Late last year, Atari and developer Eden Studios released Test Drive Unlimited for the Xbox 360. Purportedly the first "massively open online racing" game, Unlimited provided you with a wide-open setting (the Hawaiian island of Oahu), a myriad of slick rides, tons of different races to take part in, and an online mode that actually let you occupy the same basic driving space as other online players and challenge them in competition. Not everything the game did on the 360 worked brilliantly, but it was an inventive and unique piece of technology that was impressive in its own right. Now the game has come to the PlayStation 2, and it'd be understandable if you doubted whether the game could hold up on a system that isn't nearly as powerful as the 360. However, while a number of assorted features have been axed in this version, most of those were superfluous elements. The core driving mechanics, hot rides, and online mode are all intact, and while you can't quite call the PS2 version a great driving game, it's still an impressive piece of work on its own merits.
If nothing else, Test Drive Unlimited is a nice change of pace from the typical batches of cheesy street racers and hardcore driving sims.
As the game starts, you're whisked away to fabulous Hawaii to buy a car and a house, and do a lot of random racing. That's about all there is to the premise. While it's not shocking that a racing game wouldn't have a major, in-depth storyline, the way the game introduces itself and the open-ended nature of the game world give you the impression that there might be some kind of plot to tie everything you do together. There isn't. The lack of a cohesive thread to the missions and races does make Test Drive seem a bit pointless, but after a while, you cease to care and find yourself oddly engaged by this scattershot series of objectives. It helps that there is quite a lot to do on the island. The objectives themselves don't extend beyond races, time trials, and speed challenges, but there are enough of them to keep you going as you explore the massive island of Oahu.
The way the game forces you to explore is clever. You start out with only a few available mission icons on the huge world map, but as time goes on, you'll see more and more begin to pop up across the entire stretch of the island. If you happen to have driven through a road where an objective resides, you can simply click on that icon on the map and be instantly transported there. But if an icon appears on a road you've never driven on before, you have to drive there to access it. What this does is force you to cruise through just about every nook and cranny of Oahu without being overly pushy about it. There's often more than enough races and missions available at any given time, so if you don't feel like driving halfway across the island to see something new, you won't necessarily be hurting for things to do right where you already are. Your minimap will automatically target whatever the closest available race is, but you can pretty much go wherever you feel like.
It's just too bad there's not more variety to what you end up doing. Races are fairly typical street races, with up to seven opponent drivers and a number of checkpoints scattered throughout a course. There's a huge roster of them to take part in on various roads that range from hairpin-filled hill climbs to straight-and-narrow city races. There's also the time trials, as well as the speed challenges, which task you either with driving a set speed past a number of speed traps laid about a course, or simply reaching a designated speed within a set amount of time. One way the PlayStation 2 version of the game is different than its Xbox 360 predecessor is that it is devoid of all the mission-based challenges. You won't find yourself driving models or hitchhikers around the island, nor will you end up delivering packages for seedy criminal types or expensive cars to repair shops. Those missions weren't exactly the highlight of the 360 game, so their absence isn't entirely a detriment to the PS2 version. This version does include a new series of race challenges that are basically a championship series of races for each car class and race type. While something to add a little more variety to the proceedings would have been nice, at least you won't feel like you're getting the short end of the content stick with this version.
Lack of variety aside, you'll be inclined to take part in as many races as possible, because those races earn you credits. Without credits, you can't buy any of the game's numerous cars, houses, or upgrades. Obviously, the big draw is the cars, and there are a wide variety of sports cars (classic and new) available in the game. From basic rides like Volkswagens, Chryslers, and Chevys to more exotic models of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Aston Martins, there are plenty of available cars. However, the PS2 version doesn't have any motorcycles available, though again, the motorcycles weren't one of the best parts of the 360 game, so losing them doesn't hinder the game much.
Building up a car collection is key, as you'll need at least one car from each of the available A-through-E car classes, since at one point or another, you'll encounter races that require cars from these specific classes. Some races also require very specific cars, but if you don't want to buy them, there are rental agencies that will give you access to those cars for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. To house all your rides, you'll find yourself buying real estate throughout the island. Each house has its own look, but more importantly includes at least a four-car garage, if not higher. The houses don't have a ton of purpose beyond acting as basic hub levels and as a storage area for cars, but they're a nice touch all the same.
The online driving audience is obviously a big draw of Test Drive Unlimited, since so much of the multiplayer functionality has just been built into the basic gameworld. There is no quick-and-dirty multiplayer menu to jump into to find a match. You will have to log in to the online servers every time you boot up the game (and scroll through the exceedingly lengthy online agreement every time), but that's it. Every designated multiplayer race appears as an icon on the map just like the offline races, and at each race you'll find the option to jump into a match with any other players hanging out at that race. It's a little bit more convoluted than a standard menu system, since you might have to scan the various online race icons on the map, trying to find a race to get into, but in our testing, we found a decent number of competitors at several of the race hubs. It's probably also worth mentioning that Test Drive Unlimited doesn't offer any kind of single-console multiplayer, so if you want to play against friends, it'll have to be online.
If you prefer simply driving the open roads to sticking to predetermined courses, you also have the option of tracking down other players free riding around the city. This is where the whole MMOG comparison comes in (or as the game refers to it, MOOR, or massively open online racing), as players driving around the city are very visible to you while you're not engaged in a race or mission, and if you happen upon any rival online drivers, you can challenge them to a quick race for cash and ranking points. All you have to do is flash your headlights at them, and they can choose to accept or decline the challenge; if they accept, you just pick a finish line somewhere away from where you're currently situated, and race to the end.