We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Atari to look over its latest entry in the long-standing Test Drive series. Test Drive: Unlimited is a typical free-form racing title that's intended to be available at launch for the Xbox 360. But it's not just any racing game. The developers actually describe it as something of a racing MMO, thanks to its unique utilization of the next-gen Xbox's online capabilities. We were shown a number of these unique features in our demonstration, and we were also able to sit down and take the game for, well, a bit of a test drive.
During the demonstration, we were shown plenty of the unique features that are intended to make Test Drive stand out from the crowd. One of the most improbable yet inexplicably cool features is your ability to customize your cars as well as the appearance of your driver. When you first start up a game, you're going to be asked to design an avatar using a character-generation system that will allow you to modify your clothes and facial features, ensuring that each player online will have a different appearance. The clothing will apparently be licensed from real designers, including Marc Ecko, and we're told that you'll even be able to download new threads from these designers as they release new lineups from season to season.
New characters will also be given a house with a small garage. The living room of the house will act as your base of operations. In the game's main menu, you'll be able to check your in-game e-mail or voicemail from other players, check news bulletins (which will tell you when a new car is available to purchase or a new race is open to enter), or download new cars (as with clothing, Atari plans to make some new cars available for download as their licensed manufacturers release them in the real world). In addition, there's an eBay-esque option for putting your cars up for auction online.
When you're ready to hit the streets, you'll have to head to the garage. As you win more cash by winning races or betting other players, you'll be able to purchase more expensive houses, which will in turn come with bigger garages that will allow you to store more cars at a time.
Speaking of cars, Atari seems to be taking the job of simulating the 150 or so cars and motorcycles in the game much more seriously than you might expect, given that the game itself is definitely more of an arcade racer than a pure simulation. We're told that each car will be realistically modeled, and we were shown a Mercedes SLR in the demonstration player's garage as a proof of concept. The garage here is much more than just a storage area for your cars; you're going to be able to walk around your vehicles, examine them bow to stern, open the doors, open the windows, flip on the radio, and so on. The character in the demonstration was actually able to enter the car while still in the garage, which served as a showpiece for the detailed modeling of the car's interior, with a complete dash, air conditioning vents, a working radio, and so on. We're also told that you'll be able to customize the seats and dash with a variety of leather and wood-paneling options.
Of course, detailed cars and clothing don't mean much without well-designed courses, and it's here that Atari is relying on Mother Nature for an assist. There aren't discrete race courses in Test Drive: Unlimited, as you might expect. Instead, the entire Hawaiian island of Oahu was converted from real-world satellite and topography data into a fully realized gaming landscape. Oahu was chosen due to its inherent natural beauty, as well as its various racing environments, such as beaches, mountain, and city courses. The game island should have more than 1,000 miles of track to it, and while you're outside, you'll be able to seamlessly zoom in and out to adjust from a satellite's-eye view of the entire island all the way down to a street-level view. We're also told that real-world landmarks, such as Pearl Harbor, should be fully recognizable as you drive past (or through) them.
If that sounds big, then get this: we're told that, thanks to the online capabilities of the next-gen Xbox, "thousands" of players should be able to race around the same island at the same time. Our demonstration version of the game obviously didn't have this feature enabled, but Atari laid out some of its plans for the game and showed us a bit of how it works. Players will be able to challenge other players to races as everyone zooms around the island and meets up with each other. You can bet cash on the outcome, or bet pink slips if you're particularly daring.
What's more, players will be able to generate races on the fly with the in-game challenge-generation system. This is essentially a make-your-own-race feature, where players can select a starting location, lay down checkpoints, and then choose a finish line location. The game will automatically connect these features to give you a customized race that can be as long or as short as you like. We were given a short walk-through of this feature that enabled the player to create a race, with a couple of nearby checkpoints, which started in one of the cities on the island. The player then zoomed the view out as far as it could go, zoomed back in on the other side of the island and placed a marker there, which was instantly connected back to the previous checkpoints, resulting in a race that would've lasted for about three hours. Obviously, most races will be smaller in scope for manageability.
Of course, there will be more than just straight-up racing in Test Drive Unlimited. We're told that a number of customizable game types will be included in the final version of the game, many with individually modifiable parameters. We didn't get a complete list of these features, but we did spot some fan-favorite modes such as speed trap and cat and mouse on the list. Players will also have to be careful not to impact traffic that they encounter on the road, and there will also be police in the game to avoid or evade.
We only had the opportunity to test out the game's actual racing for a short period of time, but everything seems responsive and fun. We also saw the Test Drive series' arcade-racing history. Engine sounds are appropriately punchy, you're able to drive off-road if you wish (although most of the vehicles in the game are high-end sports cars, thus often making this something of a bad idea), and the view distances are obviously much greater than those that you'll have experienced in this generation of racing titles.
Currently, Test Drive Unlimited is slated to be a launch title for the next-generation Xbox. If Atari can implement the features it's promising, it could shape up to be one of the must-have titles at launch for racing game aficionados. We'll have more coverage of the title during E3, so stay tuned.