Posted Sat, Feb 26, 2011 by Ethec
Sim racers and their fans has always inhabited a niche category. It takes a special sort of love of cars, the open road, and fine motor control coupled with stamina for races that can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours. Yet the open-world multiplayer niche of the even more underserviced sim racer genre – what publisher Atari refers to as Massively Open Online Racing – has only two titles in its fold: Test Drive Unlimited and its just-released sequel. Join us as we rev up through the levels and review what is assuredly the largest-spanning and comprehensive online racing and racer lifestyle game made to-date: Test Drive Unlimited 2.
If you take the concept of gameplay to mean not just how the game plays but how it delivers the entire game experience, I found that TDU 2 delivers everything promised on the box. If you’re one to thoroughly enjoy owning – not just collecting – cars on the scale of a Bugati Veyron or a Pagani Zonda – sinking into the leather seats and ogling the exquisitely crafted dash, detail, and trim, opening and closing the doors and windows, hearing the click of the turn signal and the trademark sound of each car’s horn… and all of this before you turn over the engine and go out for a spin.
When you do, you’ll quickly discover that TDU2 is not an arcade racer. All kinds of handling characteristics come into play as cars increase in coolness and power and the three levels of assisted driving only minimize – never mitigate - the errors new drivers tend to make. Learn the basic lessons – brake to an appropriate speed before entering a turn, accelerate through the apex, minimize drift, try not to exceed tire traction on dead starts, pass on the outside on a turn, use manual to shift gears quickly, etc. – and TDU2 will reward your efforts. Go in as a bump-and-grind racing cowboy, cornering off your competitors’ sideboards, and you probably won’t complete the A5 challenges, let alone the A1 – A3 brackets where the exotic-sounding cars you’ve only seen on TV compete.
That’s my chief complaint about TDU2 – it mounts hardcore treads in casual racer rims. Throughout the tutorial and the licensing process (more on that in gameplay), TDU2 fails to do one thing that its older brother – the Gran Turismo series – does so well: teach performance driving. Ghost cars to show you the line and help you improve on time trials are missing. Helpful hints on, say, when to pull the handbrake to properly drift through a hairpin turn, are replaced by mild encouragement and derision from the passenger seat. And that, only when you smack a light pole or a barrel or otherwise really piss down your leg.
But, in the end, that's a minor quibble. The open world, free-wheeling lifestyle side of TDU2 is such a welcome departure from the sterility of GT’s maps and menus that I found myself muscling through and learning by rote, precisely because the carrot on the end of the stick is that much more attractive.
The kind of extra hardware you need to properly control the higher performance cars isn't so easily forgivable, however. I leveled through the Ibiza experience twice - once using a keyboard and mouse, once using a wheel, shifter, and pedals – and the difference was remarkable. Some of this stands to reason – using WASD or the arrow keys is akin to slamming the wheel from one extreme to another, or stomping all the way down on the accelerator and brake pedal. In other words, you can never ease on the accelerator or brake or fine tune your bearing with slight sustained movements on the wheel. I got through Ibiza with mouse and keyboard, but couldn’t continue getting licenses in Hawaii. The more powerful cars were just too difficult to handle in tight courses without fine control.
Speaking of the licensing system, I felt this was an excellent way to gate content and extend the PvE experience. Essentially, you must get a license for each grade of each class – A7 through A1 (A for asphalt – the highest performing modern cars), B4 through B1 (off-road vehicles for use on rally courses), and C4 through C1 (classic cars) – before you can compete in the PvE experience, the Solar Crown.
The Solar Crown, the equal parts grueling and rewarding PvE tournaments per island, has two tournaments with roughly seven challenges each per category, leading up to a massive, island-spanning, traffic-snarled time trial for island cup. Going the distance means shepherding your funds into only the best cars in each successive category (when you’d rather be buying Lamborghinis and Porsches) and, worse, places to put them, since you need to have one of each for the island cup, but the Ibiza cup offers a gorgeous Lotus Evora and a cool million as a prize.
