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Platform

Xbox 360

 

Genre

Online Racing

 

Publisher

Atari

 

Developer

Eden

 

ESRB

E (Everyone)

 

Released

September 5, 2006

 

 

- Huge roster of great looking cars

- Beautiful, wide open landscape with 1000 miles of road

- GPS system for navigating races and challenges around Oahu

- Great online play for Xbox Live

 

 

- The houses and clothes for sale in the game donít really come into play much. Itís not too clear why they were included

- Players that are fans of tricks like powerslides may be initially frustrated with handling that tends to be very realistic while driving, and very understated during collisions

 

 

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Test Drive Unlimited

Score: 8.0 / 10

 

In Test Drive Unlimited, players have the opportunity to explore the freeways, city streets and back roads of a beautifully rendered, satellite modeled Oahu islandóa land of pristine beauty and laid-back traffic cops, unspoiled by tourists or locals, who presumably have all locked themselves inside to avoid the horrific rain of fabulous sports cars constantly flying into the sides of their homes and hotel rooms.

 

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This new title from Atari and developer Eden games is no demolition derby, though. With a growing online community able to purchase more than 90 different cars and drive them over more than 1,000 miles of road, Atari has billed the game as Massively Open Online Racing, or M.O.O.R.  Itís a cool concept that merges several of the best aspects of single and multiplayer racing while giving players a sense of massive, open virtual space thatís previously only existed in games like MMORPGS and single player titles like GTA or The Elder Scrolls.

 

Judging by this, I had expected an experience where I could just cruise around on Xbox Live, flash my lights at someone, and get down to racing. In theory, the game can and does work this way, but there are a couple of problems. Most

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notably, given the gameís 1,000 miles of road covering 618 square miles, the odds of you simply running across another online playerówho happens to be on your server, isnít already engaged in a race and who is also probably driving around at 150+ miles per houróare kind of small.

 

Fortunately, in both online and offline,

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single-player modes the game allows you to use a slick GPS system to warp to any roadway or challenge starting point that youíve already unlocked, so after a minute or so scrolling around the map, itís not that hard to find a group of other online players. The game also mediates the size of the island by allowing you to join racing clubs/clans, or finding friends online (again, if they happen to be on your server), and there always seem to be a couple of dozen drivers hanging around hotspots like Honolulu.

 

Of course, the online races are mostly populated by players in top-notch rides like Ferrari Enzos, Saleen Twin Turbos, Koenigsegg CCRs and McLaren F1s, so most players will want to spend a little time beforehand earning some cash to buy a really fast car. Players can earn money by completing the dozens of single player races and missions include timed package transports and hitchhiker pickups, acceleration challenges and car deliveries; almost all of which are unlocked simply by driving to them. Although several races are easily accessible early in the game, youíll need to spend a lot of time exploring and just driving around the island in order to find ways to make the serious money youíll need to buy new cars.

 

The single player matches are all challenging and fun, and thereís a whole lot of varietyóranging from races through downtown Honolulu with lots of hairpin turns to races through winding mountain roads to races that encircle the entire island and can take a good 40 or 50 minutes to complete. Many of these races are restricted to different classes or even specific makes of cars which, for the most part, have fairly distinct handling, so the game really pushes you to build a large collection.

 

And, as the title indicates, players can stroll into the many car dealerships scattered around the island and take cars out for a trial spin before making a purchase. For those paying close attention, youíll notice that during these test drives, youíre always accompanied by a car dealer in the passenger seat. They donít seem to mind, however, if you squeal out of their parking lot, cause a massive accident at a stoplight, and then spend the rest of your allotted two minutes hiding from the cops in the woods.

 

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Players also have the opportunity to test out different cars during car delivery missions, which are alsoóby faróthe most rewarding missions in terms of time spent and money earned. If you happen to drive past one of the 30 people on the island looking for someone to take their car or motorcycle back to a rental agency or to a repair shop, they will pay you excessively. To the tune of $80,000 or $90,000. And, if you can manage to complete this task without getting into any sort of collision with other cars, trees or guardrails, or even driving off the road, theyíll give you a 50% tip. Meaning $45,000. Someone please remind me to request this next time I return an unscratched rental.

 

With the reward for accomplishing a perfect car delivery mission set so high, some players might find these tasks a little slow. Even highly skilled drivers will find that youíre required to drive carefully, frequently slamming on the brakes and passing cars only when you have reasonable room. But itís actually a pretty cool aspect of the game.  These missions set an entirely different pace, forcing you to resist the temptation to drive like a maniac in a borrowed Lamborghini. It takes a lot of patience, but if players accept several of these missions early on, itís a great way to get used to the handling of different cars and unlock large sections of the map while earning large amounts of money. Also, once you get used to it, you might find that itís enjoyable enough to just slow down, enjoy the scenery and get to know the twists and turns of the roads a little better, which becomes critical when racing later.

