Test Drive Unlimited PC Review page 1
When you look at the progression of racing games over the past few years, particularly those in the more accessible 'arcade racer' genre, quite
a lot has improved - we've seen better graphics of course, some online enhancements here and there, and a very strong movement towards making the
gameplay open to user choice and customization in an almost 'sandbox' style. Despite the reasonable degree of competition out there, only one racer in
recent memory really managed to capture all three
of these focus points very well, and this was Test Drive Unlimited for the Xbox 360. Now finally seeing its release on the PC, TDU once again impresses,
although not without a few hiccups along the way.
For those who haven't played the XB360 version yet, TDU is all about choice - it's up to the gamer to decide which character to start with,
which activities to undertake, which cars to buy, which house/garage to put them in and so on. To do all this, gamers must access car dealerships, races (and other competitions), real estate
agents etc in the actual environment, which means driving to locations. Once a location has been driven to, then it is instantly accessible via the game's
main map - this
includes any strip of road you have driven over as well. In effect, the world in TDU acts as the mode menu.
This system is not new to arcade racers, but the degree in which TDU delivers it is. This can be mainly attributed to the fact the "actual
environment" you're driving in just happens to be an entire Island - the "Big Isle" of Hawaii to be precise. We're not talking a small representation of a city's CBD
here, we're talking the entire big Island of Hawaii - and then some. The in game representation is a true 1:1 scale, meaning the distance from point A to B in
real life is the same in the game. Not only this, but
the entire Island is open for exploration from the moment the game's quick introductory period is over, and while the available competitions and services
will expand as you progress, there is never a point in the game when you feel restricted by the options available to you - hell, there's never really a point
in time in this game where you feel restricted at all, as you can even drive through the forest areas if your car/bike is up to it - there are no
invisible walls here folks.
To guide you in this awesome virtual version of Hawaii, TDU incorporates a powerful GPS system complete with a female voice for verbal directions, which
you utilize by setting points to go to on the map so it can calculate the shortest distance (following correct road lane ways). This is a pretty cool system
although somewhat annoying once you start driving
the really fast cars as it is often too late in its directions, forcing you to keep an eye on the small mini-map down the bottom left for any up coming
sharp corners. As you can imagine, this becomes quite difficult to juggle when your blasting through heavy traffic at top speed, but you get the hang of it.
Speaking of traffic and top speed, should you ever run into a civilian car, a cop is never too far behind ready to issue you a fine, although naturally you
can try and out run them.
Like the world in which Hawaii itself resides, TDU revolves around the all mighty dollar for just about everything - you gain money for completing
most mission types (but not all), and you spend it to expand your car and bike collection, as well as your real estate portfolio. The amount of houses and
apartments you own means you have more garage space for your motor collection to occupy, which is extremely important to the point of necessity as TDU is not
a game where one car can do it all. This is thanks
to the game's "class" system.
The class system is basically a way to categorize the 90 officially licensed cars and bikes in the game based on performance. For example, the Enzo
Ferrari and McLaren F1 are considered to be "Class A" cars and as such, any race or competition can require only "Class A" cars be used.
The same can be said for any class, which goes from A to G for cars and mA to mB for bikes. Perhaps the coolest part about the classes in TDU is their depth
- even notable differences can be had between
cars in the same class let alone across classes, and further more, upgrade kits can be purchased to further refine your rides in each class providing
you've managed to locate the appropriate shop for any given car. It would have been nice to see a tad more customization options, but
this isn't really an underground street racer game - it's more about taking cars that are already high performance or at least highly desirable and racing
The amount of competitions types on offer are not staggering but they do offer a varied experience. You naturally have your traditional races against
other cars and solo time trials against present gold, silver and bronze times, but also included in TDU are "top speed" races which require you to
hit a certain speed in a set period of time in a certain location, and "speed average" races which requires you to average a certain speed
measured across a handful of speed cameras in key
locations. On top of these, you will also find plenty of vehicle transport missions tasking you with safely driving a car from point A to B, courier missions
for delivering packages, hitchhiker missions requiring to do exactly what it sounds like, and "model" missions which tasks you with playing taxi
for an occasionally picky model fresh from her day shopping.
