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Feb 21, 2011

Test Drive Unlimited 2 Review

Lights Off
3 Okay
Retails for: $49.99
We Recommend: $39.99
  • Developer: Eden Studios
  • Publisher: Atari
  • Genre: Racing
  • Released: Feb 10, 2010
  • Platform: Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
  • Reviewed: Xbox 360

There are two things about driving a Supercar that get me going: wanting to drive that amazing and expensive piece of technology, and wanting to drive that car fast on a nice scenic route— driving wherever the wind takes you. Games likes Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo don’t completely satisfy that hunger because they make you race in closed circuits and in professionally organized racing tournaments; they don’t have imagination, and don’t give you the feeling of “living the life”. The first Test Drive Unlimited did fit this description. It let you feel like you were free to do whatever you wanted, and that feeling made it one of my favourite Racing games of this generation.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 undoes some of the freedom that the first game gave you. A common complaint of the first game was that people didn’t know what to do; they were confused because there was no main objective or story. But that’s what I liked about TDU. Instead, Eden Games have opted for a more structured experience where you earn licenses for Classes of Cars and then compete in Championships for each Class.

Another change from TDU is that they’ve added a storyline. There is a completely crazy storyline where you live in a world of extremely pompous rich people on the Island of Ibiza who, for some reason, are compelled to race in a Professional Racing league. It’s something that’s unfathomable and really corny. It feels like they are trying to slap you in the face with an extravagant rich lifestyle, as in an effort to force the feeling of “living the life” that the first game had, but TDU2 falls flat on its face in the process. In TDU you got that feeling just by driving and having the freedom to go wherever you wanted. Trying to force that on you has the opposite effect, and for me it diminished a little bit of that feeling of freedom that I had in the first game.

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However, as you progress, the mission structure opens up a little bit. One of the things I liked about TDU was that pretty much all of the challenges were unlocked from the get go. You didn’t have to go in any specific order. As long as you had a car that met the vehicle restriction of the event (some events didn’t even have a restriction), and you had discovered the event by driving by its location, you could participate in it. In TDU2, there aren’t any events that you discover just by driving around. They are given to you based on how much progress you have in the game thus far.

One of the clever things that this game does do is it has timed events around the map that expire (you may have 5-10 minutes to get to an event before it expires), and they force you to explore parts of the world map that you haven’t driven to yet. It’s a natural way to unlock roads (which gives you the ability to fast travel to them later), and helps you increase your character’s discovery level, which in turn does help you unlock certain locations. For example, you can’t fly to Oahu (the Hawaiian Island from TDU), until your character’s overall level reaches 10. You can completely ignore these events, but you can also decide to start doing them at a whim as there are always a handful of these events active on the map at any one time. I think it’s a good way to give choice to the player in terms of how they want to tackle earning money in the game.

I do miss opening up the map in TDU and seeing hundreds and hundreds of items on the map, and feeling like there’s so much to do. TDU2 does feel limited in this regard. You slowly earn the ability to compete in events, and sometimes it can be frustrating. Early on, I backed myself into a corner by buying an A-class car that I wasn’t able to use in any challenges I had unlocked. The only events open were B-class events, and I didn’t have money for a B-class vehicle. So I had to grind out the timed events around the map (which return significantly less money than a Championship) before I could earn enough money to buy a B-class car. This wouldn’t happen in the open mission structure of the first game, as I would be able to enter in A-class and unrestricted Races from the beginning. I understand why the change was made— having all of those events available from the start of the game was a little overwhelming for some people, but I felt like it just gave you a huge amount of choice of what you wanted to tackle. There was so much choice that you could spend 20 hours racing events that you wanted to get to right away, and after you were done with those, you could still have so much fun with other types of events or challenges.

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The handling in TDU2 is extremely twitchy on the default settings with every control input I’ve used (Keyboard and Wheel on PC, Controller on 360). Cars are not drivable with the default settings and it’s surprising that they shipped the game like this. There is also a huge dead zone by default which makes it very hard to make slight changes to your trajectory while going fast on a straight road to avoid traffic. However, the controls are something that can be tweaked in the control options to be usable. It works, but it’s no Gran Turismo or Forza. Once tweaked, I’d compare the controls more to Need for Speed Underground 2 or Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. The game feels like it should be an arcade racer, but the cars do have some realistic properties and you can feel the differences between different cars and the difference between driving on a paved road versus driving on dirt. Certain cars will slide around, and other cars will stick to the road well. It has a steeper learning curve than most arcade racing games. With Gran Turismo and Forza, you go into them expecting car handling like that, but it is something that could throw you for a loop in TDU2 until you get the hang of it.

