun for pick-up groups:
- Keep Your Distance – Stay within a certain number of yards of car in front of you (or, if you’re the leader, the car behind you) while going as fast as possible to earn as many points as possible. In our playtest, this was much harder than it sounds, since the test is done in traffic. Finishing is pretty easy, finishing fast is rather hard.
- Follow the Leader – At the start of the race and at each checkpoint, one randomly-chosen leader can see the next checkpoint. Once the leader crosses the checkpoint, the rest of the pack has a certain amount of time to get through the now-visible checkpoint. In our playtest, again we found that your biggest opponent is the clock, not the finish line. It’s easy to finish if your leader babies you, hard if your leaders push the limits.
Finally, the game offers two more spur of the moment modes designed for online play:
- Instant Challenge – Set up your stakes via the options menu and head out on the road. Flash your headlights at any other player sets up an instant challenge, a quick, impromptu race with your pocketbook on the line. Invite a few friends once the challenge is set, and you could be talking significant stakes. No racing for pinks, though!
- Chase – TDU2’s nod to Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is more than just a nod. Group up with a few other players and smash into one of the NPC police cars patrolling the island. Raise your violation level enough and you’ll trigger a chase. Your group will split up into cops and criminals teams, and things play out predictably – cops win if they stop the criminals, criminals win if they ward off the cops long enough. The chase plays out in traffic, and cops have an EMP pulse and some specialized cars to aid their task.
Unfortunately, chase proved hard to set up – finding a police car, stopping the police car, grouping up, and smashing up the police car takes time, and if an NPC vehicle stops long enough, it will de-spawn. Since the game does include cop and criminal ranks, here’s hoping Eden Games makes this system more accessible by launch day.
Throughout the playtest, performance was as good as could be. No rubberbanding, lag, or even framerate stutters reared their ugly head, and the online experience was as silky smooth as a Pagoni Zonda’s lines. That was on a test server with very limited population, however, so scaling up could bring its own performance challenges. Given the exceptional performance of the original, however, it seems likely that lag won’t rain on your race in TDU2.
A separate issue is exploits – something that dented the fender on TDU2’s predecessor. In a racing game, nothing’s more frustrating than putting in the best run of your life on a speed race and checking the leaderboard, only to see any number of times posted that couldn’t be accomplished by a rocketsled on the Bonneville flats. An Atari rep assured us that this was a primary concern for the team—that the code was written in such a way to frustrate cheaters. As a final measure, players won’t be able to take a profile offline once it’s gone online.
Loot and Levels, TDU2 Style
If it seems odd to mention levels in a multiplayer preview, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Perhaps the most innovative MMO-ish aspect of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a character development system in which nearly everything players do earns experience points in one of four categories – Competition, Collection, Social, and Discovery. The beauty of the system is that it simultaneously rewards players for adopting a comfortable playstyle while encouraging players to explore other aspects of the game.
For example, if you ignore the multiplayer side of the game and focus on the lengthy single-player campaign exclusively, you’ll earn lots of points in Competition (from winning races with NPC opponents and “rivals”) and nominal points in Collection (you’ll be collecting a fair number of cars to race with) and Discovery (all the races take place on real roads, and the game tracks how much of the two islands you’ve explored).
If you take a break from racing to spend your winnings on some new clothes and accessories or real estate, you’ll boost your Collection score substantially. Drive around the island (it’s gorgeous enough to warrant simply exploring) and you’ll start to find some out-of-the-way vendors and can even find some of the Photography minigame locations (take screenshots at specific locations around each island to earn money and xp). These activities increase your Discovery score. Participate in some of the multiplayer challenges and add a few folks you meet to your friends list or maybe start or join a club, and your Social score starts to stack up. It all feeds into you Global Level, which unlocks game features ranging from tune-ups to your first trip from Ibiza to Oahu at level 10.
Many of the more legendary names on the dance music scene (DJ Tiesto and Paul Oakenfold among them) have recorded live albums on location in Europe’s answer to Daytona Beach and Aruba- the Spanish island of Ibiza- so it’s safe to say that clubs are a popular social attraction.
In TDU2, clubs are more like racing clubs. These are the guilds of this game, with one important distinction. Unlike in more traditional MMORPGs, you have to grow your TDU2 club (by donating money and experience) in order to admit more members. A tier one club can only admit eight members, while a tier 2 club allows 16 members and, finally, a tier three club can have up to 32 members. Eden Games seems to have recognized the bubble-up-and-burst tendency of large MMO guilds and opted to keep things small and intimate.
Even if you want to keep your club limited to 8 members, Eden provides a lot of incentive to level up your club. Tier 2 and Tier 3 club locations are incrementally more posh than the Tier 1 club, but the real reason to upgrade is the four exclusive cars you can drive with your T2 and T3 memberships (that is, two exclusive cars per tier). Eden and Atari are keeping mum on which cars were reserved for club tiers, but you can be sure that their names will be found near the top of the latest Top Gear episode’s lap times board.
While inter-club challenges will net some points for your club, the real points come from challenges between different clubs. You’ll be able to arrange these from the bar at your club (sadly, you can’t arrange a round of shots to celebrate your latest victories too). To tell your club mates on the road, some club leaders have already started to make use of TDU2’s well-stocked stickers shops to mandate a certain look for members’ primary cars.
Hopes and Fears
When it launches in early February, Test Drive Unlimited 2 will do something that few other MMOGs have accomplished or even attempted to do: quantifiably reward players for social play. The game’s unique four category level up system rewards players for staying in their comfort zone and also provides incentives to explore the socializer, collector, and explorer facets of the game.
While not quite as seamless and integrated as Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit’s Autolog concept, Test Drive Unlimited 2 provides something that NFS:HP doesn’t: an open-world context for meeting other players. Social hubs like clubs and the casino – as well as an abundant supply of multiplayer challenges - offer players all kinds of ways to connect. Not to mention Ibiza and Oahu make for a much more realistic, believable, and (to me) desirable backdrop than Need for Speed’s Seacrest County.
Unfortunately, games are often judged more harshly by reviewers for sins of commission rather than sins of omission. At present, chase mode is a prime candidate for reviewer rants due to its inaccessibility, especially in light of the emphasis the NFS games put on pursuit gameplay. The unfortunate thing is that TDU2 doesn’t need a cops and criminals game – the open world and multi-faceted gameplay should be more than enough to distinguish TDU2 as a fresh new take on the loot and levels paradigm, especially in the sparsely inhabited online racing genre.