If you're the sort of racing game fan who's become bored with the hard lines that have been drawn over the years between single- and multiplayer gameplay, Test Drive Unlimited might just be what you're looking for. Take the picturesque Hawaiian island of Oahu, lots of licensed vehicles of varying pedigrees, and a game design that attempts to blend a persistent online world with the typical single-player experience, and what you get is an interesting take on what one might try to describe as a massively multiplayer online racer. Of course, that wouldn't be quite correct. As huge as the island of Oahu is, the online component of the game simply doesn't feel that massive, because the game limits how many online players can come in contact with you. There's also no hook, no overarching point to the game to tie together its string of races and missions, which might leave you wondering why you're even bothering with any of it. But despite these issues, you still find yourself sucked into Unlimited's sprawling world simply because it's such a cool concept, and though it doesn't deliver on every aspect of it, it gets enough right to be fun.
You start by picking a basic character model to represent yourself, and you're whisked away to fabulous Hawaii to buy a car and a house, do a lot of random racing, and drive hitchhikers and models around the island for some reason. That's about all there is to the premise. While it's not shocking that a racing game wouldn't have a major, in-depth storyline, the way the game introduces itself and the open-ended nature of the game world give you the impression that there might be some kind of plot to tie everything you do together. There isn't. The lack of a cohesive thread to the missions and races does make Test Drive seem a bit pointless, but after a while, you cease to care and find yourself oddly engaged by this scattershot series of objectives. It helps that there is quite a lot to do on the island. The objectives themselves don't extend beyond races, time trials, speed challenges, and some basic delivery missions, but there are enough of them to keep you going as you explore the massive island of Oahu.
The way the game forces you to explore is clever. You start out with only a few available mission icons on the huge world map, but as time goes on, you'll see more and more begin to pop up across the entire stretch of the island. If you happen to have driven through a road where an objective resides, you can simply click on that icon on the map and be instantly transported there. But if an icon appears on a road you've never driven on before, you have to drive there to access it. What this does is force you to cruise through just about every nook and cranny of Oahu without being overly pushy about it. There's often more than enough races and missions available at any given time, so if you don't feel like driving halfway across the island to see something new, you won't necessarily be hurting for things to do right where you already are.
It's just too bad there's not more variety to what you end up doing. Races are fairly typical street races, with up to seven opponent drivers and a number of checkpoints scattered throughout a course. There's a huge roster of them to take part in on various roads that range from hairpin-filled hill climbs to straight-and-narrow city races. There's also the time trials, as well as the speed challenges, which task you either with driving a set speed past a number of speed traps laid about a course, or simply reaching a designated speed within a set amount of time. The missions are more repetitive, which come in only a few set categories. You'll either find yourself delivering illicit packages for seedy individuals, delivering some of the game's more expensive rides to dealerships and mechanics, delivering hitchhikers to their desired destinations, or delivering high-strung models to their homes after a long day of shopping. Basically, you're a delivery service no matter how you look at it, and the only variances are in what you're delivering, and occasionally what kind of car you're driving. Fortunately, the various races and challenges are quite a bit more compelling than these missions. However, you don't earn nearly as much cash just sticking to the races, so you'll likely be inspired to put up with the monotony of the missions.
Why? Because without cash, you can't buy any of the game's numerous cars, houses, clothes, or upgrades. Obviously, the big draw is the cars, and there are over 90 licensed cars and motorcycles available in the game. From basic rides like Volkswagens, Chryslers, and Chevys to more exotic models of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Aston Martins, there are plenty of available cars, and you can likely expect even more to be made available via the Xbox Live Marketplace at some point. Paying more for new cars isn't the most ideal scenario, but at a less-than-full-retail-price $40 price tag for the game, it's a little bit easier to swallow.
Building up a car collection is key, as you'll need at least one car from each of the available A-through-G car classes, since at one point or another, you'll encounter races that require cars from these specific classes. Some races also require very specific cars, but if you don't want to buy them, there are rental agencies that will give you access to those cars for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. To house all your rides, you'll find yourself buying real estate throughout the island. Each house has its own look, but more importantly includes at least a four-car garage, if not higher. The houses don't have a ton of purpose beyond acting as basic hub levels and as a storage area for cars, but they're a nice touch all the same. You can also spend credits you earn from the hitchhiker and model missions on clothes for your character. Though it's not as if you stare at your character much while you're driving, there are enough cutscenes in the game to where it sort of makes sense to be able to dress up your driver in some new threads.
