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PlayStation 3 Review: Test Drive Unlimited 2

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NOTE: The screenshots in this review are comparison shots of the same exact spots on Oahu, taken from (clockwise from top left): TDU1 on PS2, TDU2 on PS3, Google Maps Street-View, TDU1 on PC. Click to enlarge each image.

It’s been a rough road so far for this title, and with first impressions being key with gamers prone to rent briefly to decide whether to buy, that launch window can be critical. Not only are the first few hours of the game completely underwhelming, there are technical hurdles thus far that bar entrance to some of the most promising features.

Having played the original Test Drive Unlimited on the PC and the PS2 and enjoying many aspects of each, I had pretty high expectations for this sequel; I was counting down the days till its release.  Between the PC/360 and PS2 versions were really two different games with a few common themes.  The former was a graphically stunning recreation of the Hawaiian island of Oahu that focused on the “driver lifestyle” as much as it did on the driving elements themselves.  While I could have done without the Sims-like playing dress-up and buying real estate solely to increase your garage capacity, the sights and sounds of the PC version had me coming back again and again to tour this real-world destination that often had me alt-tabbing over to Google Maps to verify its authenticity.  The PS2 version (developed by Melbourne House, not Eden) did away with the lion’s share of the non-racing elements (but regrettably took motorcycles along with it) and took a hit graphically, but this seemed a necessary sacrifice to stream the island in full without any load times or interruptions on a system with relative hardware limitations.  It was fun, first and foremost, and between earning “xp” every second simply for driving on the road and the GPS smartly always targeting the next nearest event, it was very hard to put down for a serious racing junkie, invoking so many “just one more event” moments that led to bleary-eyed late nights, one after another.  I loved it.

Things I did NOT love were the weak soundtrack, though it did offer some variety and unexpected but fun public domain tracks like “Brandenburg Concerto,” “Ride of the Valkyries,” and “William Tell Overture.”  The PC version required (at the time) some fussing with video settings to get it to play smoothly, and mapping the controls to a proper dual analog controller was and still is a nightmare.  So between that foible in the otherwise lovely PC version and the fun playability of the graphically inferior PS2 version, and not owning nor having any interest in buying a 360 for one game, there was no happy medium for me, until I heard TDU2 was on its way to the PS3.

I ran out to rent it the day it came out.  With the utter dearth of reviews online (only two were up on Metacritic as of its third day of availability) and “delays” in getting promo copies of the game out to review sites, it seemed that either Eden/Atari weren’t really ready to release it, or they were deliberately preventing critical coverage of the game prior to getting early adopters and hype riders to pick it up and commit at least some earnings to the title that had been in development for quite a while.  This lack of coverage smelled fishy to me, so a rental seemed the best option, especially after what a train wreck of disappointment Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was for me.

On first boot, it asked me to download a 383MB patch.  On release day.  OK, so problems were clearly afoot even on day one, but from all appearances, at least they took steps to remedy them.  I initiated the patch download, and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After several minutes, the 1% indicator on the progress bar popped up.  On my 12mbps Internet connection, I can download 2GB demos in less time than it was going to take to get this measly patch, so again, something was afoot.  Either a billion people were hitting the download server at once, or the speed of it had been throttled down intentionally to prevent people from getting into the multiplayer — you can’t go online unless you are fully patched in any PS3 game.  I’m generally not one to be paranoid or suspicious and I try to assume that people have generally good intentions, but sitting here almost a week after release, patch installed (it took an overnight idle session to get it) and still being unable to join the multiplayer servers leads me to think differently.

