If you're the sort of racing game fan who's become bored with the hard lines that have been drawn over the years between single- and multiplayer gameplay, Test Drive Unlimited might just be what you're looking for. Take the picturesque Hawaiian island of Oahu, lots of licensed vehicles of varying pedigrees, and a game design that attempts to blend a persistent online world with the typical single-player experience, and what you get is an interesting take on what one might try to describe as a massively multiplayer online racer. Of course, that wouldn't be quite correct. As huge as the island of Oahu is, the online component of the game simply doesn't feel that massive, because the game limits how many online players can come in contact with you. There's also no hook, no overarching point to the game to tie together its string of races and missions, which might leave you wondering why you're even bothering with any of it. But despite these issues, you still find yourself sucked into Unlimited's sprawling world simply because it's such a cool concept, and though it doesn't deliver on every aspect of it, it gets enough right to be fun.
It's not the best racer for the Xbox 360, but Test Drive Unlimited is certainly a unique change of pace.
You start by picking a basic character model to represent yourself, and you're whisked away to fabulous Hawaii to buy a car and a house, do a lot of random racing, and drive hitchhikers and models around the island for some reason. 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, speed challenges, and some basic delivery missions, 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.
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. The missions are more repetitive, which come in only a few set categories. You'll either find yourself delivering illicit packages for seedy individuals, delivering some of the game's more expensive rides to dealerships and mechanics, delivering hitchhikers to their desired destinations, or delivering high-strung models to their homes after a long day of shopping. Basically, you're a delivery service no matter how you look at it, and the only variances are in what you're delivering, and occasionally what kind of car you're driving. Fortunately, the various races and challenges are quite a bit more compelling than these missions. However, you don't earn nearly as much cash just sticking to the races, so you'll likely be inspired to put up with the monotony of the missions.
Why? Because without cash, you can't buy any of the game's numerous cars, houses, clothes, or upgrades. Obviously, the big draw is the cars, and there are over 90 licensed cars and motorcycles 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, and you can likely expect even more to be made available via the Xbox Live Marketplace at some point. Paying more for new cars isn't the most ideal scenario, but at a less-than-full-retail-price $40 price tag for the game, it's a little bit easier to swallow.
Building up a car collection is key, as you'll need at least one car from each of the available A-through-G 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. You can also spend credits you earn from the hitchhiker and model missions on clothes for your character. Though it's not as if you stare at your character much while you're driving, there are enough cutscenes in the game to where it sort of makes sense to be able to dress up your driver in some new threads.
All of the different missions, races, car collections and other buyable items play into the game's achievements, which in turn, play into your driver level. As you level up through the game, you get access to more and more races and missions, and you level up specifically by getting achievements. The achievements themselves are nicely tied into the main game structure, so by completing all the races and missions, and collecting hefty amounts of cars, real estate and clothing along the way, you'll gain the vast majority of the game's 1,000 points. Of course there are a few that require you going a bit out of your way, like covering 5,000 miles of road, for instance, but you should still have plenty of points once you've seen and done all the main objectives the game has to offer.
There's a ton of races and missions in the game, though the variety of objectives is smaller than you might prefer.
Other ways to earn money involve the online component of the game. You can tap into the online audience by creating your own custom race challenges for them to take part in, or by selling your cars via the online trading market. Buying and selling cars is exceptionally simple; all you have to do is jump into the trade menu when you're in one of your houses, and buy and sell accordingly. You can set prices however you like, though you'll likely want to judge the market for your particular brand of car before trying to price gouge people with that Volkswagen Golf you have no use for. Creating challenges is a bit more involved a process. With this feature, you can map out a course of just about any length using all the available roads on the island. You can set all sorts of arbitrary rules, like time limits, whether or not the driver is relegated to the cockpit camera view, and whatnot, and you can also set entry fees and awards. Of course, the trick is that the awards are taken from your bank account, so you'll want to be careful with how much cash you're dishing out. Fortunately, there's also a time limit for how long a custom challenge can sit on the servers, so you're not destined to get gouged by people forever. You will, however, be able to access your custom challenges within your own game for however long you like.
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. 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 player match or a ranked 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 just about every race hub, though mostly for player matches. Ranked matches have been decidedly fewer in quantity. 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.