The Test Drive franchise has been around for a long, long time. I remember reviewing it on the Commodore 64 home computer when the series debuted in 1987. It was an incredibly ambitious game for its time, featuring “real” exotic cars in a “real world” environment, something that no other home racing game had done. I remember thinking how cool the idea was, but ultimately gave the game a middling rating because while the concept was good, the execution just wasn’t quite up to par.
Fast forward to today, and here I am almost a quarter of a century later, playing the series again. And I’m getting a serious feeling of déjà vu.
Like its great, great, great, 8-bit grandfather, Test Drive Unlimited 2 features real cars in a real-world environment. But in between the original game and the latest one stands many evolutions of gaming technology, so now instead of a single road, Test Drive Unlimited 2 features two entire virtual islands, Ibiza and Oahu, that deliver literally thousands of miles of open road to drive around.
The game also features a storyline in which you choose a character who you can level up and customize RPG-style, and a ton of virtual items you can buy, from clothes to houses. Oh, and cars of course. After all, this is a racing game.
The game starts with a long cut scene that sets up the storyline and enables you to choose your character. My initial reaction to this was not particularly positive. The character animations, voice acting and general atmosphere are cheesy to say the least, and some of the character models looked odd and unpolished.
Soon enough, though, I was behind the wheel of a car, and it was immediately obvious that Test Drive Unlimited 2’s handling engine is pretty rudimentary. There’s no real feeling of weight transfer, and the overall impression is more like an old-school arcade game than a modern physics engine. That’s not to say it isn’t fun – it’s just not much of a driving simulation, so you end up spending time figuring out the parameters of what seems like a basic mathematical handling engine, rather than feeling like you’re learning to control a virtual object with inertia in an environment.
It doesn’t take very long to get to grips with – particularly if you’re an experienced racer – and it left me with the impression that the game is probably better suited to more casual players who like immediate, arcadey fun, rather than hardcore racers who like the complexity and challenge of games like Gran Turismo and Forza. Or even Project Gotham Racing and Need For Speed Shift, for that matter.
The game offers plenty of racing opportunities, and there are a wide variety of challenges, AI characters to beat, and lots of places to explore. There’s also a lot of stuff to collect in the game. All work together to deliver a very broad and comprehensive experience with a concept I really like a lot. It occasionally feels a bit grindy: driving from location to location can take a bit too long - fortunately, you can skip a journey once a road is unlocked, but first time there you have to drive the distance - and sometimes I felt forced to enter arbitrary races to grind more cash.
But overall Test Drive Unlimited 2 offers something different to most racing games, and features a lot of content that its fans won’t tire of quickly. And even if you do play out the game’s content, social competitive racing is nicely integrated into the gameplay to further deepen player involvement and deliver a long-term challenge.
But the big problem is that, while the idea and the volume of content are great, it semms like the developer bit off more than it could chew, and the end result feels like quantity, not quality. The car graphics feel a little dated. The landscape modelling is decent, but not fantastic. The player models and story are just about ok. The handling engine just about does the job, but not very well. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. And it’s a shame, because Test Drive Unlimited 2 has a lot of nice ideas that are stymied by its execution.
If the developers get the chance to continue to develop the game’s basic premise with another sequel Test Drive Unlimited 2 could actually be a contender, but it’s not quite ready for primetime yet. Ironically, I can quote myself from 1987 and it’s still just as apt today: “Test Drive falls short of its potential in many fields. It could have been special… but unfortunately missed the mark.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.