Until I can get the multiplayer to work, what’s the single player like?  Let me first say that any time anyone in the game speaks — which is often — the voice acting is laughably, annoyingly bad, coupled with stiff, emotionless NPC character models.  Having said that, the first couple of hours with the game are LOADED with these sorts of terrible interactions.  You’re given your choice of three low-end civvy cars to choose from, nothing that even with the best upgrades could be considered high performance, and shown the basics of how to drive.  From there, you have to earn licenses, then on to specific challenges….for a game built on a non-linear free roam design, these early stretches of being told exactly what to do and in which order are tedious, even more so to seasoned racers as they lead you through tutorials on high speed braking, slaloming barrels, and the basics of power sliding.  Racing on pavement doesn’t feel quite as tight as it should be in some vehicles, but is much better than the impossibly loose and sloppy handling I found in Hot Pursuit.  Off-road racing feels pretty good, though the several races winding between old demolished stone walls with tons of outcroppings to snag on sometimes require precision bordering on insane.  It is worth mentioning that the high performance rides can be fun to blast down the open roads with; I finally saved up enough for a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, and I may not drive anything else now that I have this beaut.

There are several types of races including:

  • Standard grid, first to the finish line.
  • Time trials where you’re alone against the clock.
  • Speed Traps position radar guns throughout a specific area and you have to race past them, averaging above a certain speed across all.
  • Speed challenges where you have to hold your speed above a certain limit for a specified amount of time.

Outside of these more typical challenges are those invoked by NPCs:

  • Adrenaline, where you have to drift, speed, and make enough close calls zipping between traffic to excite your passenger.
  • Jolt, where your passenger is motion sick and can’t handle a lot of quick turns or stops and starts without getting ill.
  • Delivery has you test driving the cars of other NPCs, rides you might not unlock otherwise until much later in the game, with a point to point drive.  Typically not timed, these challenges start with a dollar value you can win, and subtract from it with any collision or off-road driving you do.
  • Driving is a set of “pick someone up then drop them off elsewhere” challenges.  There are variations like “Get Me To My Meeting” where some whiny backseat driver barks at you to get them to a drop off point within a specific time meeting, lest they be late to some all-important meeting.  The “I’m Tired Of Walking, Take Me Home” is generally more laid back, with more generous constraints.
  • Follow That Car has you tailing another vehicle that has an annoying tendency to slam on the brakes and floor it, seemingly to try to lose you, though they supposedly don’t know you’re following them.  The main problem with this type of event is that every one I’ve done so far involves a cheating girlfriend, and there is no happy ending that I’ve seen.  The pursuing suitor doesn’t confront the situation; he always just gets out of your car, completely depressed, and mopes away to cry himself to death.  They’re really dreary events that are annoying to successfully complete, with no payoff other than more misery.

The event variety and non-linearity of it is refreshing, and add to this the ability to challenge any other NPC racer you stumble upon on the map to a random point to point race (including money wagers on the outcome), coupled with the ability to create custom challenges by simply dropping waypoints on the map (time trial, Speed Trap, and Speed variants only so far that I’ve seen) and you have a pretty diverse, fresh experience on your hands.  If you want a break, you can freely explore the island of Ibiza (and after level 10, Oahu again from the first game) with fewer impenetrable hedge rows and foot-tall walls that barred entry to shortcutting between buildings than were seen in TDU.  That’s not to say that these annoying barriers are gone altogether, though.  When I first traipsed down to the airport, I found that the runways were entirely enclosed by this indestructible chain link fence.  I eventually found an off-road path up a hill that jumped me successfully inside the fence, allowing some exploration and top-speed testing on the runways, but why this was locked off in the first place is a mystery.  It gives the illusion that planes take off and land from the airport, but they never actually do much other than cruise around overhead.

So with all this variety, custom races, wide selection of cars and properties, and thousands of miles of road to traverse, what could possibly go wrong?  Well, aside from the horrendous voice acting, there are a number of other things that make this feel like getting generic plastic army men from the thrift stores when you really asked for the genuine Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow G.I. Joe two-pack.  The sound effects overall are pretty average, with the “whoosh” of trees and building going by seeming more random than coordinated.  Adding to that is the paring down from several radio stations in the first game to a mere two in this one.  They have a sort of hip hop/techno station, and a “hard rock” station that was more a mix of yawn rock and trying to mimic the brilliantly snarky advertisements you’d expect to hear on the radio in Grand Theft Auto, minus the actual humor.  Also missing is the option to play your own music stored on the PS3’s hard drive.  That definitely would have helped.  And the controls?  Only one config, not customizable.  Too bad.

