By Alec Meer on June 1st, 2010 at 10:47 pm.
Cheap Punning Rule #48 – if in doubt, tautology. What other Cheap Punning Rules do you know, beautiful readers?
Anyway, the point: Atari has opened up beta signups for its driving/infinite wealth MMO Test Drive Unlimited 2. You should sign up. Why? Because the first TDU was by and large excellent, exploring fascinating and fundamental concepts of virtual-world existence that the vast bulk of MMOs simply ignore. Those being self-indulgence, posing and being completely free of responsibility. Allow me to explain why below.
TDU on PC suffered some pretty big technical problems in terms of its multiplayer element (something the reviews, on beta servers, were sadly unable to document fully), but hopefully that’s in hand for the upcoming sequel. Again, you can sign up for the closed beta here – no word on when it will start, but as the game is due to launch on 21 September, it can’t be too far off.
I haven’t tried TDU2 myself, but the first took my fancy to a degree I really didn’t expect. To prove as much, here’s my review for PC Gamer from way back in 2007 – free from scores, boxouts et al. I’ve managed to fight the urge to edit it, as though it could definitely do with a polish, fact-check and modernisation, it’s perhaps better to leave it as a record of how I felt about the game at the time, rather than how I feel about something I wrote three years ago. Take it away, 27-year-old me…
Welcome to the world’s first obscene wealth simulator. Sure, one in every two games involve collecting cash, but nothing else sees you lavish a sickeningly huge amount of money on yourself like this driving semi-MMO. It’s the tale of amassing massive riches during a privileged, unemployed life on the beautiful Hawaiian island of O’ahu, then spending all said riches on cars. Endless, endless cars.
By way of example, here’s an average day in my character’s life. First thing in the morning, I wander down to his cavernous garage and idly choose which one of the eight incredibly expensive cars there I’ll take out today. A Ford GT chosen, I head off to the middle of nowhere, where a mysterious benefactor inexplicably pays me $20,000 to perform three laps of a circuit encompassing busy public roads. During it, I hit a Hawaiian resident driving a utility vehicle of some sort.
Presumably, this unfortunate working joe desperately needs that truck to make a living. It doesn’t matter anymore; it’s totalled by some millionaire foreigner, who heads off into the distance at 160 MPH with nary a backward glance. Even if he’s somehow still alive, the poor bloke’s life is as good as over. There’s not even a scratch on my car. A couple more collisions later, the police finally catch up to me. A hot lady cop frowns at me from behind aviator shades. Three very probably fatal hit’n’runs, plus high-speed evasion in a 35MPH zone – this isn’t going to go well. But… $2,000. That’s what it takes to clear my name; I can earn that in a second. It’s pocket-change. God bless the 50th state.
To celebrate avoiding a jail sentence yet again, I decide to buy something. But what? I know – a car! There’s a problem – I’m out of space in my garage. So, I just buy another house (my fourth, in fact) – I don’t need the house itself, just the garage, to keep more cars in. Cars, cars, lovely /cars./ Briefly, I visit the new house. I sit in the lounge, on my own, idly twirling an empty glass of water while I think about /cars,/ watching a giant television set, which forever loops images of /cars/. The only signs that someone actually lives in this house are some magazines on the coffee table, all about /cars/. I pick up the phone and make a five-second call; I can’t remember what I said or to whom, but I’m pretty sure it was about /cars/. Friendship, food, love – none of these matter. There is only /cars./
Being a game is an entirely secondary motivation to Test Drive Unlimited’s existence – its true raison d’etre is collecting, driving, showing off and staring longingly at cars. It’s a very specific kind of porn – and it’s also quite brilliant. While something like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport on the consoles appeals to the same auto-fetishistic mindset, all they really allow a player to do with their archive of beautiful vehicles is race them, again and again. TDU presents a dramatically broader experience: it’s about enjoying your cars as treasured personal property.
So, you get a huge island to roam at will, peppered with car showrooms and garages to feed your addiction with and long, quiet roads to take your purchases to the very limit on. That alone wouldn’t sufficiently evoke the luxury car experience – so, TDU joins, if you want it to, a persistent online world. That way, there are other people around, to brag to, to argue about preferred makes with, to challenge to impromptu drag races, and to form ultra-exclusive car clubs with. Racing, the mechanic that progresses the game and grants you those untold riches, is very much only the means – the end is the cars themselves.
The racing, both online and offline, is nevertheless an essential element, but though decent hasn’t received quite as much attention as the openness of the giant island has. TDU is about one third sim, two thirds arcade racer, which makes for a cartoonier feel than the lush tropical graphics belie. It’s certainly got its kicks, but it relies on its players being more into car aesthetics than meticulous mechanical knowledge.
