Let's be honest for a moment. - When a recent game has had the word "Test Drive" on it, it generally meant a rather poor racing game in comparison to the super franchises like GT and Need for Speed. However, there has been something about the 360 game which has meant that the TD series is actually getting a chance and has generated an incredible level of hype - the level of which you usually see with an established series. Perhaps it's the new console, but Unlimited is a definitely a new dawn in the series, and finally the developers are heading in the right direction.
The big focus of Unlimited is freedom. Sandbox games are becoming part and parcel of gaming each year with the break through being GTA, but developers are taking this philosophy to a whole new genre and Test Drive Unlimited has stepped in as the racing version. Basically the game gives you the opportunity to drive around the entire Island of Hawaii. Now this isn't your regular game which is scaled down to accommodate gaming, this city is a 1:1 scale of the real thing. How long it takes in real life to drive from point A to point B is how long it takes in TDU, which is quite something and really shows how much love has been put into this game. The fact that most of the game is forest doesn't detract from this feat and the developers really have put something innovative in for once.
What good is a huge island without game modes though and there really is only two on offer but they are somewhat intertwined and really make the game what it is. The main game is a career mode where you begin at the airport and have to choose a character who will take your persona through the entire game. Now, this persona extends far beyond the racing realm and the game has a "keeping up with the jones' element" as well as demonstrated by the fact you can buy real estate and the aim is to build a collection of expensive exotic cars.
To do this you take part in various challenges. It can range from getting a model to the sales on time through to delivering a multi-million dollar car to a client scratch free. It is this variety which keeps you coming back for more and of course you can drive around checking out the island between missions. As you gain in level you get access to tougher races and naturally obtain more money allowing you to live better, have more cars and buy the best cars in the game. The transport missions give you glimpses of how fun these multi million dollar cars are to drive, which gives you a reason to keep piling up that cash. There is also a bunch of bikes to choose from offering an entirely different challenge.
The other big side of the game is the online component which is just amazing. This is the first MMO-style for racing games other than the ill fated Motor City Online. Basically you're dumped into the island with a number of other gamers from around the globe who you can challenge and drive around the island with. This is truly the mode that makes TDU what it is and if you ever want a reason to get Xbox Live, this game is it.
Then of course there are the cars and Atari has gathered some of the most recent exotics as well as the most famous and some mundane road cars as well. You will find cars such as the McLaren F1, Ferrari Enzo and Lamborghini available to purchase and drive around with plus many others. There will also be cars available on Xbox Live to download. Each car also has its own individual rendering for a dashboard which puts this game in the same league as Project Gotham Racing 3. The cars also handle extremely well. Usually cars do not handle from a third person perspective very well, but in TDU it really is the optimal view. You can admire the shiny graphics, while actually keeping control of your PC.
Visually it goes without saying that this game is extremely impressive as expected with the next generation hardware. The draw distance is huge, the cars are shiny and the overall game just sparkles on HDTV systems. There are a few things that could have improved it, but not much. One thousand miles of island to drive around is nothing to be sneezed at but it is a shame that they did not go to the lengths of Bizarre and have used generic buildings for the cityscape. Sound effects are adequate as is the soundtrack which can be replaced by the players own music.
Test Drive Unlimited has taken a while, but the wait has been worth it. It doesn't quite reach theheights of "must have game", but it does give some credibility back to a once popular series. Driving around Hawaii with your mates really shows the online power of the system, plus the single player is enough on its own if Live is not enabled.