Beyond the mediocre sound are fairly basic visuals.  They strike me as being somewhere between the original’s PC and PS2 graphics.  The draw/fog distance is somewhat better than it was on the PS2, but the frequency and noticeability of draw-in, level-of-detail updates on building and tree models (going from blurry sprites to full 3D in 20 feet), and finer details are sorely lacking the PC original’s visual flair.  Maybe it’s just more noticeable in this version because it’s in 1080p and on a giant screen.  Bright, vivid colors of the first game are replaced with muted, blurry, muddy colors in the second.  Ibiza isn’t much to look at, if this game is any indication.

If TDU2 existed in a vacuum, it might be forgivable, but having spent many hours gawking at the vibrant, polished sights of Just Cause 2 and Split/Second on the same system and never dropping a frame, this utter lack of polish would imply a dearth of effort.  I did reach Level 10 and fly back to Hawaii to see if maybe it was just a symptom of Ibiza, and while they did use richer shades of green on all the lush foliage, it still lacks the soft focus, motion blur, depth of field, and other tasty effects of TDU on the PC from almost four years ago.  They did, however, remember to include worthless features like being able to put your windows up and down and turn signals on and off.  Woohoo!

The NPC character models are nothing to write home about, either.  They look like mannequins.  I went to a car wash just to see what $1500 would get me there, and frightening “ladies” in short shorts and bikinis came out and tried to arouse me from the driver’s seat perspective by undulating awkwardly and doing a charade of cleaning the car that they never actually made contact with.  Waste of money.  The blocky models in the strip clubs of GTA: San Andreas were more titillating.

Also missing this time around are specific, named identifiers for different neighborhoods, towns, and regions of the island that were featured prominently in the first game.  You knew when you got to Pearl Harbor because it said so.  In TDU2, the islands are simply divided into numbered regions.  I thought they might at least preserve the locations for Oahu for the virtual tourist in me since they were all laid out before, but that was thrown out for the sequel.  The mini-map in TDU2 eschews the satellite footage overlay for a bland wireframe, streets-only view.  Also be prepared at least a couple times an hour to come to a sudden an unexpected halt while driving along.  I don’t know what exactly causes this, as I see nothing to have collided with, but still inexplicably either spin out or stop dead in my tracks once in a while.

Now, the leveling elements in the game are based on Competition, Discovery, Collection, and Social achievements.  Competition points are the easiest to attain since you just have to win races and beat events to get points here.  Discovery isn’t that difficult, but it can be time consuming, including driving down all the roads in the game, finding wrecked cars, and so on.  At least roads you’ve already traveled remain highlighted on the map so you don’t spend a lot of time hunting for that one stray stretch of highway you missed in a region.  Collection and Social are somewhat more tedious if you’re not into playing The Sims during a racing game.  This includes collecting hair cuts, clothing, houses, taking specific pictures within the game, gambling, and other things that have nothing to do with driving.  Social points are earned from interacting with other players, having a pre-set number of friends playing the game, attending gatherings at clubs in the game, and the like.  The problem is that certain events don’t unlock until you’ve reached a particular level, and you can’t reach max level without gathering ALL of these different types of experience.  I was able to make it back to Hawaii solely on Challenges and Exploration, but I have a funny feeling I’ll never get above level 30 (max is 60).  My first haircut experience in the game was grating enough on its own, but the fact that the stylist NPC standing next to me WOULD NOT SHUT UP the entire time (see: terrible voice acting) made me never want to get groomed ever again.  Ever.

