Driving a hard bargain.
To justify this review being two weeks past the release date of Test Drive Unlimited 2, I feel the need to express and expose how a small part of the reviewing process works at Game Revolution and the industry in general. The benefit of looking back with 20/20 hindsight cannot be underestimated, especially since the game at hand is an MMO – a racing MMO for the console, no less, but still deeply embedded in a genre whose titles tend to experience at least one week of glitches after launch, alongside angry fans and unapologetic reviews. Test Drive Unlimited 2 has had the misfortune of having many of its multiplayer features disabled, particularly clubs – the equivalent of guilds – that of the time of this writing still remains locked due to an exploit Eden Games is attempting to fix.
[image1]Meanwhile, reviewers are inherently pressured to deliver their critiques as soon as possible, hopefully well before the release date or at least by the embargo date, no matter the glitchiness or eventual patching that might take place. So it is by no stretch of the imagination that the typical scores for Test Drive Unlimited 2 have averaged between a 6 and a 7. Their assessments aren't unfair since they're based on the facts at the time, when TDU2 should have remained in open beta. But seeing the potential that it had, I decided to postpone my judgment until now, though it still should have gone through open beta.
The reason for giving Test Drive Unlimited 2 the benefit of the doubt is its concept – the high-life fantasy of the racing aficionado, an island paradise where the Mercedes-Benz is but another luxury car cruising along the beachside highway and where drivers dress in suits and elegant sportswear that belong on the covers of Vanity Fair and GQ. Its promise of a console MMO is indeed a lofty one, though it isn't entirely new. Burnout Paradise's beautifully gritty, adrenaline-fueled racing gave players the option of stopping the single-player campaign every once in a while for multiplayer sessions, but it was mainly a solo ride. Test Drive Unlimited 2 is meant to have equally strong single-player and multiplayer components that weave together seamlessly.
But before players delve into clubs and multiplayer modes, they must first earn a set of wheels by completing license tests at a driving school and winning competitions in the dubbed Solar Crown racing competitions spread across the islands of Ibiza and, after reaching a certain level, Hawaii. By mastering each level of classic, off-road, and asphalt racing, players earn the street cred and the cash needed to purchase new cars in dealerships, tune cars in various shops, acquire new threads for their avatar, and even get plastic surgery (after which the player's face is wrapped in bandages for 24 in-game hours). Strangely, though, players don't have the option to tweak their avatar's face at the beginning of the game, nor is there the option to select a Latino, other than choosing one of the "other" dudes and changing their skin color through plastic surgery.
The rags-to-riches plot is tolerable, revolving around the player's transformation from a lowly valet attendant to a slick racer with a penthouse and adoring fans. The voice-acting, however, is remarkably off-putting: The host Tess Wintory snobbishly prattles on like she's in front of the camera all the time and the rest of the competitors, who follow the player along in every race, are just as annoying. Add in phone calls that are as irritating as those in Grand Theft Auto IV, Event side missions with women that nag about driving carefully when the point should be to drive fast, and a cloyingly obnoxious GPS system that loves to spew out “You're driving in the wrong direction!”, and the entire game needs a healthy shot of shut the hell up.
[image2]Otherwise, the single-player is best as a pleasure cruise. Ibiza and Hawaii (more precisely, O'ahu) are mapped exactly to their real-life counterparts; certainly, there are some liberal interpretations of the buildings and terrain, but the roads essentially correspond one-to-one – it takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to drive around an entire island (take your pick). Peppered throughout the island are hide-and-seek photo ops and car wrecks that unlock bonus cars, but there's nothing wrong with taking a Bugatti Veryron and feeling the imaginary breeze as the car glides down a freeway without a care for traffic or mostly lazy cops – perhaps park near a harbor and watch the sunset. It also helps that players can teleport to any place on the map that they have been before.
Those who want more of a thrill ride can drive more dangerously by drifting, speeding into the air, or dodging cars. Doing so increases the FRIM meter and filling the bar allows players to bank money they've earned, unless they choose to attempt refilling the bar for even more cash if they can avoid a collision. It's sort of like playing The Weakest Link with a vehicle (where a single scratch on it is probably worth your yearly salary). But while it makes freeriding much more fulfilling, it should have been expanded to include more goals, as in Burnout, like bonuses for going against oncoming traffic or maintaining high speeds for long periods of time. Also, the few hundred dollars that FRIM awards eventually becomes meaningless as players progress to more difficult championships with $1 million cash prizes.
All of this makes TDU2 look like a casual racer without much substance, but the handing has surprising depth, somewhere between the cruising of Grand Theft Auto, the arcade racing of Burnout, and the broad technical strokes of Forza Motorsport. To be clear, it's certainly not as detailed as a simulator – you can't fine-tune each aspect of your car, only the three simplified attributes of acceleration, top speed, and braking. But it soon becomes clear that players need to have gentle touch on the accelerator and the brake, especially for high-end A-class vehicles that tend to understeer and spin out easily. While most racing events can be won simply because AI competitors tend to turn corners slowly, a single mistake on a turn can easily knock a player down from first to fifth. That said, any semi-veteran of Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport will likely think the game is a cakewalk.
[image3]Meanwhile, everything players achieve works toward their global level, ranked from 1 through 60 and separated into four distinct sections: Competition (races, duels, and cups), Collection (real estate and cars), Discovery (car wrecks, photo ops, new roads), and Social (clubs, friends). Each section has clearly defined goals worth a specific amount of points, with a player's global level shown to any other player who happens to cross paths within a little more than a three-mile radius. These in-game achievements significantly boost the replay value, and completionists will have their hands full just trying to drive on every road on Ibiza and Oahu. Let me pause for a second as you absorb that.
The aforementioned lack of clubs, however, breaks much of the multiplayer promise. Though avatars can use emotes and walk around in buildings, they can't step out of a car in the world. So clubs are meant to be the meeting place for like-minded players to form groups, chat among each other, and challenge other clubs. Without them, all there is to do in multiplayer are instant challenges, some challenges that players can attempt or create in the community racing center, and some addictive Texas hold 'em poker in the casino (but that has connection issues). That's all right at the moment, but a giant piece is missing from the frame.
At it stands, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is like a used Ferrari with a broken passenger seat – a solid ride as long as the player doesn't mind some of the nicks and bumps and is willing to drive mostly alone. The hardcore racing fan will likely be turned off by the casual MMO style of the title, but TDU2 is an entirely different beast for a more even-paced audience who enjoys the simple fantasy of fast cars and elegant life. The temporary lack of clubs makes the game difficult to grade accurately other than for this particular moment in time, but once clubs get patched, go ahead and bump the grade one notch higher. For better or worse, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is literally a race against time.