At the time, it felt like the most underrated driving simulator ever made. The measured, perceived-to-be niche original Test Drive game didn’t do earth-shattering numbers when it launched on the Xbox 360 back in 2006, but the fact that it is still being played today – coupled by the fact that this sequel just went straight in at number one in the UK all formats chart – suggests that word of mouth has been pretty ferocious ever since. In its own modest way, that first game actually laid much of the groundwork for many of today’s most revered racing titles, the likes of Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit very much included.
But it’s actually rather disingenuous to compare Test Drive Unlimited or its shiny new sequel to any other racing game, as it basically exists in a genre all of its own. The racing is every bit as important as the social networking aspect, which in turn is every bit as important as the RPG elements of the game’s story. That plot is some broadly ridiculous rags-to-riches bunkum that leaves no cliche left unturned, but it’s so amiable and light-hearted that you’ll end up being feeling that they didn’t take it in a more aggressive or needlessly adult direction. And although older gamers will probably warm to Test Drive Unlimited 2 more so than younger ones, more inexperienced players are very reliably catered for too.
The difference between the game’s three handling tiers is fairly stark; Full Assistance is about as close to an arcade racer as you’ll get here (e.g. not very) Hardcore is self explanatory, and Sport mode is the obligatory happy medium. Because they’re so contrasting, it’s a good idea to assess early on what you really want to get out of the game, because changing the settings after you’ve begun to master one particular control type makes for a surprisingly taxing transition. The learning curve is pretty much perfect though, so if you’re finding Hardcore too difficult at first (and chances are that you will) the difficulty is modestly sloped to give you ample opportunity to get everything down pat.
The first thing that you do in Test Drive Unlimited 2 is choose your character from a set of preening nincompoops who are all partying (read: dancing rigidly) by the pool at the rear of a grand Ibizan villa. After that (and after a surprisingly neat little plot twist) you’re thrown into the process of getting yourself levelled up to tier 60, by winning points in four categories; Competition, Discovery, Collection and Social. Competition events are commendably varied and deep, with the Discovery and Collection aspects both prolonging the duration of the experience into something that’ll last devotees months rather than mere weeks. Social points are earned by doing co-op challenges and joining (or starting) player clubs, and this makes up for easily the most enjoyable and well-rounded part of the experience, irrespective of whether or not you’ve got numerous online friends who own the game already.
It’s of the game’s most rewarding online features, no question; giving you the ability to create, own and nurture your very own racing club. It can have its own members list (and you can promote favoured members within it as you see fit) and you can even design special members-only identity cards, and choose a set list of (potentially quirky) entry requirements. As well as helping to create a very real sense of community, it also encourages some very affable competition between the more successful clubs online. The new F.R.I.M dynamic – which rewards you for driving dangerously, Burnout style – allows you to gamble on your own driving skills, and is an ingenious way of making even the most familiar jaunt from A to B potentially nerve-wracking.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is monumentally cheesy, and very proud of it. If you go in expecting flash and vacuous cool, you won’t find it; and this carefree attitude is extraordinarily charming. Instead of concerning itself with being overtly image conscious, the developers have instead spent an inordinate amount of time perfecting the game’s world, and ensuring that it isn’t just coherent, but also an absolute pleasure to spend time in. It’s such an unusual proposition in its overall structure that some journalists have been frequently drawn to comparing it with World Of Warcraft; which turns out to be a surprisingly apt comparison, if only because both games have that same palpable, intravenous sense of compulsiveness at their core. If petrol is your poison, then Test Drive Unlimited 2 is all but irresistible.
Watch the Test Drive Unlimited 2 trailer here: