You're partying poolside at a swanky villa somewhere in Ibiza when one of the party girls beckons you away from the crowd. She wants to give you your birthday present, which is in the garage. It's a red Ferrari California, and, suddenly, you're out driving it into the Ibizan sunset. By the standards of Test Drive Unlimited 2, your life is perfect. Then, you wake up and it was all a dream, and it turns out you're a valet for the same party girl, who has found you napping in her car. She's furious and needs to be at the Solar Crown championship clubhouse 10 minutes ago. There's nothing for it but to drive the tetchy madam there yourself.
So begins Test Drive Unlimited 2, the open-world racer that expands and develops 2006's Hawaii-set game. TDU2 takes place in an extensively re-created Ibiza, with the original Test Drive Unlimited's O'ahu island becoming available as you progress. We were invited for an extended hands-on session to try the online play, but the single-player and multiplayer are inextricable, if not seamless. So we started from the very beginning: the party dream, in which you pick an avatar from among the revellers and then land a place in an eight-driver lineup for the Solar Crown. This championship is a driving contest, which comprises races and time trials across the island's roads and dirt tracks.
Besides the 3,000km of road through the island's harbour, city, suburbs, and fields, TDU2's Ibiza map is scattered with car dealerships, shops, and clubhouses. Inside these, you are in avatar mode, walking around in a first-person view to interact with other characters and peruse purchases; at the dealer showrooms, you can examine the detailed car models up close in this mode. The shops include places to modify your avatar--hairdressers, for instance--and tune or adorn your vehicle. The clubhouses are hubs at which you earn your various licenses across the asphalt, such as classic and off-road classes. Others are user-owned bases that groups of players can buy as a place to store cars at and socialise in. You gain access to bigger houses as you progress, upgrading from eight- to 16- to 32-player properties.
Having earned our first classic licence with a set of basic driving skill tests, we were entitled to compete in the C4 championship after buying our first car from a used-car dealer. Ours was a Lotus Esprit S3, which handled twitchily, especially in the heavy rain that plagued our early races--part of the dynamic weather system. We're told vehicle handling hasn't been finished across the full roster of cars; as we spun off a hard corner on a wet road for the 10th time, it felt as though this Esprit could use some fine-tuning. Later, though, we earned our first asphalt licence slaloming down a disused runway in an Alpha Romeo MiTO, which handled more predictably. After we'd won our off-road licence, we competed in the off-road championship in a custom Hummer H3--tastefully scarlet, with the red and ebony interior. Scrambling around in the Ibizan hills and bombing along cliff roads in the dark were particular highlights. There is also a handful of driving-assist options for frustrated racers, but no motorbikes at launch--though developer Eden hasn't ruled out adding them in later.
Outside of the championship events--mostly time trials, speed challenges, and races against the other seven Solar Crown contestants--TDU2's free-roam driving lets you make money by chaining together dodging, jumping, and drifting manoeuvres. You can bank your earnings at any time or risk them by going for longer combos; a collision, even a bump, sets the counter back to zero. Collisions, though, are never more than inconvenient; the damage modelling is only cosmetic and doesn't affect car performance. Cruising around in free mode, in which you pick up cash for dodging oncoming traffic, is a fun diversion and a good time to admire the scenery with the behind-the-car camera view (there's a full cockpit view, too, along with a dashboard and bonnet view).
Progression is measured with a levelling system. There are 60 global levels divided across four categories: discovery, competition, social, and collection, respectively tracking your progress in exploring the map, participating in championships, interacting with others, and collecting stuff. Exploration will reveal more shops and suchlike, labelling your island map with locations as you go. Once you've visited a location, the map offers you a quick travel alternative to using the GPS navigation for the long drive with your minimap. You'll also unlock challenges as you roam the island; TDU2 has 650 of them. We encountered one to deliver a Ferrari to the shop without scratching the paintwork and another in which a professional photographer wanted us to take a series of landscape photos around the island.
There's no lobby screen for entering multiplayer and no separate modes. The online multiplayer element is integrated into the general play and places you on the same map with other TDU2 players. It's not quite a massively multiplayer online game-style experience; in effect, only eight nearby players are sharing your gameworld at any one time. They are tagged on your map and a heads-up display helps you seek them out. (If you're offline, the game populates your island with AI drivers in place of other players.) As you encounter other drivers, though, you can flash your headlights to challenge them to a spontaneous race, or you can meet up with them--or with friends, obviously--at the co-op challenges pinpointed on the map.
Ahead of entering the multiplayer action, you're dropped into a prerace lineup along a section of road, with all the cars of your party members parked for inspection by other players. Here, you're in avatar mode again, with a wheel of emote options available for gesturing at your cohorts. In the Follow the Leader challenge mode, your party races through a series of checkpoints, with the checkpoint location only visible to the leader and with the role of leader changing at each. In Keep Your Distance mode, you have to maintain a specific distance between yourself and the car in front--trickier than it sounds along winding roads at high speed, especially in a larger party.
Eden Games says it will be ready with a specific release date "shortly." For now, the launch is pencilled in for the first quarter of 2011. Between now and then, there are dents to buff out of TDU2's bodywork: texture pop-in while out in the countryside, for example, and stuttering frame rates at the start of eight-driver wet weather races. But the open-world driving concept, blending single-player and multiplayer, is still sturdy and promises long hours of Ibizan cruising next year.