In the world of computer games, a product lives or dies according to how well it compares with similar products. This is, of course, old news for any serious gamer. After all, you're not going to fork over $40 for one game when you get a much better one for the same amount, right? Case in point: Test Drive 5 from Accolade and Pitbull Syndicate. While the game is a decent arcade racer with great graphics, plenty of cars, and a ton of tracks, it simply falls short of its number one competitor - EA's Need for Speed III - in almost every conceivable way.
One of the few areas in which Test Drive 5 can claim superiority over Need for Speed III is in the sheer number of cars and tracks available. Test Drive 5 offers a total of 28 cars, which, as in Test Drive 4, represent an even mix of modern sports cars and classic muscle cars. This number is a bit deceiving, however, as seven of these cars are "locked" at the beginning of the game (a "feature" I've always loathed in PC racing games) and are likely to stay that way for a great many players due to Test Drive 5's difficulty and physics oddities (more on that later). Furthermore, four of these 28 cars are simply police versions of the game's basic Chevy Camaro, TVR Cerbera, Dodge Charger, and Ford Mustang. On top of all this, several of the cars in Test Drive 5 aren't all that much fun to drive. Cars like the Nissan Skyline, Cerbera, and Aston Martin Vantage - though beautiful and exotic in the real world - are decidedly plain and unexciting in an arcade racer. Besides, it's virtually impossible to win a race against the computer in any one of these cars, so why include them at all?
Test Drive 5's graphics are certainly on par with Need for Speed III, though Accolade's title does not handle distance rendering quite as well. Some of the car models are a bit plain, but all in all the game looks fantastic, with eye-popping reflections on every car and an impressive attention to detail on each of the tracks. I actually preferred the track design in Test Drive 5, in fact, because each road course seemed to be more realistic than those in Need for Speed III. Alternate routes can be found on almost every track, so you don't have to follow the same old line every time you race.
The game flew along on a Pentium II 300 with dual Voodoo cards, even at a resolution of 1024x768, but oddly there's no real sensation of speed. Whether you're driving 80 or 175 miles per hour, the game looks and feels exactly the same. This is incredibly disappointing, especially when you think you're going fast and a computer-controlled cop sails past to give you a ticket. The whole point of a game like this is to feel that rush of driving a car you'll probably never own in situations you'll probably never experience (or at least, that you'd be very unlikely to survive).
Poor engine sound effects further reduce the game's sense of immersion, as most cars sound exactly the same. The Shelby Cobra - easily the best of the basic cars in Test Drive 5 - sounds great, but every other car sounds pretty weak. To make matters worse, the game's music (which is generally quite good) drowns out the sound effects unless you turn it down to the lowest setting.
In spite of its many other flaws, poor gameplay is where Test Drive 5 drops from contender to also-ran status. Basic races are extremely difficult, even on the lame-o difficulty setting with arcade physics enabled. Computer-controlled cars always out-accelerate you unless you're driving a Cobra. It is far too easy to spin out of control, and you lose far too much ground to the computer when you do so. Also, while AI cars can send you spiraling off the course with the slightest brush (and always seem to do so near the finish line when you're in first place), you can hardly ever run your opponents off the track. What this means is that while you have to fight your way back into the race after losing control, the same is almost never true of the computer-controlled cars. So not only do they get the jump on you at the start, they also rarely lose any ground over the course of the race. Even worse, spinning out an AI car is the only way to issue tickets in the game's cop-chase mode. And as long as we're talking about cop chases, why on earth do you have to hold down the button to keep your siren going? Simply put, Test Drive 5's general gameplay - and the cop-chase mode in particular - can't hold a candle to Need for Speed III.
Test Drive 5 does offer a drag racing mode that you won't find in Need for Speed III, but this is little more than a ten-second speed burst that loses its appeal after about three runs. Drive the Cobra and you'll win most of the time anyway.
So while Test Drive 5 looks pretty good in a vacuum, it simply does not compare well with Need for Speed III. As with the previous version, the only real reason to choose this over EA's arcade racer is to get behind the wheel of muscle cars like the GTO and Hemi 'Cuda. Otherwise, Need for Speed III offers better gameplay, cooler cars, and a much better pursuit mode (for all you law enforcement types out there).