Test Drive Unlimited declares itself to be more than just a racing game. It is, in fact, a racing lifestyle game. Which might sound like a load of old gimmickry, but it isn’t. Atari has actually overseen the creation of something very different here.
Test Drive Unlimited is set on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, on which a thousand virtual miles of tarmac are modelled in considerable detail. From cliff-top roads overlooking stunning beaches to the built-up city, the graphics are superb and the blur effects that occur when you’re bombing along the motorway – sorry, highway – evoke a real sense of speed.
The large island can be explored either in offline or online mode: more about the latter shortly. In offline mode, the idea is that you buy yourself a car and a modest house with your starting cash, then set about making some real money to upgrade all your stuff. Eventually that could mean purchasing a posh new mansion, a garage full of Aston Martins and Ferraris, or even trendy clothes for your avatar to wear.
This is the lifestyle element, but it’s not just a matter of selecting new homes or cars from a menu. You actually explore the island and discover estate agents, then pop in and browse through their properties, taking virtual tours. Or you might stumble across the Mercedes showroom, nip in and see what they’ve got on the forecourt. Like the look of a car? Then take it for a test drive – just try not to prang it head-on into a police car as we did on our first outing.
You may laugh, but the control system definitely takes some fine tuning. We were playing with the keyboard, admittedly, and not a steering wheel, but we had to tweak the steering sensitivity settings a fair bit before we found our feet (or should that be wheels?). And even then the car was a little too twitchy at times, as the driving physics are somewhat unforgiving.
While you’re out cruising around and sight-seeing, missions and races appear on the map. The missions are run in the game world and involve challenges such as picking up a hitch-hiker and ferrying him to a destination as quickly as possible. Drive like a maniac and hit too many cars, however, and you’ll scare the poor bugger and fail the mission.
Races, on the other hand, positively encourage you to burn around like a loon when you’re trying to beat rival racers, although some are held against the clock. There are also various challenges to try your hand at, for example attempting to achieve the highest average speed possible while being snapped by speed cameras. Doing that one feels really good!
The online experience is exactly the same as this, but alongside the computer-controlled drone cars on the road there are also human players. You can challenge them in multiplayer races, lay down a wager and buy cars from other folks (or indeed sell your old motors). Or you can just drive right up their backsides, flash your lights, honk your horn and try to invoke some good old fashioned road rage.
However, there are problems with the online mode. When you spot a fellow human driver they sometimes flicker out of existence rather randomly, making it difficult to challenge them to a race. When signing up for the multiplayer races we suffered from connection problems at times, which took the edge off our enjoyment somewhat.
Despite these issues, Atari has certainly come up with an inventive driving game here, and simply touring around the intricately detailed island on the hunt for a new vehicle or house is an absorbing experience in itself.