Late last year, Atari and developer Eden Studios released Test Drive Unlimited for the Xbox 360. Purportedly the first "massively open online racing" game, Unlimited provided you with a wide-open setting (the Hawaiian island of Oahu), a myriad of slick rides, tons of different races to take part in, and an online mode that actually let you occupy the same basic driving space as other online players and challenge them in competition. Not everything the game did on the 360 worked brilliantly, but it was an inventive and unique piece of technology that was impressive in its own right. Now the game has come to the PlayStation 2, and it'd be understandable if you doubted whether the game could hold up on a system that isn't nearly as powerful as the 360. However, while a number of assorted features have been axed in this version, most of those were superfluous elements. The core driving mechanics, hot rides, and online mode are all intact, and while you can't quite call the PS2 version a great driving game, it's still an impressive piece of work on its own merits.
As the game starts, you're whisked away to fabulous Hawaii to buy a car and a house, and do a lot of random racing. 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, and speed challenges, 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. Your minimap will automatically target whatever the closest available race is, but you can pretty much go wherever you feel like.
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. One way the PlayStation 2 version of the game is different than its Xbox 360 predecessor is that it is devoid of all the mission-based challenges. You won't find yourself driving models or hitchhikers around the island, nor will you end up delivering packages for seedy criminal types or expensive cars to repair shops. Those missions weren't exactly the highlight of the 360 game, so their absence isn't entirely a detriment to the PS2 version. This version does include a new series of race challenges that are basically a championship series of races for each car class and race type. While something to add a little more variety to the proceedings would have been nice, at least you won't feel like you're getting the short end of the content stick with this version.
Lack of variety aside, you'll be inclined to take part in as many races as possible, because those races earn you credits. Without credits, you can't buy any of the game's numerous cars, houses, or upgrades. Obviously, the big draw is the cars, and there are a wide variety of sports cars (classic and new) 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. However, the PS2 version doesn't have any motorcycles available, though again, the motorcycles weren't one of the best parts of the 360 game, so losing them doesn't hinder the game much.
Building up a car collection is key, as you'll need at least one car from each of the available A-through-E 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.
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. You will have to log in to the online servers every time you boot up the game (and scroll through the exceedingly lengthy online agreement every time), but that's it. 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 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 several of the race hubs. 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 MMOG 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 can be a bit convoluted. You can lock individual players you see driving around, but sometimes they seem to disappear anyway. Fortunately there is a friends list feature to help keep track of your buddies when they're online.
More than anything else, it's highly impressive that a game like Test Drive Unlimited would even work with the PS2 technology, and work as well as it does. It's not the perfect "massively multiplayer driving game" or anything, but the online functionality works basically as well as it did on the 360. And ultimately, 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. Also, if you're logged in online, the cops don't show up at all.
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 nice amount of detail. 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. Granted, the PS2 version of Unlimited isn't nearly as attractive as the 360 or PC versions. There are fewer buildings and set pieces scattered about, not as much detail in the environments, and everything looks scaled back and more aliased. But for a PS2 game, it doesn't look bad at all. The frame rate is solid, the world is huge, and you rarely run into any graphics chugging or major draw-in issues as you're driving around at breakneck speeds.
The cars in the game are modeled very nicely, looking like pristine, out-of-the-factory renditions of their real-life counterparts. There's no damage modeling to any of the licensed vehicles, nor can you damage any of the random AI traffic. Collisions look strange, as the physics of you smashing into another car at 150 miles per hour just don't look right (AI cars are very bouncy, more than anything else). 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 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 other racers. 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 only a small portion of the overall soundtrack really stands out.
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. Of course, if you already picked up the game on the 360, there's not much cause to do so again. But for PlayStation 2 owners that never got to try the game on any other platform, 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.