Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Game Review: Test Drive Unlimited 2

Test Hardware: Xbox 360 Elite, Official Wireless Controller

In A Nutshell:

I like:
The idea
Showroom (and test driving cars I can't afford)
Choice of cars

I Don't Like:
Driving physics
Sub-standard graphics, sound (~)
Annoying commentary/characters
Quite repetitive single player

RATING: 65/100

I know it's been out since about February, but I finally picked up a copy of Test Drive Unlimited 2 last week. It only cost me £20, and to be honest I'm glad I didn't pay the £40 or so it would've been on release...

I want to make it clear that I liked the old TDU game. Sketchy graphics aside, it was great fun exploring Oahu island in anything you'd expect a millionaire playboy to own, and the "Massively Open Online Racing (MOOR)" worked a lot better than the usual tactic of giving loners a token single player mode and then focusing purely on online multiplayer... right up until some 12-year-old ran into you when you were in the middle of something. This new one seemed like a no brainer, then. Just add newer cars, a new location and bring everything else up to date to make an improved version of a good game.

I'm not entirely sure about this one though. First of all, the graphics are quite dodgy for 2011. Compared to Forza, DiRT, Need For Speed or Gran Turismo, they look about a generation old, more suitable as a late X-Box 1 title rather than an Xbox 360 one. I know graphics alone don't make a game good or bad, but in my head it's generally a sign of overall quality or cheapness in a game, and it didn't look great. The original TDU's graphics left something to be desired too, and the sequel doesn't seem to have moved things on that much. There are noticeable inaccuracies in some of the shapes or proportions (very noticeable for instance in the front of the Aston Martin DB9, which is too chunky-looking), and the environment doesn't exactly look like a countryside version of GTA IV either. See the DBS on the right of the top picture? Hardly going to trick you into thinking it's a photograph, is it? Nor is the SLR in this paragraph. The engine noises also sound like computer-generated imitations rather than recordings (which I know Turn 10 and Polyphony Digital do, and if Codemasters don't record as well then their imitations are a hell of a lot better than this). Cheaply made, perhaps?

Matching this faint disappointment was the driving physics. In case comparisons above to Forza and Gran Turismo have convinced you otherwise, I'd like to be clear that I know this isn't the same kind of game. Those are more like racing simulators - well, GT5 is a full-on simulator - whereas this is meant to be a more light-hearted, perhaps slightly arcade-y game, and arcade-y is definitely how it feels. When Grand Theft Auto IV has car handling with more variety, realism and feel than a committed racing game, even with a controller, something's gone funny. I sort of got used to it after a second go, but it still doesn't feel like I'm in direct control of the car. Sometimes a RWD car breaks traction all of a sudden in a tight corner and just sort of rotates, the immediate corrective opposite lock sending the car darting and fishtailing around until you can calm things down. Not great, but eventually you can keep a lid on it. In the last week, they've added a compulsory update that seems to have changed the driving physics, and it seems to have taken the sensitivity clean out of the accelerator and brake. It's almost like the LT and RT triggers have turbo lag (nothing-nothing-nothing-Something-EVERYTHING). The steering's still pretty vague as well. Maybe it's just me, but while Burnout or Ridge Racer can get away with arcade physics/controls, if a game features real cars, then they should drive like the real cars, otherwise what's the point? There are subtle differences between each car that point towards their real-life counterparts, but in my opinion it's not good enough.

It's not all bad though. Like the old TDU, you can walk around showrooms and look at the cars as you would in real life, except no salespeople approach you. You can open the doors, raise and lower the windows (apparently the game is set in some parallel universe where every car in history has electric windows), even start the engine right there in the showroom, and of course, you can test drive them. This is one aspect where it's better than real life, because yesterday I parked up at an Aston Martin dealer (that also sells a Jaguar XKR and a Lotus Evora) in my VW Golf GTI and could just have a go in a £1.2m Aston Martin One-77. Can I afford a One-77? Heck no, and I won't be able to for quite some time. I also test drove a Bugatti Veyron and the weird Spyker D8 Peking To Paris, which is like a bloated Spyker C8 with four doors, AWD and a smidgeon of off-roadability. The choice of cars is actually very good. While there are a couple of glaring omissions, such as the McLaren F1, Lotus Elise or any Maserati at all, and they still haven't persuaded Porsche to get in on the act, the list of cars is pretty comprehensive and should provide enough to suit all tastes, including people I don't understand who like to race around in SUVs. It could use a little more Japanese metal though. The only ones I've found so far are Nissan's two coupés and a "Hawk-Eye" Subaru Impreza WRX STI (GD). The apparent inclusion of a Citroën 2CV and a 1960s VW Beetle also seems peculiar. Maybe it's a cat-and-mouse thing. As well as cars to blow your winnings on, you can buy houses to keep your cars in (a necessity if you plan on having more than two cars at once), and dress your avatar up, something I really couldn't care less about, to be honest, but it floats some people's boats. I got him something to replace his valet clothes and that's about it.

