Atari's French studio Eden Games is back for a second run at its unique spin on the driving game. Test Drive Unlimited, released back in 2006 in the early days of the Xbox 360, was the first always-online open-world racer, and it's still the biggest - or was until now.
This sequel has the whole Hawaiian island of Oahu - all 1500 square kilometres of it - that featured in the first game. But you start out on the notorious party paradise of Ibiza, an entire second island that's a bit more compact but just as scenic, with the same wonderful combination of city streets, freeways, coastal highways and twisting mountain lanes.
It's two drivers' paradises for the price of one, then, and once again you get to spend your time there playing through a huge single-player racing campaign, buying clothes and houses for your avatar, nosing around luxury cars in dealerships, racing and socialising with other players or just exploring and enjoying the open road.
Heaven is other people
Eden has always had aspirations for Test Drive Unlimited to be a persistent, massively multiplayer world for racers, and it's gone further towards that goal with TDU2. It's added a day/night cycle and dynamic weather effects, both of which are synchronised with all other players as long as you're online. It makes driving around these islands even more atmospheric and immersive than it already was.
You can now explore the islands more fully, with the addition of off-road vehicles (replacing the first game's motorbikes) which can clamber around the countryside searching for wrecked cars to restore as well as take part in dirt-track races.
And the all-important multiplayer options have been improved and expanded. You can still hang out in car clubs with your friends, upload and bet on time trial challenges and challenge anyone you happen to drive past to an on-the-spot race. The lobby-based racing and speed events are more stable and reliable; there are fun new co-op challenges and even cop chases where players can take both sides of the law.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a dream playground for petrolheads, and has a tremendous variety of stuff to do. You can progress through its 60 levels by mixing and matching goals from sections headed Competition, Collection, Discovery and Community; you'll make progress whatever you get up to, and it's great fun to just explore the islands and see what you find, watch the GPS road map fill out as you go.
A bumpy ride
But trying to combine Gran Turismo, GTA and World of Warcraft in a single game is a big ask, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that Eden doesn't get everything right and can't get everything working as it should.
Many complained about the car handling in the first game, and although it makes a good fist of a difficult job - the sheer size of the game and the maps means you'll be using all sorts of cars in all sorts of different conditions - it's manages neither the arcade thrills of a Need for Speed or the convincing realism of a GT or Forza. It just lacks a bit of feel.
Meanwhile, the GPS interface is cumbersome and slow, there are far too many menus, and it's hard to figure out how to access a lot of options in the game - like the new co-driver and online chase modes. It's also a bit unreliable, especially when trying to stay with other players in free ride mode (you can track and instantly join all players, but only eight at a time appear in "your" world).
TDU2 wants to sell you a glamorous lifestyle, but the terribly cheesy story and dialogue and unconvincing characters (who look like shop dummies come to life, only with less fashion sense) make it seem more comical than alluring. It's just a bit of fun though - it doesn't harm your enjoyment of the driving and does help tie it all together.
Just like the first Test Drive Unlimited, this is very much a rough diamond, and maybe it's a shame that Eden hasn't managed to polish it up more in the last four years.
But it's still a diamond, and it's great that Eden hasn't compromised at all on its brave vision of an online world for car lovers. For anyone who loves the open road and the wind in their (awful, virtual) hair, TDU2 offers a magical experience like no other racing game. That makes its flaws very easy to forgive.
- Huge variety and quantity of stuff to do in a fantastic, gigantic open world
- Lots of intriguing and unusual online and social options.
- An open-road driving experience like no other.
- Basic, lightweight handling doesn't do the cars justice.
- Cumbersome interface is too slow for a game about speed.
- Bugs, unreliable online performance and some rough graphics.