Test Drive starts off as an impressive PS2 game. It has no pretenses, and it doesn't try to be anything other than what it is--a purely arcade-style racing game in the vein of Cruis'n USA and San Francisco Rush, meaning crashes are practically harmless and the laws of physics hardly apply. And it's fun for a while. The problem is that it's far too arcadelike for its own good, and it really only lends itself to short amounts of time spent playing. After a few races you'll start to notice problems, the most obvious and detrimental of which is the terrible rubber band AI.
Like many racing games, Test Drive features a large number of great-looking real-world cars licensed from real-life car manufacturers. You start off with access to only a few, which can be selected to take part in the main mode of the game, the underground circuit. Those familiar with the movie The Fast and the Furious will remember that most of the races in the movie were for pink slips--the ownership of other cars. The same principle is used in the underground circuit of Test Drive. There are a number of races that take place in each city, though not all of them have you trying to win someone else's car. Placing in the top three will allow you to move on to the next race and, more often than not, unlock a new car. Frequently, you'll find yourself in a one-on-one race with an opponent. It's in these cases you will be racing for pinks, and amusingly enough, you'll actually get to keep your opponent's car if you win. That opponent will return in the next race, of course, but he'll be in a different car the next time around. There are also police officers and traffic involved in each race, which makes things more interesting.
In the underground mode, you'll assume the role of a character who's a bit down on his luck. Having been beaten out of the underground circuit, you'll find your saving grace in the form of another racer who needs your help. Due to an injury, he can't drive, but he's more than willing to back you with money and cars. Eager to return to the circuit, you accept. And that's all you really need to know about the story, if you even need to know that. There are other characters you develop a rivalry with, but they're really nothing more than stereotypical caricatures during the many cutscenes that fill the time between races. There's a surfer dude, a German millionaire, a blonde bimbo, and so on. They're actually quite annoying after a while, and you'll undoubtedly start skipping the overly long dialogue sequences after the third track or so, if not sooner.
There are a couple of other modes included in the game, including a quick race mode, a single race mode, and a head-to-head mode. All these modes use tracks and vehicles that are unlocked in the underground mode, so the further you progress in the underground circuit, the more extras can be found in the other modes. The single race has a bit more meat to it than the other modes, as it contains five different variations. There is a linear race, which is usually a longer track with a definitive start and finish. The drag race variation has you going head-to-head with an opponent as you try to beat each other in a standard quarter-mile stretch. The navigation challenge mode has you racing alone through a city at high speeds as directional arrows pop up at the last second before a turn. There's also a circuit race that's like the bulk of the underground mode in that there is a course with several laps. The most drastically different of the single race options is the cop chase, in which you assume the role of a police officer trying to bust all the racers before they finish the race.
Graphically, Test Drive does its job well. The cars look nice and the tracks do a good job of reflecting the cities they're mimicking. Surprisingly, some of the tracks are pretty true to life, though some creative license has been taken. The frame rate remains at a solid, high level at all times, even during spectacular crashes and rush-hour traffic. Typically, there is a fair amount of traffic on the road when you find yourself racing during the daytime. Nighttime tracks are more sparsely populated, but they have pretty decent lighting effects. The paint on each car also features real-time reflections, which is a nice touch--the effect is especially noticeable if you choose a metallic finish for your car.
The sound is where Test Drive starts to betray some weakness. Certainly, the game has a good soundtrack, featuring artists such as DMX, Ja Rule, and Moby. Unfortunately, there isn't a way to make your own playlist. As you play, there will be one random track assigned to the current race, and it will loop for the duration. While many of the songs are quite cool to listen to, they may eventually get on your nerves as you listen to them over and over again. The real problem is with the actual sound, however. Put simply, the cars don't sound like real cars. They sound more like what cars in racing games sounded like in the 16-bit days, with odd muffled engine noises that have an artificial pitch. The crash sounds and tire squeals are better, but they're still nothing to get excited about.
Yet the major drawback of Test Drive is the artificial intelligence. If you've never heard of rubber band AI before, then a few minutes with Test Drive will have you immediately up to speed. Your opponents go as fast or as slow as you go. You can literally stop your car and watch the AI-driven vehicles slow to a crawl up ahead of you--it's that blatant. You can even be driving a Shelby Cobra, a car with one of the highest top speeds in the game, and have a much slower car blaze by you on a straightaway as if you were standing still, only to slow down once it's passed you. Rubber band AI exists so that players of all skill levels can feel like they had a good, close race. However, here it makes for more frustration than enjoyment. The computer-controlled racers are cheap, too. They'll try their best to knock you off the road or steer you into oncoming traffic, leaving you no choice but to do the same. This can be fun, admittedly, but not often. In one race, you can be doing great, making excellent time and not wrecking at all, while in another you'll be crashing into everything that moves and constantly getting busted by cops. You could end up in first place in either of those races.
It's worth mentioning that, unlike the Xbox version, the PS2 version of Test Drive has some very long loading times. Restarting a race means you'll have to wait for it to completely reload again, which can be annoying in the context of a fast-paced game like this, where all you want to do is quickly get back on the starting line and keep racing. Luckily, Test Drive makes good use of its Atari branding and has a playable game of Pong available during the loading screens. Amusingly enough, it even supports two-player competition if you have two controllers plugged in.
If you can overlook the cheap AI, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of Test Drive. It's true that Test Drive doesn't bring anything new to the table, but it is fun for a while and has plenty of cars and some good-looking tracks. It's short enough that it could be finished in a weekend, though the fun head-to-head mode adds some replay value if you have others to play with. All in all, it's worth checking out if you're a fan of arcade racing games.