Audi Q7 with a diesel V12 Twin-Turbo. Because why not?
There are specific championships for the SUVs that take place entirely off-road (another instance where video games are actually better than real life, in that these prestige SUVs are used properly for a change), but some of the trickier time trial events feel like they're really better suited to more agile and less cumbersome rally cars. You can find and retrace these routes in your Impreza or Lancia Delta afterwards, but you won't get anything for it. The best reason to have a Range Rover Sport in your arsenal is for when you want a break from doing lots of events and go exploring. Arguably you could also do this in your Impreza or Delta, but when the going gets hilly, you need a high-riding of-roader. You also feel more like an explorer in such a vehicle, especially when it gets covered in mud. If you're lucky, you will also chance across an abandoned "wrecked car", which you can track down with an automatic proximity sensor. Collect them all to unlock something secret. Making sure you're definitely in uncharted territory is made easy by the map and mini map, which highlight roads (blue) and dirt tracks (yellow) that you've already been on.

A break from events is definitely called for, because OH MY GOD they're boring. I'm still in the early stages, but the first SUV championship was so easy I almost nodded off midway through an Elimination race and hit a huge rock, cutting 7 seconds out of my 21-second lead, which I mostly recovered back. Again, I'm aware that most if not all racing games start out easy, even the GTs and Forzas of the world, but it shouldn't be tedious like this. The only time I might lose is if the aforementioned nodding off starts to happen and I crash by accident. Things pick up with side missions though, which are more interesting. Depending on the mission type, you might have to drive as much like a Burnout game as you can to pump up someone's adrenaline, maintain a high speed for as long as possible, follow someone at a safe distance à la GTA (fairly easy once you find a rhythm), or deliver a stratospherically expensive hypercar somewhere far away in a short amount of time, with penalties for damage and lateness. Pleasingly, these delivery missions involve a lot of long straight roads, so I got a Bugatti Veyron SS up past 250mph on a highway, which was fun.

What's slightly annoying is that each mission type only has one person who always says exactly the same thing, which makes the cut scenes become repetitive. It also makes you believe that a slightly bossy woman in her late 20s/30s (maybe a trophy wife) owns one of every hypercar in the game, the same guy follows you around looking for pumps of adrenaline, and one poor chap is always getting cheated on (he's particularly depressing, because I keep making $4-5000 out of his repeated heartbreak). I wish my avatar could give him a hug. Other recurring characters though, not so much. The young woman who always says one of 5 or 6 phrases on the grid is very '90s and very annoying (how can the "pressure of competition" be really getting to people when it's my first ever race?! What on earth did I walk into?), the cut scenes pre- and post-championship feature very stereotypical characters the likes of which I haven't seen since I grew out of the Disney Channel, and the fact that your character stays mostly silent and doesn't make witty comebacks is very disappointing. The races are also meant to be held in an in-game TV show, and idea that Split/Second executes a lot better.

The real point of this game though is that it's a "Massively Open Online Racing" game, meaning that it works a bit like World Of Warcraft. When you're not in a mission/championship/cut scene, other people who are online (including people you don't know) are all on the map with you. This makes using Ibiza and Oahu in Hawaii as locations a good choice, because they're both very big places when you're travelling by car. Of course, in the area of Ibiza where you start off, there will be a few no0bz and 12-year-olds trying to ruin people's fun, but if you want to get your own back on them in your comparable/faster car, flash your headlights at them and challenge them instantly to a race. You can change how much money you stake in these races in the options menu (where unfortunately you can't tweak the controls to your liking), the challenger sets the finish line and off you go. You can even request a rematch, and if the other person gives up mid-race, you still get their money. I know this from experience - one guy in a VW Touareg challenged me off-road in my RR Sport, and when I thrashed him in my faster Rangie, he challenged me to a rematch and tried to take me out before I'd even got into 2nd gear. I fended him off, left him behind and he gave up, but I still ran to the finish line and got $1000 off him (virtually, of course, not with real money, otherwise it would be Euros in Ibiza). A lot of games are focusing too much on online playing these days, but this system where it's everywhere and you can just casually race someone if you want to works better for this kind of racing game. For me though, it's still not what I'm really interested in. You can also join a "Club" and take part in events they organise, if you want to (you could probably organise one with friends, but sometimes strangers invite you too, in which case you can say yes or no).

I could go on saying I like this but I don't like that, but basically it's an alright game. I can see why there was a pre-owned one in such good condition in Game (suggesting the previous owner gave up on it quite quickly), but I'm not willing to abandon it yet. If I've got nothing else to do, I'll keep plugging away at it every now and again. As a game though, it's a great idea, but unspectacular in execution. I think I prefer the original Test Drive Unlimited, but I'd have to dig it out and play it again to be absolutely sure.

Rating: 65/100
Also Try: Blur, Burnout Paradise, NFS Hot Pursuit III
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is available on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC (Windows)

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