When Test Drive Unlimited is loading up, the player is faced with a stern admonishment that the driving portrayed in the game is not supposed to be indicative of real life, and that they in no way encourage such behaviour in real life.
Let me tell you, it's not just the driving.
Welcome to Ibiza. The first of two maps for Test Drive Unlimited 2, this is Ibiza in a weird parallel universe where everything is a little different to real life. The entire island, a predominantly Spanish-speaking Balearic community just off the Spanish coast, seems to be populated entirely - ENTIRELY - by NPC Americans below the age of thirty. I literally didn't see anyone outside this demographic. And boy, are they dumb. But we'll come to that. You play the part of a hotel valet who can literally drive cars in your sleep, and who goes on to a glittering career as a racing driver, with a device attached to your car (called a FRIM) that mysteriously pays you money every time you drive dangerously.
So a bit unusual, then. TDU2 fills the middle ground between free-roaming, police fleeing, random mission-doing games like GTA4, and more straightforward racing games. Sure, there are races, time trials, and the usual fare of racers, but it's all presented against this ‘go anywhere, do anything' backdrop. You have a character that you control outside the usual driving bits, allowing you to browse in car showrooms, and the lobbies of various mission locations. Essentially, this is little more than a fancified user interface, and is delivered in a pretty clunky FPS-style way (sans the shotguns, naturally). You begin dressed in your hideous valet's uniform and living in an old caravan, but as you win races and get the Benjamins, you can buy a nicer house, get a haircut and some new togs, and buy new cars. So far, so GTA. Or, perhaps, The Sims. There's what I reluctantly must refer to as a ‘RPG element' to all of this, too: Buying new clothes and houses awards you ‘Collection' points, which in turn unlock a bunch of new stuff.
In fact, there are four ways in which you can score points. Collection, as I just said, comes from stocking up on loot like cars, houses and cosmetic surgery (seriously!). Competition points come from winning races and the like; Discovery points come from exploring the islands and taking photos of certain beauty spots, and Social points come from interacting with other players.
Ah yes, other players. See, TDU2 styles itself as a MOOR (Massively Open Online Racer), or a MMORG (Massively Multiplayer Online Racing Game) or somesuch acronym. As you explore the map you'll see other players zooming around, crashing into things like hooligans, almost always in nicer cars than you. Flash your headlights at them and they're challenged to an impromptu race, and you can set the cash stakes. Bump into them in the hairdressers or driving school or any one of the other locations and you can chat, hang out, invite people to look at your fancy houses, or whatever. There's a big social element here, and it really does integrate seamlessly with the single-player experience. The players I had the pleasure of interacting with were personable, honourable and sportsmanlike, and made a refreshing change to the dumb-as-a-post random NPCs.
Racing is divided into a number of different categories (such as off-road and asphalt), all of which require you to obtain a licence through a series of driving school tests, and the purchase of the correct class of vehicle. You can't enter an off-road race in your fancy little sports car, neither can you compete in a road race in your hulking great Land Rover. So more money earnin', and car buyin', and inevitable collection point collectin' ensues.
Fast travel around the maps is possible only to places you've been before, and with the addition of the device I mentioned earlier, the FRIM, you feel like you're making progress even when you're just ragging your car randomly around the island. Random side missions appear all over the island to give you something to do; this is another place where things can get weird. A young woman may flag you down in the industrial estate at 2.00am, and simply claim that she's tired of walking and will you please give her a lift home? You're sat there in the darkened interior of the car, face swathed in bandages from your recent reconstructive surgery, while the bonnet of your mud-caked car is hanging dangerously down to one side and the sirens of police cars are getting louder in the distance. ‘Sure, hop in...'.
Seriously. Take note, young ladies. This is not safe behaviour.
Other missions that feel just as doolally see random people flagging you down and telling you they don't have time to drive their Lamborghinis to be serviced, and although they've never met you before, they'll pay you $30,000 if you'll drive it there for them. Welcome to computergameland.
The System Requirements are relatively serious, but any graphics card around the GeForce 8800 mark should have everything handled adequately.
The driving is smooth and enjoyable, and feels different depending on what type of vehicle you're driving and on what surface. The music is dreadful and the character-acting is atrocious, but they're not things you're likely to pick up a driving game for. TDU is a jack-of-all-trades, combining multiplayer, mission-driven exploration, RPG levelling and customisation, and intriguing locations. If you want a car game, and don't know precisely what type of car game you want, TDU is an all-you-can-eat buffet of engine oil and superheated rubber. Which is not at all as unpalatable as it might sound.
Written By: Stuart Thomas