All of the different missions, races, car collections and other buyable items play into the game's achievements, which in turn, play into your driver level. As you level up through the game, you get access to more and more races and missions, and you level up specifically by getting achievements. The achievements themselves are nicely tied into the main game structure, so by completing all the races and missions, and collecting hefty amounts of cars, real estate and clothing along the way, you'll gain the vast majority of the game's 1,000 points. Of course there are a few that require you going a bit out of your way, like covering 5,000 miles of road, for instance, but you should still have plenty of points once you've seen and done all the main objectives the game has to offer.
Other ways to earn money involve the online component of the game. You can tap into the online audience by creating your own custom race challenges for them to take part in, or by selling your cars via the online trading market. Buying and selling cars is exceptionally simple; all you have to do is jump into the trade menu when you're in one of your houses, and buy and sell accordingly. You can set prices however you like, though you'll likely want to judge the market for your particular brand of car before trying to price gouge people with that Volkswagen Golf you have no use for. Creating challenges is a bit more involved a process. With this feature, you can map out a course of just about any length using all the available roads on the island. You can set all sorts of arbitrary rules, like time limits, whether or not the driver is relegated to the cockpit camera view, and whatnot, and you can also set entry fees and awards. Of course, the trick is that the awards are taken from your bank account, so you'll want to be careful with how much cash you're dishing out. Fortunately, there's also a time limit for how long a custom challenge can sit on the servers, so you're not destined to get gouged by people forever. You will, however, be able to access your custom challenges within your own game for however long you like.
The online driving audience is obviously a big draw of Test Drive Unlimited, since so much of the multiplayer functionality has just been built into the basic gameworld. There is no quick-and-dirty multiplayer menu to jump into to find a match. Every designated multiplayer race appears as an icon on the map just like the offline races, and at each race you'll find the option to jump into a player match or a ranked match with any other players hanging out at that race. It's a little bit more convoluted than a standard menu system, since you might have to scan the various online race icons on the map, trying to find a race to get into, but in our testing, we found a decent number of competitors at just about every race hub, though mostly for player matches. Ranked matches have been decidedly fewer in quantity. It's probably also worth mentioning that Test Drive Unlimited doesn't offer any kind of single-console multiplayer, so if you want to play against friends, it'll have to be online.
If you prefer simply driving the open roads to sticking to predetermined courses, you also have the option of tracking down other players free riding around the city. This is where the whole MMO comparison comes in (or as the game refers to it, MOOR, or massively open online racing), as players driving around the city are very visible to you while you're not engaged in a race or mission, and if you happen upon any rival online drivers, you can challenge them to a quick race for cash and ranking points. All you have to do is flash your headlights at them, and they can choose to accept or decline the challenge; if they accept, you just pick a finish line somewhere away from where you're currently situated, and race to the end.
The whole system of being able to find other, random players while simply driving around the island sounds brilliant on paper, but it doesn't offer quite as much freedom as you might hope for. For one thing, you can't just run into every single driver that happens to be in your vicinity. Though you'll certainly find plenty of other players driving around, there seems to be a limit on exactly how many can appear to you while you're in a specific zone of the island, and getting specific players into your zone seems more complex than it ought to be. For instance, we tried to hook up with someone on our friends list to engage in a quick challenge race within the free ride mode, but despite both of us being in the exact same area, we simply couldn't find each other on either the list of nearby players or within any kind of visual range. Essentially, it appeared as if we were in different server instances, and couldn't easily get into the same one. There's no quick way to target someone from your friends list, either, unless you happen to be in a club (the game's equivalent of a clan) with that player. It's easy enough to invite someone to one of the standard multiplayer races, but if you're just free riding, it seems hit or miss as to whether you'll actually be able to connect with someone specific. It's not a bad system in theory, since it does prevent the streets from getting overcrowded with rival racers, and to its credit, the switches between instances as you drive around are completely seamless, but if you want to find someone specific that isn't automatically appearing on your list, it's a rather clunky process.
Still, caveats aside, the multiplayer is where it's at, both because of the variety of ways to compete and because the online competition is just better than the offline. When you're racing offline, the opponent artificial intelligence is, in a word, limited. Opponents wreck and end up in the dirt more than you will, and the only advantage they'll ever have is if they have a markedly faster ride than you do. You'll also notice that if you end up having to redo races a few times, the opponents will follow the exact same AI routines every time, braking at the same points, veering around other drivers at the same times, and things like that. The only thing that can seem to throw them off this is you wrecking into them, but after a while, the routine resumes.
