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Preview: Test Drive Unlimited 2

Test Drive Unlimited 2 is due in about a month. I've had my hands on some beta code for a couple of days, exploring the racing-meets-affluence world of high-fliers. So if you'd be so polite as to click on, you can hear my early-day thoughts on the matter.

How much racing do you want in a racing game? Test Drive Unlimited 2 looks like it’s gambling that the answer isn’t one hundred percent.

What’s striking as you play the opening of the game is that you start on your feet. After a rather nice surprise twist beginning, much of what you need to be doing is not focused on the roads, but rather on yourself. Who are you? Why are you racing at all? Are you wearing the right clothes to do it? Do you have the right haircut? And do you have the licenses necessary to be taking part at all?

The game will be split into four main sections, each with their own accompanying statistics and XP counters. There’s what I would imagine to be the core of the game – Competition. These are your races, your challenges. And many of them no longer exist in isolation. The concept is based around a televised racing tournament called Solar Crown, where groups of challenges combine to form championships. These might be straight races, or time trials, or attempts to zoom around the streets keeping your car over 55MPH.

This is essentially the game’s story mode, too. The show has a presenter, who will also nag you to improve your looks for better television. It looks like there will be much behind-the-scenes shenanigans, squabbles with fellow racers, and tarting it up to camera. Also included in Competition are the various Racing School qualifications, the Cups in which you can compete, and various multiplayer challenges and duels.

Next is Collection. This is all about owning stuff, and is the focus of TDU2’s emphasis on the importance of assets. Throw your Communist manifestos out of the window – to succeed here you’re going to have to spend. The more cars you own, the bigger your house (bearing in mind this time out you start in a pokey mobile home), your furniture, clothes, hairstyle and even – brrrrr – appearance with the game’s inclusion of cosmetic surgery, all adds up to define your Collection score.

Far more comfortable to think about is Discovery. This looks like it’s in place to encourage you to explore, giving you points for finding new roads and events, finding the game’s hidden wrecked cars, and taking photographs of various scenery based on a collection of out-of-focus shots you’re supposed to improve upon.

Finally there’s Social. And due to a series of unfortunate events with the European preview code, I’ve not managed to get my game to go online. So my Social score currently reads as, “Lonely”. Aw. Here you gain XP by making friends, forming Clubs, participating in various multiplayer games such as the cops and robbers feature, or taking part in co-op challenges. And finally, you can score through playing the Community Racing Center challenges – those set by other players in the game.

These four aspects combine to give your overall Global level, from 1 to 60. Oh, and I forgot to say: There’s three completely separate racing styles, Classic, Asphalt and Off-Road. In other words, there’s an awful lot to do.

Getting to do it, however, looks like it may be a little hindered. Taking a rather strange page from the Gran Turismo book, here you must pass a series of tests before being given your license to compete in any of the three racing styles. So that’s three separate driving exams before you’re ready to start the beginner challenges.

Clearly once passed you’ve a lot open to you, but this doesn’t mean you won’t be returning to the Driving Schools later. And maybe it’s my imagination, but I could swear that the instructor for the Classic school is DJ Atomica from Burnout: Paradise. It’s not fair to hold that against TDU2, but I could really do without that voice telling me how to drive ever again.

But what about the driving? Well, I’ve been playing preview code, and the game’s a month away, so it’s absolutely not fair to judge it at this point. Although I do have a concern. Steering at this point feels a little strange. Even with the analogue sticks of my 360 controller (my much preferred method for driving games now) you seem to steer in chunks, as if the car gets nudged on a central axis. This is more pronounced in the Classic racing, where you spend more time braking and calmly cornering, than in Off-Road’s skid-focused careering, and Asphalt’s handbrake-themed drift.

Oh, and if I’m listing niggles I’d love to see fixed before release, let’s have a quick chat about starting races. Anyone else developing a racing game should probably pay attention here too:

When we choose to start a race, what we want to do, more than anything else, is start a race. What we likely don’t want to do is see multiple camera angles of the car, be asked if we’re sure over and over, and only then sit through a countdown. TDU2 insists on these slow, drifting external views before every event, even when restarting after crashing on the first corner. It’s mystifying what they’re supposed to be for, each time driving me mad enough to hammer at everything in case there’s a secret key I’ve missed that will skip it all. By the time it’s counting down from 3 to start, in real life I’d have burned through my clutch and exploded the gearbox. Someone airdrop a hundred copies of Trackmania on the Eden studios immediately.

But enough complaining about an unfinished game. Let’s congratulate something. Clearly money is a huge part of the proceedings, and gathering it is your primary goal. Financial rewards come piling in for taking part in competitions, but there’s another way to top things up. As you make your way around the roads between events, near-misses, jumps and skids will score you points on your F.R.I.M meter. Each time the meter fills you earn a lump of cash, which you can ‘bank’, or risk losing by continuing to the next level. So yes, it’s The Weakest Link, but with driving. Each time you bump into something, you lose whatever you’d built up. It seems like a tremendously smart way of making the journey between events (which, incidentally, can be skipped entirely if you’ve been somewhere before) a lot more interesting.

What’s remarkable about what I’ve seen so far is the volume of things to do. At the start your options are kept pretty slim, but after only a couple of hours you’ll find huge areas of the Ibiza island smothered in challenges, stores, luxury homes and car dealerships. I’m not sure how much I’ll ever care about my haircut (and in the game), or the furniture in my house. I’m after a racing game, not The Sims. But it looks as though the way leveling will work means that even if you don’t focus on one of the four aspects, those that you do will contribute enough to see you rising through the ranks.

Clearly by not having played the online aspects at this point, I’m not getting anything close to a full impression of the game. Much of what TDU2 is about is flashing your lights at another player and instantly racing against them. Along with racing other players’ challenges, forming clubs, and so on. There’s an awful lot more to learn about this game. Which is something we’ll hopefully do next month when the game comes out.

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