Monday 11 September 2006
In all the excitement over Test Drive Unlimited, it's been easy to forget that the free-roaming racing game has been attempted before. Indeed, the genre's top-selling franchise Need for Speed has already tried it, with some success, in last year's Most Wanted. But the landscape of EA's games is as unreal as a model set next to Test Drive Unlimited's Hawaiian setting.
Based very closely on the island of Oahu, this is a believable real-world space on a scale seldom attempted in games of any sort before and, save for a couple of unlockable racing circuits, it's entirely free to explore from the start, off-road as well as on.
And Oahu is a breathtaking, bottomless resource of hundreds of miles of road of every conceivable kind: city street, suburban lane, sweeping coastal highway, bustling four-lane freeway and steep mountain switchback.
There is far too much to get familiar with, making this a very different flavour of driving experience - not about learning tracks and mastering technique as much as reading the road and the traffic ahead, and instinctive car control in unexpected situations. It is, in short, just like driving, to the extent that when just exploring the island or taking part in more leisurely challenges, you'll find yourself unaccountably observing traffic signals - despite the complete, and wise, lack of damage modelling.
What's different from everyday road experience, of course, is what you're driving: something from the game's varied and comprehensive selection of classic and modern exotica, all capable of at least 140mph and including a handful of motorbikes.
When coupled with the showroom shopping experience (and tiny details like the need to start your engine before driving off) this is where the game fully, brilliantly realises the concept, enshrined in the franchise's title but long forgotten, of the test drive.
There are more accurate, supple and entertaining simulations of these cars' handling out there than Test Drive Unlimited's, for sure (although with driving aids off it's more than adequate, with good road surface feedback) but there's no better emotional simulation.
When it comes to the substance, structure and set-dressing of a major modern videogame, developer Eden has been similarly adventurous, with more mixed results. The design of the challenges themselves is mostly excellent, if fairly easygoing in the difficulty stakes.
Above: With garage space at a premium, you're initial car-buying decisions will be made with thrift and sentimentality
Giving lifts to shoppers and hitchhikers, or delivering packages, requires a fine balance between fast and safe driving. Best of all are the car delivery missions which let you take the rarest, fastest hardware in the game for a spin and don't set a time limit, but scrub off their huge cash rewards with every scrape or off-road excursion.
The unlock structure is also smart, measuring progress by Gamerscore, which with a broad range of achievements available (covering clothes shopping and exploration as well as single and multiplayer race medals) means you can make headway in your own style.
Unfortunately, Test Drive Unlimited trips up over its most unusual elements - its lifestyle trappings and MMO-style dedication to a physically real space. The enticement of home ownership is lessened when you realise that a house is a glorified menu, and you can't even look around your garage in first-person.
Every challenge and function has to be physically visited before you can access it directly, must be selected from the cumbersome map interface even after that and is prefaced by a lengthy animation.
Above: Cops are thin on the ground so it's rare to get a fine but the financial penalty gets steep later on
This is likely to take its heaviest toll where Eden seeks to use it to innovate most, in the game's online life. It's hard to predict how its promise of massively multiplayer racing - with each server, each copy of Oahu hosting a hundred or more drivers - will work out, how smooth interactions between players will be, before those players arrive en masse come release.
Certainly, seeing other drivers circulating around the island is a thrill, the cumulative prize money on user-created challenges is a brilliant stroke, and the friends' clubhouses will be invaluable; but with no quick-match options or lobby to browse everyday race meets, you'll be left picking a challenge on the map and hoping for the best. Unless the game is hugely busy it's likely to end up an insular, friends-only affair, surely the opposite of what was intended.
But that's just conjecture. Even if it were entirely offline, Test Drive Unlimited would still distinguish itself, both in and out of its genre, by offering relaxed, romantic wish fulfilment, a virtual vacation on a luxurious scale, and a timbre of thrill just close enough to real life to make it twice as sweet. Eden has composed a beguiling, intoxicating hymn to the open road, and every car lover will want to join its chorus.