That's about the worst thing you can say for the in-car action, however; the core driving mechanics are quite solid. The handling of the various cars can take some getting used to, as almost every car is a bit squirrelly and prone to random spinouts. But once you get a handle on things, you can pretty easily master the controls and take to the roads with minimal issue. Of course, you'll still have to navigate around AI-controlled traffic and, occasionally, cops. But it's more the random traffic that poses an issue than the cops. Whereas AI cars will sometimes veer into you at random or bunch up at intersections, cops rarely seem to care terribly much what you do. Scraping or crashing into other cars alerts them, but you have to do it a bunch of times in a short period before they'll really start coming after you. Typically, all you have to do is avoid wrecking for around 10 seconds after alerting them, and your alert level will just drop right back to nothing.
Obviously, the lack of cop interaction prevents them from getting in the way of your enjoyment of driving around the island. In fact, with the exception of the AI traffic and largely immovable scenery, everything about Test Drive's design seems built with the expressed purpose of making Oahu as leisurely a place to drive around as humanly possible. Sure, the racing can get intense at times, and there are few things more frustrating than taking on a timed car-delivery mission and inadvertently wrecking into another car while trying to take a blind corner as quickly as possible, but for the most part, driving around Oahu is a relaxing experience. The game's mileage counts for each point-to-point drive are completely accurate, and unlike most games that tell you that you'll be going 15 miles to your destination, you feel like you're driving a realistic 15 miles. For some, the pacing of the island's travels might feel kind of sluggish, but for those who just like the idea of driving a hot car against a striking backdrop, Test Drive provides precisely that.
And it is quite a striking backdrop. Oahu is rendered with a high level of detail, and it looks extremely pretty as you're driving from place to place. Of course, most of the island's highways stick to the shorelines and heavily populated areas, but there's plenty of windy mountain roads and backcountry areas to explore, too. If you've got an HDTV, you're certainly going to see the benefit with crisper in-game visuals, but in SD, the game still looks quite nice. It doesn't look perfect, mind you. When you aren't speeding along, some of the more obvious texture seams and lower-resolution set pieces tend to stick out, and the fact that there's absolutely no people at all wandering around a bustling beach community is altogether weird; but at high speeds, the environments look great, especially with the attractive motion-blur effect the game uses. Unfortunately, high speeds also sometimes cause some problems for the game. Specifically, texture pop-in and frame rate hiccups tend to occur at frequent rates. The actual frame rate never seems to drop below 30, but you'll see these quick hitches from time to time that can be a little off-putting. Also, it is feasibly possible to outrun the game's environmental streaming. We drove ourselves out of the world at one point simply by turning onto a road that had not fully loaded yet. Fortunately, the game just resets you back on the road when that happens, but it's pretty ugly.
The cars in the game are modeled beautifully, looking like pristine, out-of-the-factory renditions of their real-life counterparts. There's no damage modeling to any of the licensed vehicles, though you can damage the generic AI traffic. Collisions look strange, though, as the physics of you smashing into another car at a 150 miles per hour just don't look right. It's also bizarre when you go head-on into a lamppost or fence or something equally unassuming, and get stopped on a dime by it. There's also no car-customization element to speak of. There are some basic performance upgrades you can buy that sometimes do involve some visual upgrades, but there's no way to trick out your ride to make it look like your ride beyond basic paint jobs and some rim upgrades you can grab at the time you purchase a car. It's just strange that a racing game involving such a community-driven design would go to the trouble of letting you play dress-up with your character that is barely visible outside of cutscenes (and also doesn't look particularly good, dressed-up or not), but wouldn't let you give your various cars more unique identities. Each car also has its own unique cockpit view that's accurate to the real car; a feature sure to please the kinds of car fanatics that love this level of detail.
The in-game audio is reasonably enjoyable though not nearly as in-depth as many of the other racers on the 360. The game has good car sound effects but a fairly forgettable soundtrack consisting largely of songs from relatively unkown bands. There are a few notable tracks by artists like Queens of the Stone Age, Metric, and the James Gang, but you're more likely to want to get your custom soundtrack on while playing this one. There's not a hefty amount of voice acting in the game, save for a few awkward lines during mission set-ups, but what's there is serviceable.
While Test Drive Unlimited blurs the line between single-player and multiplayer racing better than anything that's ever tried it before, it's not quite a slam dunk. The game's open-ended mission design belies its purposeless nature, and the whole massively open online racing thing isn't quite as massive as one might be led to believe. But even with its limitations, Test Drive Unlimited's concept is executed well enough to make it an addictive and interesting racing experience. There's nothing else quite like it on the market right now, and though you're undoubtedly going to take issue with a few of the game's peculiarities, there's enough here to make it a racer worth checking out.