Unfortunately, while the types of racing do offer varied gameplay from an arcade racer standpoint, there are a few distinct problems. First of all,
some are very easy to exploit - for example, the races which require you to hit a certain speed often place you in an undesirable location to do it, such as
on the wrong side of a sectioned highway with hairpins up ahead. To get around this, all you have to do is turn your car around and find an easier strip in
the often ample time period given. Another issue
somewhat related is easily exploited missions like these are even sillier considering you can do them over and over again an unlimited amount of times,
collecting the top prize money each time. This isn't a huge issue but it can make the in-game currency seem somewhat pointless as you could technically rack
up enough money to buy everything before even touching the more advanced races.
However, the real problem with the racing modes on offer in TDU is simply
this - the CPU AI are just so damn easy to beat.
I thought maybe the game was being easy on me initially to get me going, but it became evident after I got far enough in the game to complete my first A to G car collection
that the CPU drivers are just slow arsed pussies, often braking at the sign of even the slightest corner, and often taking each other out after doing so
anyway. At times you may get a glimpse of a challenge from them, but a quick stop to the relevant tuning shop to obtain the next upgrade will almost always
take care of that. The races which have a time
limit can be challenging, but the races which require you to simply finish 1st against CPU driven cars are down right
Test Drive Unlimited PC Review page 2
To get a real challenge racing wise from TDU, you'll probably want to go online and it is here that TDU again really impresses, but also falls short.
First of all, lets address the good news - the online "mode" in TDU is so seamless to the entire game, that it isn't a separate mode at all. When
you create your profile, you are given the option of linking it to a Gamespy account. If you don't do this, your profile will be offline only
permanently so choose wisely, as the game can't be 100% finished
with an offline profile. This is because the main game mode in TDU can be both offline and online, and as you browse around your map and drive around
Hawaii, you'll see both offline and online races. On top of this, other gamers online will drive by, and you can challenge them right there and then with a
flick of the headlights. You can also access online clubs, user made challenges, and compare your times and scores with a world wide leader board all with a
few clicks of the mouse.
That's the good news. The bad news is, all of this just never seems to work as you'd expect. Getting my profile to associate with my GamespyID was easy
enough, but once you start the game and the online components kick in (after the short introductory period), things start to go a little sour. First of all, even though I'm sure there
are people online, sometimes you will go hours without seeing a single player driving around. When you do find one, or a preset online race with people
inside ready to go, I was
lucky if I ever made it past the dreaded "connection lost" message. In fact the whole time I was playing, online elements only seem to pop up
occasionally despite the fact the game insisted I was connected to the TDU servers. In all fairness, I am located in Australia on a modest 512K connection at
that, but when you can't even see people in game that the map is telling you is there, I've gotta believe something else is up.
Even if these issues can be largely attributed to my location and connection, there's no denying that, by simply looking at the leader boards, online mode
in TDU PC is absolute riddled with cheaters - people finishing 3 minutes races in 30 seconds, people finishing a "F Class" race with an
"A Class" supercar etc. It doesn't take a genius to hop onto Google and see that there are trainers out there allowing people to instantly obtain
millions of dollars, become super speedy and cheat the class
system. This is what happens when you merge the offline and online modes together on the PC and allow the user end machine to upload data about a user's
profile - people simply change the data locally before it gets sent to the TDU servers and ruin it for everyone else. This system may work on the Xbox 360
but not the PC, which is why I will refrain from labeling TDU as a true Massive Multiplayer Online Racer - if WoW worked off character data stored locally on
people's PCs, it would have died years ago.
If you can put those negatives aside though and just enjoy TDU for its incredible open nature and its fun but somewhat semi-realistic gameplay, you will
have a great time. The racing is fast and furious, and the depth on offer is insane - you will have hours and hours of driving in TDU just to finish the
game 100%, let alone after that where the PC version opens up an all new "Hardcore Mode" from the main menu, which takes the mostly arcade based
gameplay and puts a simulation racing spin on
things. And even though I have already covered the
true scaled representation of Hawaii, I feel compelled to emphasis again just how cool it is - being able to drive on the amount of roads TDU has to offer is
mind blowing. Yep, there is no doubting that any racing fan or just PC gamers in general should have a great time with TDU.