The difficulty throughout TDU2 is uneven. Races against opponents are quite easy. You can crash and fall back to 8th place, and as long as there are more than a few minutes before the race ends, you can charge back into 1st place as if nothing had happened. It’s not necessarily a bad thing— one of the things I like about the TDU experience is that it’s not meant to be a stressful game. That being said, the time trials can get very difficult early on. I’m not a hardcore sim racer, but as someone who has played their fair share of racing games, I think the difficulty of the first few off-road time trials is extremely hard for the average gamer that will pick up this game, and it almost becomes not fun when you have to keep retrying an event over and over. To the game’s credit, you don’t have to finish first in a Championship to move on— if you just want to move on, you can finish all the events poorly, and the next Championship will be unlocked for you.

Also, regardless of the difficulty, I do think the physics and steering wheel force feedback shine in the off-road events. Playing this game with a Force Feedback wheel on off-road is pretty good— I felt like I was rally racer who was dealing with bumps and crevices on the road, and I had to slide into turns and quickly alternate between braking and accelerating to stay on the road, which was fun in its own right.

This game sends mixed messages— does it want to be a casual racer with all this “lifestyle” stuff they have in the game, or does it want to be a hardcore racer with the difficult time trials and off-road races? I think TDU did a better job at straddling the line between being accessible and being a hardcore racer; early on it was easy but as you got more experience and discovered the extremities of Oahu, there were more difficult races to challenge you.

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The social aspects of TDU2 are more fleshed out than its predecessor. The game does a better job at populating your instance of the world with more players around you. In TDU I found most of the players online with you were very far away from you, but in TDU2 the world feels a little more lively with real players being in your vicinity at all times, and there is always the ability to challenge those players to a race. And whenever you walk into a showroom, you’ll see other players mulling about shopping for cars as well.

TDU2 is an open world game, so I wouldn’t expect the graphics to look as good as Gran Turismo 5 or Forza 3. That being said, I think the environments can look really good at times. There are some issues with the level of detail in the distance being extremely low, and there have been some technical changes from the first game which I think are for the worse. There’s more noticeable pop-in in TDU2, and while there is a day and night cycle now in TDU2, the lighting looked better in the first game. TDU had high-dynamic range lighting which gave everything a photorealistic look. In TDU2 everything looks slightly more cartoonish. The cars themselves look okay. The initial cars that you drive are not very impressive, but once you get into an Aston Martin or a Ferrari, the interiors are very impressive and give Forza 3’s interiors a run for its money. For an open world game, the graphics do what they need to do. Visually, TDU2 holds up well on Xbox 360. On a PC, the graphics do look a little dated at the higher resolutions, but you have to remember that this an open world, MMO style game. If you compare it to games like World of WarCraft and DC Universe Online, it holds its own.

I still enjoyed racing around in TDU2 and winning Championships, but Eden Games did make some weird decisions. The inability to customize your avatar from the start of the game is mind-boggling since this game is billed as a Racing MMO. There are cosmetic shops that you can go to in the game to change your appearance, but it costs money. I picked the Asian character at the start of the game, but now I can’t modify that character’s skin tone. So I can’t make my avatar look like me, whereas I could in the original TDU. The inability to skip cutscenes is another head-scratcher. I’m sure a play test with a handful of people would have shown that no sane person would want to sit through the inane cutscenes in this game.

TDU2 could have easily been my favourite Racing game this generation if they didn’t do anything too stupid and had stayed close to the blueprint of TDU and just executed it better, but they veered off the track a little bit. It seems like they thought they tried to capture some sort of mainstream Sims or World of WarCraft audience, but that’s a silly thought. I’m not necessarily convinced that Racing is a niche genre, but the people who like Racing game games (whether they be simulation or arcade) are not the same people who like FarmVille or World of WarCraft— it’s such a different audience that the mix is really bad. That being said, if you can hold your breath early on with these pretty bad cutscenes and being forced initially to go through certain events, then I think you can find some fun in the game. TDU2 is slightly disappointing to me; I think it could have been so much more. But it’s still a solid Racer, and there is no other series this generation which does what this game does. I wish there was a Need for Speed, Forza or Gran Turismo which was open world and did the things that this game does, but there isn’t. So TDU2 still has its merits, and its place in the Racing genre.

It’s disappointing that this game couldn’t rise above the first game overall. I think there are certain things like graphics and the day/night cycle, that are better than the first game, but the mission structure and the forced cutscenes are pretty bad, and knock this game down. And it’s unfortunate, because there will be a lot of people who might not be familiar with the first game and jump into TDU2, but could be very turned off by the silly cutscenes early on.