With that kind of money, you might feel like trying your luck in the casino, available in the Atari store for a modest $10. For that price you’d expect something comparable to a XBLA game, and you’d get it. The casino has its own leveling system apart from the main games 60 levels and its own convertible currency, along with slots, poker, roulette, a VIP room and cocktail bar, and self contained cocktail bar and clothing / customizations shop. In each of the games (except for slots) you compete against other players, and there’s a special kind of satisfaction in taking a player 15 levels your senior (in the main game) for tens of thousands of dollars at a poker table. But, win or lose, you gain points toward the casino’s ten levels.
That’s the casino. In the main game, four categories contribute to your overall level – competition, collection, social, and discovery. Seemingly everything I did earned points, but the overall level is only an indication of experience and wealth. In a skill based game like TDU2, you wouldn’t expect the usual accoutrements of leveling – talent trees, new abilities, and so on. That said, if you come across a level capped player driving the same car as you, chances are he’s gotten the necessary discovery points to unlock the 4 levels of tune-ups available for each car and, likely, has the edge.
Another way to increase your discovery level, not to mention add some gorgeous cars to your collections, is to find the wrecks scattered around the islands. Complete a collection of wrecks, and you can pick up a freshly rebuilt car at the used car lot.
If you like collections and minigames and love seeing the sites, you might want to take on the photography challenges. A photographer in town will show you a collection of out of focus snapshots and send you around each island to take pictures that match the photographed surroundings. Given that you have no guidance other than visual cues, it’s a definite challenge and yet another reason that TDU2 is a game that’s meant to be lived in, not just played.
TDU2 doesn’t offer the smeary, jelly-lens high-speed photorealism you’ve come to expect from Need for Speed games, but given the size and scale of TDU 2, the game’s visual offerings are incredibly robust. The vehicles are gloriously rendered inside and out, the environments are surprisingly diverse and, given the scale of the game, are more than serviceable, even if trees and store logos start to look familiar in Hawaii.
Best of all are the lovingly crafted visual details. Look closely and you’ll see cranes swinging to construct Ibiza’s next nightclub, airliners on final approach to each island’s airport, and container ships sailing along visibly in the glimmering coastlines. Study a Google satellite map of each island and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how the roads and geography match up.
If you feel limited in terms of colors when you purchase a vehicle, for a few hundred dollars the sticker shop – TDU2’s answer to Mako – can get the color of your car just how you like it, right down to metallic flaking and an impressive array of resizable decals. Literally hundreds of clothes options are available in the game, so there’s no excuse not to dive into the fashionable side of the game once you have some money to do so.
I only have one major gripe in the visual department. The USS Arizona Memorial is as recognizable (and important) an Oahu landmark as any rainbow-shrouded hotel, but when I went looking for its representation in game, I found nothing but coastal marsh along the hallowed shores of Ford Island, much to my disappointment. Of course, not all the details can be represented in a game on TDU2’s scale, but this particular one should have made the cut.
Don't get me wrong, most of the car sounds in TDU2 are exquisitely recorded. The engine noise is, to my untrained ear, spot-on and, at the very least, incredibly fulfilling, just as it has to be in a game like this. Yet some car sound volumes are markedly out of proportion. You’d be forgiven for checking to see if something fell off the car after landing after even a small jump, or wondering whether you somehow punctured your transmission fluid reservoir for how loud the audible “chunk” is when you change gears.
A handful of stations are available on your car radio, but you’ll quickly find that both the announcers and the music were seemingly made to tax your will to hear. Weeks after turning the radio off, I’m still trying to purge a certain “Ya... ya… ya ya ya” song out of my sorrowful, aching head. A dongle to control iTunes and Pandora would have been a peaceable compromise.
Most players criticize the voiceover work in the game. I thought the voices were fine and the production was pretty decent (if you, as a seasoned gamer, can forgive that creepy thousand mile stare NPCs give you when talking), yet the writing is a literary atrocity. Presumably simplistic dialogue made for easy localization, but a quality foreign language dictionary could have easily cured TDU2’s monosyllabic ills.