That is until the game randomly corrupts your saved game file. After starting my second profile specifically for online use, I only managed to get
37% into finishing the game until the infamous corruption happened to me. For those not in the know, saved game corruption is a recognized problem with
TDU PC that Atari claim will be fixed in a future patch. Any previously corrupted saved game will not be restored, but future corruptions should cease
to exist once this patch is out, which is said
to be any day now. Luckily for me, I knew about this issue before installing TDU and regularly backed up my saved game files (found in My Documents > Test
Drive Unlimited on XP). Even so, this really is an unacceptable bug for a retail game and I can only imagine how many unknowing people have lost their
progress because of it - isn't stuff like this why TDU went through a beta testing phase? On top of this, if you lurk around the Atari community forums and
other locations, you'll read stories of TDU corrupting
Windows after uninstalling, saved games losing data but still being loadable, and other issues of this nature. Pretty scary stuff.
Visually, TDU is very impressive but once again the good comes with the bad. The good here is the car models look fantastic and the Hawaiian
environments are great, especially when you switch HDR on in the options menu. The bad here is the performance of the game, even on modest visual settings.
Now, the X1900XTX I run is no longer king kong of the 3D chips, but coupled with an E6600 and 2GB of memory, it should be able to handle top quality from any
DX9 game like TDU and in effect it does - when you add
"-fps" minus the quotes to TDU's desktop shortcut, the game will print your current frame rate at the top left corner of your screen and mine is
consistently hovering around a smooth 40-60fps. The problem comes with the regular stuttering whenever objects coming into your view distance are being
loaded, creating a reasonably undesirable "pop up" effect rather than a smooth transition from low level of detail to high
level of detail. Atari claim performance is another area the patch address,
but we'll have to wait and see for that one. Another slight disappointment with TDU's visuals is the time of day never changes and neither does the weather -
this is not a huge deal but more a chance lost to make the graphics that much more impressive.
Like any racing game, the controls are a vital part of TDU and while the keyboard will suffice, it is highly recommended you have a wheel or at least a
gamepad. I personally used a gamepad - the USB XB360 controller - and while it took a few minutes to configure, it worked great with TDU, featuring full
analog control on the sticks and the triggers for acceleration and braking, which is very important as simply flooring it in TDU is not a good idea, you
really have to ease your way into full throttle or otherwise
you will likely spin out or lose control. Unfortunately I could not seem to get force feedback working with the 360 controller but research suggests this is
possible if you use the XBCD drivers and not the official MS drivers.
Unlike the Xbox 360 version, so far the PC version has not seen any downloadable car packs despite the fact the in game menu system does have an entry for
it. Given the bugs and general "beta" feel of TDU PC, it would be nice to see Atari release a few free packs with the patch to try and make up for
some of the oversights, but there has been no official mention of this so I'm just throwing ideas out there. In any case, sooner or later you've got to think
someone out there will figure out how to
add user made cars so hopefully addons - official or not - are not far off.
So how does one sum up Test Drive Unlimited for the PC? It is such a brilliant concept and in most ways it is executed flawlessly to the point of
innovation in the racing genre, but the bugs and issues present in the retail version are so prevalent they simply can't go unnoticed. If you're lucky enough
to have a perfect online experience with no saved game corruptions, all without a sign of performance issues, TDU PC is easily a 9/10 or better game that
should be played by everyone, but the odds are you won't
be this lucky. Hopefully a patch is here soon that can put these issues behind us, as I really want to enjoy TDU PC because as far as arcade/semi-realistic racers go, I don't think there is a game out there with as much potential as TDU, it's just hard to in its current
state. If Atari can fix the
issues in the near future and maybe do something about the online cheating, then you've got a seriously fun game on your hands with Test Drive Unlimited
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