Still, there’s room for careful consideration come race day. Success, especially in online bouts, isn’t always born of having the best car, but rather the right car. Your rival’s Camaro might have more horsepower than you, but if bitter experience has taught you that it doesn’t take sharp corners well, then you know your lesser-powered steed has the edge nevertheless. Each car has a barrage of stats to pore over, but really you won’t understand what it is and isn’t suited to until you’ve burned up a few miles of coastal highway with it. With an insanely large roster of cars (and a few motorbikes to boot) to buy from, not all of which are always in stock in the many showrooms, there’s always some fresh curveball to shake your complacent faith in your own abilities, and always some new shiny-shiny to lust uncontrollably after.
Rarely do you get an open road to hare around, but rather the streets are lined with slow-moving AI traffic – it’s the weaving, braking and stickshifting of town driving, but at five times the speed. The traffic’s not stupid either – NPCs will try to get off the road if you’re headed straight for them, they’ll stop at lights and indicate, and even have their own accidents sometimes. They do some ridiculous things on occasion, like turning right into you, but certainly create the seed of a living world for the online stuff to then nurture further.
There is, however, a price paid in trying to appeal equally to both the GTR and Need For Speed sets. If this were only a racing game, it’d be a merely average one – the overdone stiffness of some cars and the lack of scope to pull off some really artful moves makes it a slightly hollow experience at times. Again though, TDU isn’t really about the racing – it’s about car ownership, and thus how each vehicle feels rather than performs is the priority here.
Though far from realistic, each vehicle handles, reacts and even sounds palpably different to the last – take a Jag E-type out on the road and you’ll know it’s a classic car just by the steely roar of the engine. There’s a reasonably irritating fly in the antifreeze though, in that the licensed cars are, at the stern behest of their manufacturers, entirely indestructible. You can absolutely trash the poor NPC saps on the road (their vehicles are familiar-looking fabrications), but every player is driving something from another universe. This isn’t TDU’s fault, and to have plumped for damageable replicas instead would have halved its appeal, but it adds a slight surreality that takes the edge off all the attention to detail. Partly, that’s because the robustness of the cars, the openness of the world and the total lack of concern for human life gives TDU something of a GTA vibe, so hitting a lamp post at 160 MPH and coming to an immediate halt with neither car nor post so much as scratching their paint feels pretty weird.
It’s particularly aggravating when this happens mid-race. Laboriously reversing away from the unyeilding pole you’ve hit takes ages, usually losing you the contest, and simply doesn’t feel in keeping with your car’s ability to survive a 10 foot drop unscathed. There’s an inherent conflict at TDU’s heart. It’s both a game in which you can get away with ludicrous cartoon stunts and one in which you should be a faultless driver who would never, ever have hit that post in the first place. Once again, it stems from the difference between racing and driving. The game’s almost more designed for you to cruise around streets, stopping at lights and sticking to the speed limit – just enjoying your car. The driving is in real-time, so a 60 mile cruise (a mere fraction of O’ahu’s tarmacked girth) sticking to the speed limit will take around an hour. It’s Microsoft Flight Simulator for cars.
Though the huge playground means this works remarkably well as a single-player game, it’s the online element that elevates TDU from interesting experiment to actual triumph. The races are so much more compelling when you’re thrashing a real person who thought he was better than you, while losing means you both don’t get any money but it actually goes to your rival. Even on the smallest scale it makes a massive difference – if there’s someone watching, you’ll likely pull a dramatic handbrake turn to change direction rather than a careful three-pointer.
Or, if you’re taking a casual Sunday drive and someone suddenly burns by you, you’re a stronger man than I if you can resist the urge to chase them down. Because spontaneous bouts of playful or angry dodgems with strangers are so common, the indestructibility of the cars becomes a boon at times. After all, player-killing in a game where losing could cost you $600,000 would be horrendous.
Hopefully, most players will adopt the in-game voice comms. It’s fascinating to hear in-game banter and smack talk between other players, or just to wind your window down and bellow “bogies!” at passing motorists. When there’s real folk about, the laughable emptiness of your character’s life whenever he’s not driving doesn’t matter any more. He might only think about cars, but you can idly chat about life, love and Battlestar Galactica with the rest of your Ferraris-only Club.
Though there’s clothes and houses to buy, cars to modify and custom races to create, TDU is much more a place to be than a place to play. Fortunately, it also does a fine job of convincing you you’re a fabulously wealthy bastard with a whole island as your vehicular playground. TDU’s MMO elements are admittedly slight compared to quest’n’kill fare, but it’s nevertheless the greatest advancement of the driving-a-pretend-car concept in years.