The Test Drive series has seen more than a dozen iterations on almost every platform imaginable. For a good chunk of its early years, it was considered to be the premier racing game on the PC. Times have changed in the racing arena, no doubt, and, if its latest incarnation is any indication, so has the Test Drive series. The PS2 version of the game--which is titled, simply, Test Drive--is bringing more of the same off-the-handle arcade-racing gameplay you've come to associate with the series as of late and slapping something of a character-driven story in front of it. Nothing highly ambitious (nor intrusive), really, but rather just a set of faces that provide banter to pad the prerace sequences and help set the tone for the series of races you'll engage in. Think of characters like those in SSX, and you'll be pretty close. Test Drive's characters, though, adhere a bit more closely to cartoonish archetypes, which, depending on your attitude, may make them that much more amusing.
At its core, though, Test Drive is all about fast and explosive arcade-style racing, with an emphasis on the handbrake. You'll get to drive more than 20 cars, both domestic and exotic, and abuse them with impunity. Once you become a fairly established underground street racer, your "stable" will be equipped with things like '68 Mustangs, Pontiac GTOs, Dodge Vipers, Lotus Esprits, Corvettes, Jaguar XK-Rs, Plymouth 'Cudas, Dodge Chargers, and many others. The mix seems to be just about even, in regards to classic domestics versus modern and concept exotics, which should satisfy those of either inclination. The courses on which your races will be set are almost as varied--they'll take place in four basic locations, each of which will house several different track configurations. The four locations are San Francisco, Tokyo, Monaco, and London, and they're all quite faithfully modeled in real time. Entire neighborhoods have been re-created, and you'll find them full of notable landmarks that you'll recognize, if you're familiar with the area. San Francisco's races, for instance, have you traveling through many different parts of the winding, hilly city, from the bayside Embarcadero area, all the way through the financial district, into the marina, and all the way onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Everything is rendered to scale, and, even in this prefinal state, it all looks quite nice when things are moving along at a brisk rate.
You'll engage in a few different types of races. Most will be lap-based, in the traditional sense, but a good few will be linear stretches. You'll even encounter the occasional drag race, during which you'll be forced to use a manual transmission. You'll want to maximize your acceleration by mastering the shift envelope for your particular car anyway, so being forced to use this option is certainly a good thing. In most races, your employer--the mysterious Mr. Clark--will require you to place in the top three, in order to proceed, though, in some special cases, the requirements are a bit more stringent. Clark is a demanding employer. Make no mistake, though--if you do him right, you'll be nicely rewarded. He's quite rich, and he'll stock his garage with all manner of new rides as you progress through the races in his stead.
Test Drive puts you in the role of Dennis Black, your typical strong, silent type. He's also a renowned drag racer, one with not-so-modest skills and a pretty big reputation. One day, the aforementioned Mr. Clark summons you to his hidden garage. Once there, from a video screen installed into the dash console of a Plymouth 'Cuda, he lets you in on something: He races in an exclusive gentlemen's driving league, of sorts, one that is very deep underground. Clark, according to himself, is something of a champion in said league, though a recent mishap has put him out of the running, for the time being. But since he's heard about you, and how much of a hot dog you are, he's decided that you're the perfect agent to race in his stead, until he can get back on his feet, as it were. His offer involves tens of thousands of dollars, potentially, per race, as well as the chance to drive all the aforementioned wonderful machines and travel to all sorts of exotic locations throughout the world. You, as Black, don't seem to be the sort who gets excited about much, but you grudgingly agree. There is, after all, a racing game to play, is there not?
You'll find that Clark isn't the only personality involved in this Test Drive thing. A whole crew of colorful beings take part in this pursuit, and you'll have the joy of interacting with them in the game's prerace sequences. Usually, this will involve the sort of prattle you've come to associate with SSX-style games--certain characters will "play friendly," while others will be as pleasant as head lice. They all seem to have a history, too, one that is communicated to you by means of dialogue. All this takes place on the same video console that Clark used to brief you at the game's outset, with each character's head featured in a separate panel, in small, looping prerendered clips. Among the characters you'll encounter are Reese, your typical laid-back surfer type, with a Valley accent, a tropical-print shirt, and blonde dreads; Lisa Lux, a buxom blonde vixen who makes no attempt to hide her appreciation of your driving prowess and virility; Marie Ling, a fiery, ambitious woman with no apparent love for any of her fellow racers; and Raskolnikov, a cold, calculating ex-KGB-agent-turned-underground racer who is also Clark's most bitter rival. Your communications with these characters doesn't seem to serve a purpose other than to put the races in context within the game's story and put a face behind the drones on the track with you. And as silly as it may sound, it does actually succeed at both, provided you don't take them too seriously.
The game's performance, at any rate, seems like it'll be quite exceptional upon release. Everything moves at 60fps, and stutters seem to be isolated to certain apparently unoptimized stretches of track. The sensation of speed is totally there, though, and given the explosiveness of the game's physics, its repercussions are just as tangible. There's a good bit of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in most races, which almost guarantees that you'll be crashing into stuff. When you do, things will get all sorts of nutty--during some particular traffic-heavy tracks, you can expect to see some multiple-car pileups of the most vulgar variety. Cops, too, will patrol the streets and set up roadblocks, of sorts, so you can count on them mucking things up quite a bit. Go too fast when you're near one, and you'll get zapped with the radar gun. This will prompt other cops to trail you, which, more often than not, leads to a whole bunch of heat on your tail. If they manage to overpower you, you'll be "busted." This means you'll have to sit still for a few seconds, while they write you up, or what have you. Too often, you'll see your opponents zip by during these three seconds.
The stickiest aspect of the game, at this point, is definitely the AI. Everything seems to work decently, for the most part, but we've encountered a few instances where our opponents have gotten themselves stuck on level geometry, a couple of times bumper-to-bumper. The cop AI is similarly in need of tweaking for the same reason. For the most part, though, the AI drivers seem to make believable mistakes on the road, and their patterns seem more natural than a lot of what we've seen out there. We're fairly confident that it'll be in nice form, come the game's release.
What we've seen of Test Drive looks pretty cool indeed, and we're quite anxious to see more. We should have an Xbox version or a new PS2 build soon, so we'll update you then. Test Drive is due out for the PS2 this coming May.