 

Itís unclear why the owners of these cars youíre delivering are so concerned, though. Because, unlike most recent racers, the game makes no attempts at damage modeling. Crash into the side of a building at 200 miles per hour or hug a guardrail doing 140 and sparks will fly, but your ride will continue to look and handle like itís just been taken off of a showroom floor. To some purists, may sound like a lazy or unrealistic approach, but itís actually kind of necessary. Given the open-endedness of the game, unless players were exceptionally careful, they would be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time taking cars in for repairs after virtually every race. And, one can only imagine how nasty and vindictive the online matches could get if this were the case.

 

Instead, the gameís police force somewhat compensates for reckless driving. The cops donít care about speeding or egregious traffic violations.  So feel free to gun it past one at 160 miles per hour while running a red light right on the sidewalk going the wrong way down a one way street. But, crash into an NPC car more than twice during a 10-15 second span, and theyíll start looking for you. Hit another couple of cars while the chase is on, and theyíll start to set up roadblocks. If you evade the cops for long enough without doing further damage, theyíll eventually stop looking, and this is easy enough to do once youíre driving one of the gameís faster cars. But if they do manage to stop you, the tickets quickly become outrageous, often costing tens of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, the police have a noticeably toned down presence in online mode.

 

Several of the non-racing missions, such as the timed hitchhiker and model transports (a.k.a. female hitchhikers), more closely resemble the gameplay of Crazy Taxi or The Simpsons: Road Rage. Itís a great addition for the sake of variety, but in the larger context of the game, theyíre a bit of a throwaway. These ungrateful passengers start out with a relatively tiny cash reward of $60 or so, complain frequently during the timed ride, reduce the money theyíll pay you anytime you bump into anything, and then finally reward you with coupons that you can use to buy your driver new clothes at stores scattered around the island.

Being able to create a unique looking man or woman driver using a large array of sliders for facial features, and then pimping out your character with the latest fashions from Ecko Unlimited and Ben Sherman after driving a bunch of whiny models and questionable dudes around the island might be a little more interesting, if you ever saw your character doing anything more than briefly walking around during cut scenes or sitting in front of their television whenever you first load the game. Ultimately, though, the customizable drivers are one aspect of the game that falls a little flat, lending little extra depth to the title. Similarly, your character can purchase dozens of houses, cliff-top mansions and high-rise apartments all over the island, but really, other than bragging rights, your real estate holdings are only as good as the number of parking spaces they offer.

 

Instead, as expected, the cars are the real stars of this game, and they look as beautiful as the scenery. After spending about a week playing, I earned enough money to buy two houses (10 parking spaces) and a small roster of fully upgraded cars including a an Audi Quattro, a Ford GT, a Lotus Sport Exige, a Ferarri Maranello, and a McLaren F1. At a cost of a cool $1 million, both in the real world and online, with upgrades costing another $300,000, the McLaren is the fastest car available in the game, and features fantastic handling, a top speed of 268 miles per hour, and goes 0-60 in 3 seconds. I logged on one Sunday afternoon, and was promptly schooled up and down the island. For the most part, online opponents drive very fast and very accurately. Itís challenging stuff, even when you think youíve got a few of the single-player AI races nailed down. In addition, as players become more familiar with the gameís roadways, they can create their own custom challenges for other online players adding infinite variety to a game that already has that in scads.

 

Online TDU is a top-notch racing experience, even when youíre new to it. The conversations that I heard were all fairly mellow, there didnít seem to be a lot of people crashing into each other on purpose (although I did get accidentally knocked over a couple of guardrails), and people seemed pretty welcoming, even to multiplayer noobs like myself. I only got yelled at once, when I entered a race with my McLaren against a bunch of guys that were specifically racing B class cars. But the online interface is simple to learn, so itís easy to switch out cars before a race using  a simple menu that lists all of the cars you currently own. As this review was being completed, TDU was also offering an online tournament with a grand prize of $1000óa large enough amount to keep it interesting, and a small enough amount to indicate that they may continue to support the gameís online growth with these types of events.

 

The cars all handle well and many feel very distinct, although players more familiar with games like Project Gotham may be a little frustrated with the gameís treatment of the hand brake. Itís almost impossible to powerslide without ending up in an inescapable doughnut. Personally, since Iíve gotten so used to games that involve tricks like power slides, and since Iíve never physically tried to perform one in a car going 170 miles per hour around a corner, Iím wondering if this one aspect of TDUís handling might be based a little more in reality. With no basis for comparison, Iíll leave it up to you guys to decide whether this is an oversight or an attempt at a more realistic experience.

 

Finally, the gameís soundtrack is eclectic and solid but small. Featuring about 30 or so songs from artists ranging from Queens of the Stone Age to the James Gang to Preston Love to Rossini, the soundtrack has a very little bit of something for everyone. On any of the extended races, or even while just driving around, though, players who care to turn down their carís sound effects enough to actually hear the music will need to be changing the station pretty often to avoid extensive repetition. Iíve heard that you can use your own customized soundtrack for the game, but I didnít give that a shot.

 

Overall, despite a few flaws, this is an ambitious title that succeeds in giving racing fans a genuinely new type of experience. Itís a great buy at $40 as well, and despite the fact that your starter car might get kicked around a bit initially, Iíd suggest that new players jump online immediately to get a feel for the excellent online play.

 

- M. Enis

(October 18, 2006)

 

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