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I’ll be honest – I didn’t expect this to be this good. The Test Drive name lost its lustre long ago, and all the hype surrounding the Hawaiian setting, the freeform exploration and the luxury sports car angle – not to mention an unimpressive demo circa E3 – had me thinking ‘nice gimmicks, nice cars, nice eye-candy, but where’s the game?” How wrong I was. To my mind, Test Drive Unlimited is the first real next-generation racing game. It’s not a polished update of a PS2 or Xbox title, nor is it last year’s game in HD with added motion blur. Instead, it’s a new experience, and one that gets better the more hours you put in.
Sometimes, Test Drive Unlimited feels like the world’s first Massive Multiplayer Online Racing Game, other times it feels like an exotic lifestyle simulator, but one thing it never feels is ordinary. In other racing games you spend your time collecting cars, here you’re collecting plush beachfront property (even if you’re only doing it for the additional garage space). In other racing games you might spend money on a new custom paintjob with which to decorate your motor. Here you’re spending clothing tokens at Ben Sherman or Ecko on new threads with which to decorate yourself. And why sweat over turbo chargers or balanced fuel injection systems, when you could be pondering whether you belong in a chilled-out lounge bar or a poolside lounger? It’s never easy to pick the right club.
Luckily, the game starts you off with more fundamental choices: the right face, the right house, and the right car. After that it’s time to start exploring, and it rapidly becomes clear why TDU is so very special. The island of Oahu is a magnificent achievement, though Eden Studios should probably share some of the credit with Mother Nature herself. I have no idea how close its towns, cities, gorgeous coastal scenery and rugged mountainous interior are to the real thing, but it certainly feels like a real place, and far more so than Project Gotham’s empty facsimiles or Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s urban sprawls. It helps that the streets and roads are bustling with other traffic, and it’s only the lack of pedestrians that gives the game away. The effect is so compelling that there are times when you’re tempted to stop and give way at junctions, making this the first game in history where you reach for a non-existent indicator button. Meanwhile, a mini-map, definable waypoints and an instant travel option make it surprisingly easy to find your way around. Good, as doing so is essential if you want to uncover the full range of showrooms, shops and challenges.