The police presence has returned, and is more brutal and refined than ever.  I find it difficult sometimes to initiate a pursuit; the game implies that if a cop witnesses any traffic violation, they will watch you and eventually give chase if you keep it up, but the only way I could attract their attention is by ramming a cop car deliberately, or the car immediately in front of a cop.  Once they start after you, though, it’s no picnic.  Rather than the progressively aggressive setup in the original TDU, these cops will throw everything they have at you as soon as you get on their bad side.  Roadblocks, ramming, EMP, and overwhelming you into a corner feels downright abusive the first few times you encounter it, and makes the cops from Hot Pursuit comparitively look like wimps.  They also added a helicopter to the mix that can somehow magically pin you down if you spend too much time off-road.  Granted, going cross-country in the first TDU was a good way to lose a particularly persistent tail, so this does make it more challenging at least.  If you do manage to escape, successive getaways will start to build you a reputation.  Apparently you can also progress as a cop yourself, chasing down outlaws and bringing swift justice to their offenders, but I’ve not found a way to initiate this in single player, and it would make more sense as a multiplayer mode.  From what I’ve seen, this one mode is as much if not more fun than the entirety of the recent Need for Speed that tried the same thing as its entire focus.

Buying houses to increase garage space is a feature I was never crazy about in this franchise, and it’s perhaps more tedious the second time around, as you’ll be hoarding cash for some special car you want to buy, reach that point, go to the dealership, and find out you can’t buy it because you need more garage space, and paying for that is going to eat up most of what you just earned.  Ugh.  They still haven’t given players the option to change cars on the fly.  To do so, you have to go to the house that contains the car you want to access it, and it’s not always immediately obvious which cars are at which houses.  Tedious.
It is possible to earn some free money using the F.R.I.M. reward system while driving, which awards you cash for taking risks like narrowly missing traffic or drifting around corners or speeding excessively.  However, this is only available in free roam mode, seldom nets you more than a hundred bucks here and there, and there were races where I really wished it were still turned on, as I’d taken some unnecessary risks only to be reminded there was no pay-out for it.  This contasts against the system in the PS2 version of TDU where you would earn points toward leveling up for simply driving on the road, drifting, drafting, or doing other dangerous stuff, whether it was in an event or just free roaming.  Another quirk to the F.R.I.M. system is that, since if you hit something while earning and haven’t banked the money yet you lose it, it’s aggravating that object collision isn’t consistent.  For example, you could cruise down the street taking out every street sign on the block and not lose your F.R.I.M. balance accrual, but if you so much as brush up against a shrub, you lose it all.  Similarly, GPS navigation is voiced audibly in free roam, but not during events.  What?  Lastly, this is the first racing game I’ve seen in years where drafting doesn’t work.  Not only are you not rewarded for it, but it also won’t give you a speed advantage on the player in front of you that I’ve noticed.

On the whole, TDU2 carries over several of the things that have made this franchise good, but fails to improve on most anything that it did poorly in the past, and even managed to break a few things in the process.  I’ll probably give it a couple more hours of tooling around just to explore and see if there’s anything I missed, but this is definitely a try-before-you-buy situation.  If I’d paid $50 or $60 for this, I’d be upset, and it’s a bit telling that the pre-order on Steam for the PC was only $40.  For $20 or less, its flaws are more forgivable, and if you can overlook the lack of visual/aural polish, the variety of events, non-linear play, and expansive maps can be entertaining.  Plus, there’s allegedly that whole massively multiplayer online thing, if they ever get it working.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Lyrics, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Simulated Gambling. This game can also be found on PC and Xbox 360.

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About Mark Buckingham

  • D-Gen

    While I enjoy this game greatly, I understand many peoples complaints about it and your review is fair – I especially like the comparison shots.

    Just a small correction: All cars are availible from any garage accessed from a menu – usually a workbench or cork-board.

  • Mark

    It’s a decent game that should have been great. Thanks for the tip on the garage; I hadn’t picked up on it. The comparison shots were tricky to compile; glad you liked them.

  • Charles D

    Couldn’t agree more about the joy of having TDU2 on the PS3!

  • Tom de lounge

    This game was really exciting and thrilling, I really like this game .. : D