It's built around indulgent escapism: expensive cars, snazzy haircuts, tropical islands and designer clothes. Whilst utterly materialistic, TDU2 is daftly addictive. Some players will balk at the game's peripheral activities, but its character development core is what separates it from its peers.
At its core, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a role-playing game more than it is a racing game. It's a trait that's almost certain to split players right down the middle, a Marmite effect if you will. But what's certain to be the game's Achilles' heel for most, is what makes us love it. Test Drive Unlimited 2 is not just another pseudo-simulator in an saturated genre, it's a journey of social interaction, character development, and, yes, a little bit of racing.
When it works, it's wonderful. Starting out in Ibiza (and eventually opening out into Hawaii), developers Eden Games give you the run of a full island to explore, race and, well, get your in-game avatar's hair styled. The result is a package that combines the interaction of a social MMO with a solid, if flawed, driving model. Unfortunately, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is not too hot on working.
We've held off reviewing Test Drive Unlimited 2 for a good week or so now as we've been unable to test some core elements of the experience. The online multiplayer has been a bit of a no-show thus far, likewise the online servers have been up and down like a jack-in-a-box. The game's always-on multiplayer is ingenious when it comes together, but we've spent so much of our time battling connectivity issues that it's hard to recommend the package in its current state. Atari's promising a patch within the next couple of weeks, but until then, expect a ropey ride.
Despite the issues though, developers Eden Games deserve credit for their blunt ambition. When the servers are online, TDU2 manages to marry its virtual world with racing emphatically well. Every road you drive upon is populated by other drivers, either going about their personal business or looking to challenge you. A quick flash of the head-lights and you can be in a high-stakes head-to-head within moments, then it's back into the virtual world and on your way. It's all so seamless, and Eden deserve enormous credit for managing to present such a magnitude of content without overloading the player.
There's a loose narrative depicting the action. You are an out-of-luck valet with dreams of a career racing cars. When handling the car of stuck-up Solar Crown competitor, Tess Vitory, you're given a shot and it all unravels from there. Frankly, the narrative is complete and utter nonsense, but it adds context to the racing and the rags-to-riches plot offers a good sense of character development as you progress through the campaign. Unfortunately the voice-acting and character design is borderline embarrassing, willing you to skip through the red-faced dialogue. You won't miss much if you do, but it's disappointing. And it's disappointing because Test Drive Unlimited 2 tries to capture every little essence of the race-car experience. From buying new cars and houses, to getting a trendy new hair-cut and splashing out on killer new threads — Test Drive Unlimited 2 tries extremely hard to build an attachment between you and your avatar. Where it fails to build an interesting cast around you, it succeeds in delivering a materialistic world of opportunities. There's a dark part inside of us that loves PlayStation Home, and so kitting out our character with a fancy pair of jeans, and buying a new house for them to live in is totally up our alley. The peripheral side-culture is going to get in the way of the driving experience for some people, but we love it. It's silly, but it packs the world with alternative activities and breaks up the action nicely.
Of course, the peripheral stuff is just a distraction to the game's core, which is obviously the racing. With a world reliant on twisty-turny roads and dodging traffic, TDU2's handling model is a little unusual. It's both heavy and twitchy, seemingly in a persistent feud with itself over what type of racer it wants to be. The Sports and Hardcore handling settings offer something a little more enjoyable, but it's never going to compete with more assured racers such as Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and Gran Turismo 5. Despite being on opposite ends of the spectrum, both rely on precise handling models strong enough to carry them through to their interim. TDU2's unlikely to keep you satisfied through to the conclusion of its grind-heavy campaign.
Which is a shame because there really is an enormous amount of content in Test Drive Unlimited 2. The game is structured into four sets of 15 levels (so 60 in total), which reward you for your competitive racing, collection, discovery and community achievements. Competitive racing is all about the game's single-player and multiplayer racing action, while collection encompasses the materialistic activities like buying clothes, cars, properties and haircuts. Community is all about taking part in multiplayer challenges, while social rewards you for interacting with other players and taking part in your Clubs.
Clubs are a bit like guilds in other MMOs, and it's where the multiplayer really shines. Teaming up with friends to take on the game's custom generated challenges, races and combative cop-chase events really adds a sheen to proceedings, which can be muddied when the servers inevitably capitulate. Assuming it gets fixed up, the core is good and is strengthened by a great underlying currency system that adds an impact to everything you do. Early adopters of the game will even get access to a full-blown casino side-game, that could easily hold up as a separate release if Eden wanted it to. It's brilliantly in-depth, if a little convoluted in places.
When the strain of the actual game can get a little too heavy, Eden's also managed to deliver one of the best looking open-world racing environments that's a joy to interact within. Strengthened by realistic weather and day-cycles, TDU2 offers a tour of paradise in-fitting with its materialistic tendencies.
While the game's hokey handling and peripheral activities will split players down the middle, we're also convinced there's a small niche itching for a game like Test Drive Unlimited 2. The game's enormous sand-box environment and ingrained character development properties offer something that's both unique and engrossing. Hopefully Atari can get it working as intended before the player-base decide to up-sticks and play something a little less flaky.