Test Drive Unlimited was first unveiled just before E3 2005, and since then the game has made appearances at big industry events such as last year's X05 and Tokyo Game Show. While the game has always been big in concept--a huge seamless representation of a Hawaiian island, hundreds of miles of drivable roads, and online play galore--it wasn't until yesterday's Atari press event that we got an idea of how all that ambition is translating into the game. We spent some time tearing around the beautiful virtual island paradise in some of the hottest cars in the world and, while there's still work yet to be done, Unlimited is definitely showing promise.
The first thing you notice about Unlimited is its sheer scope. When we say that Hawaii is drivable in the game, we mean it. The entire island of Oahu is completely accessible in your car, all the way down to accurate topographic data. Hills and valleys, vegetation, important geographic and historical landmarks--they're all there to be marveled at. You'll spend most of your time rolling through approximately 1,000 miles of drivable asphalt, all intricately modeled after the real thing. To be fair, not every street and byway found on the island is modeled perfectly (the development team paired things like dead-end streets), but for the most part, if it's drivable in Oahu, it's drivable in the game.
What this means is that if you're at all familiar with Honolulu or Waikiki or Pearl City, or any of Oahu's other tourist destinations, you'll likely feel a strange sense of déjà vu when tooling around in the game's intricate environments. Just for kicks, we made it a point to drive over to the southeastern tip of Honolulu (near Diamond Head) just to see if a public park that we had visited during our honeymoon was there. Sure enough, we drove right past the park in our Mercedes, slowing down just long enough to take it in. Ah, the memories…
OK, enough romance, let's get to the speed. Designed from the ground up as an online game, Unlimited just might be the closest thing the gaming world has seen to a driving MMO since EA's Motor City Online. Yes, there is an offline component to the game, but if you really want to experience Unlimited as it was meant to be played, you'll want to make sure your Ethernet cable is plugged in and raring to go.
You start off by creating your character. The standard attributes are adjustable for your virtual driver: gender, hair color, build, nose size, and so on. You can even choose from standard preset looks for your character, complete with a variety of clothing choices. Once your look is nailed down, it's time to hit the streets. You start off by renting your first car and then looking for a place to stay. You're not just in Hawaii on vacation, it seems; you're here to lay down roots. You'll want to start by purchasing a house which, beyond being a central HQ for your character, also houses your soon-to-be-vast car collection. As you progress through the game, earning money from race events as you go, you'll be able to buy new houses and new cars. In the beginning, a house will only be able to accommodate four cars, so it won't be long before you'll need that extra garage space.
Because Unlimited is, at its heart, an open-ended driving game, and because Oahu is a big place, a successful navigation interface is key to dealing with all those hundreds of miles of asphalt and scores of challenges you can enter. By pressing right on the directional pad, you can bring up a map of the area you're currently driving in and you can either zoom in to check out specific areas, or zoom out to get a picture of the entire island. Across the map, you'll find numerous icons indicating race challenges you can take part in, car dealerships where you can purchase new rides, clothing stores for those all-important shopping trips, each of your personal houses, real estate offices (when it comes time to buy that next slice of Hawaiian paradise), and even "diners," which act as a sort of local lobby for all the players currently playing in the game.
Of course, the key to earning money in Unlimited is taking part in the numerous types of race challenges that can be found all over the island. You have to drive to the challenge destination in order to take part in them the first time--a clever requirements that forces you to explore the entire island--but, ultimately, you'll be able to teleport to any challenge point on the map, provided you've been there before. The challenges themselves range from straight-up head-to-head races to time trials and speed-trap challenges. You can take part in these challenges against artificially intelligent opponents or take your game online and challenge any of the real-world runners also on the server.
Though many people will be playing Unlimited online simultaneously once the game is released, there are some caveats to the online experience that you'll want to be aware of. For one thing, race events will be instanced (meaning it's a separate copy of the challenge only available to you and the others challenged) and a maximum of eight online players will be able to take part in race challenges. For another, the PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game will be on entirely separate servers, so 360 players won't be able to test their mettle against their PC counterparts. In free ride mode, which essentially lets you have free reign of the island in order to pick up challenges, you can "lock" other drivers into impromptu groups and they will enter challenges with you. You can also choose to form driving clans with folks you plan to roll with regularly. Despite the online limitations, the developers at Eden have ensured that any race you jump into will be one that fits your specific criteria, thanks to a deep filter tool that lets you only search for players that fit your specific standards. Only want to race against folks using the same car class as you, or are of a similar skill level? You'll be able to do this by using the filter search tools.
One of the coolest online aspects of Unlimited is the idea of instant challenges. When you run across another driver in the game, you can instantly challenge him to a race by pressing the A button. If your opponent accepts, you then can quickly choose the route you wish to race by drawing the checkpoints and finish line on the overhead island map. From there, you hop back into the car and it's off to the races. Of course, that isn't the only way to challenge other players in the game. One of the best methods is by setting up challenge events of your own. Practically every imaginable criterion is adjustable when creating these events, from route (which can be as long a you want), to handling style, collisions, car make and model, to gold/silver/bronze award time limits (for time trial races), and many, many attributes in between. You can even set the entry fee and reward for the challenge. The entry fee is paid to you by anyone entering the event, while the reward is the amount that is awarded to the challenge winner. If you're smart, you'll make sure that you have a lead foot, and then you can win your own created challenges, thus collecting all the fees and the reward to boot. Once created, these events will live on the Unlimited server for seven days.
It's hard to deny Unlimited's graphical charms, which have certainly come a long way since the game's initial unveiling. The cars themselves, representing manufacturers such as Saleen, Aston Martin, Shelby, and Jaguar (along with motorcycle makes such as Ducati), plus many others, are among the best-looking car models we've seen in a next-generation driving game, with big, solid components, detailed textures and lighting effects on the exterior of the cars, and accurate-to-the-gauge car interiors that will have you feeling like you're truly inside the car of your dreams. The developers have borrowed the smudged windshield effects first seen in Project Gotham Racing 3, which help bolster the authentic look of the cars. As nice as the cars look, the rich tropical representation of Hawaii is even more impressive by our estimation. There's so much variety from one side of the island to the other, from the straight-shot drag strips in urban areas (complete with fun and frequent jumps) to the treacherous and snaking hillside roads near Diamond Head. There's plenty of terrain to explore, and you're liable to always be surprised by what appears around the next bend. While the developers have cut out performance-affecting damage in the game, you'll still notice damage incurred on other non-player character cars on the road should you hit them. If there's a need for graphical improvement (based on our time with the game), it's in the frame rate, which didn't always convey the sense of speed a high-performance driving game requires. With a few more months of development to go, however, there should be ample time to optimize things.
Unlimited's sound palette is shaping up nicely. Cars have individually recorded engine sounds, which will change accordingly depending on the driving point of view you're currently using. One small audio touch we really liked was a voice guide in the car that not only points out spots of interest (such as challenge areas, car dealerships, or shops), but also gives you audio directions to any destination you wish, similar to the GPS setups that many recent cars feature. All you need to do is a click on a spot on the map and you'll get dynamic driving directions. Pretty darn cool.
Ultimately, Test Drive Unlimited is a game that is big on ambition and, as such, will need to deliver big in order to be considered a success. We like much of what we've seen so far--the car models and environments are impressive and the sheer variety of things to do means you probably won't be bored while driving around the virtual highways and byways of Oahu. Whether the game lives up to its potential is a question for our full review, which should be arriving sometime in June, when Unlimited is currently scheduled for release. Until then, stay tuned for more on the game in the coming weeks.