Test Drive Unlimited: Review

At first, it seems as though you’ll be playing and loving Test Drive Unlimited for days on end. Unfortunately, the novelty wears off pretty quick and it simply keeps dishing out helpings of the same old.

The Good: Car models look great and the picturesque island setting is stunning. Lots of races and missions to keep you busy. Massive free-roaming environment lets you drive for literally hours on end. Seamless online integration is pretty neat but not as great as it sounds.

The Bad: The majority of the car engine sounds are really bad. Handling is wonky, very hard to get used to from car-to-car and often results in you flying off the road or driving straight into a head-on collision. Online servers have been down pretty often. Marketplace for trading cars hardly ever works. Very repetitious. Overall, the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

Test Drive Unlimited

I was never really excited about Test Drive Unlimited, but when the demo came out I found myself playing it for 30-40 minutes at a time. I must have spent a good 3-4 hours on the demo alone. I rented it the day it came out and played it quite a bit over the first couple days. I felt it was worth a purchase so I returned the rental and bought a retail copy. About a week later, I find myself wishing I hadn’t and wanting to trade it in. What happened? Let’s discuss…

First, a bit of the basics. You’re on a Hawaiian island and you have over 1000 miles worth of road at your disposal. You can drive anywhere you please and stop at selected shops and dealerships along the way to purchase new clothing and vehicles. As you explore, you open up access to new races and missions. The races are your standard 8 contender race, time trial and speed traps. While missions are basically Point A to Point B in a specified time while taking minimal damage.

The coolest aspect of the game is the online integration. You’re online all the time. As you’re playing, you’ll encounter other players and have the ability to join races with other groups of players or challenge someone specifically and put some money on the table. Now, you don’t see everyone that’s in your vicinity. In fact, you’ll see far less people that you would expect to. But you will come across other players from time to time. As you play, you’ll collect cars, bikes and homes to store you vehicles. If for some reason you want to get rid of a vehicle, there’s an online marketplace where you can list your vehicle for whatever price you want and if someone is in the market, they’ll buy it. But you don’t get your money until it’s sold. I bought my second car this way and ended up saving $60 off the dealer price. Unfortunately, the marketplace hasn’t worked for me for over a week now. I’ve had friends report the same.

You can customize your vehicles with preset performance packages (1 through 3) and change the paint via 2 paint shops on the island. In other words, vehicle customization is very weak and leaves a lot to be desired. Especially since so many other players will see your car, they really should have put more into the customization end of things to allow players to have the most unique rides possible. You can also customize your characters clothing and physical appearance. The latter is very limited, but there’s a decent variety in the clothing that’s available.

Visually, TDU is extremely beautiful. The island setting is quite pretty – the sky in particular. Vehicle models are very detailed, outside and in. The in-car camera is one of the best I’ve seen in racing games. You have the option to adjust the seat position which affects your dashboard vs. road ratio. One thing that kind of bugged me about the in-car view, like Project Gotham Racing 3, you can’t invert the y-axis when you’re looking around. Drives me nuts! But the main complaint I have in this department is the lack of vehicle damage. This to me, is a massive, massive disappointment. As pretty as these high class cars are, I want to see some broken glass and missing doors. Bumpers flying off would be nice, too. Hell, I’d settle for dents! You experience some sick wrecks in TDU… cars flying through the air, landing sideways and dirt getting kicked up all over the place. But when it’s all said and done, your car is still shiny and new. Lame.

The sound overall is pretty awful. I first noticed this in the demo while driving the Ferrari F430. Being my favourite car in PGR3, I’ve spent a lot of time “driving” it. Needless to say, I hardly recognized it when I jumped in the driver seat in TDU. It reminded me of how cars sounded in the 16-bit era. Gross, to say the least. The muscle cars sound even worse. I picked up an old Camaro and wanted to trade it in after only a few races as I couldn’t stand the sound of it. The voice-overs are also pretty bad. There’s 2 main voices you hear a lot. The male announcer who counts down races, etc. and your GPS lady. Both sound like over-eccentric infomercial spokespeople. The menu and cutscene music is as you would expect now knowing what the announcers sound like. Somewhere in between easy listening, adult contemporary and elevator music. It seems to me like there could have been a lot of old white guys on the development team.

The reason I can’t play TDU any longer is the vehicle handling. I simply can’t grasp it. I’m not sure what it is… I’ve played my share of driving games (PGR3, Burnout Revenge and Need for Speed Most Wanted on the 360 alone) and never had any problem controlling my vehicles. But I never felt like I was actually in control while playing TDU. After you get to the Expert level, you unlock some really big races. Super long and lots of reward money. When I say super long, I’m talking 15-20 minutes is pretty common. There are a couple that will take you close to an hour to complete. There’s no way I would even attempt a race like this knowing that at any moment my car could totally spin out and I’d have to start over. In any of the previously mentioned games however, I wouldn’t think twice. The first couple cars I had were ok (C and D Class) but once I got up to B and A Class cars, it all went to hell. It’s almost as though the cars can go a hell of a lot faster, but the handling mechanics haven’t been upgraded with the horse power.

This afternoon I went to my local EB Games to trade it in. They offered me $17, so obviously I still have it. I might pop it back in while I’m waiting for my auction to end, but I doubt it. The best advice I can give is to rent the game and play it for the full 5 days (or however long you have it for) before passing judgement. I was totally stoked on this game for the first 3 days or so, then it suddenly got boring and tedious.

Rating: 3/5

Test Drive Unlimited

16 Responses to “Test Drive Unlimited: Review”

  1. I was pretty stoked on the demo as well, but after reading this, I'm glad I spent my money on a copy of NHL '07 instead. It should keep me entertained for a good couple of months…

  2. Ohh, I love me a nice car game.. the always online thing sounds pretty cool but I'd get fed up with the crappy handling awfully quick too. And I need realistic sounds I can't have 2 different cars sounding the same.. just rubs me the wrong way.

  3. I think Matt that the game has kinda missed the mark of what you were expecting, PGR3 meets Need For Speed, TDU was never really billed as that. It's more of a cruising game where you can turn around and buy your McLaren F1's, your Enzo's and simply cruise around online and do a few races from time to time.

    It's not a game where you can just bury the throttle in any car, blast towards the horizon and win comfortably. You have to play the game a lot closer to how you drive in real life. I've done the big Millionaire's Tour a few times now and every time I drive it I pick up a new technique or adapt my style of driving for the situation I have infront of me. Lots of cars ahead, back off the throttle, slip it into 4th and sit behind the traffic till there is a gap which I can fit through, bury the throttle and then slip back in when it gets busy again. Got a crest coming up, back off, you don't know whats on the other side why go over it at 200mph?

    I don't really see where people get the crappy handling part from, certainly it's different to Need for Speed, PGR3 and Gran Turismo in that it isn't an arcade nor is it an out and out simulation. TDU lies in the middle ground, turn off the driving aids, crank up the steering sensitivity and spend some time learning one particular car through and through. I picked up a TVR Sagaris as my first purchase after the Audi TT, put 200 miles on it in the first few hours, it really helped me to learn not just that car but the way the car physics work. I'm not a fan of the PGR3 way of driving, it's too unrealistic, TDU is a nice balance. Chuck GTR into your PC and have a bash with a real sim game (Forza and Gran Turismo aren't a patch on GTR) you'll see how high performance cars are meant to handle, now play TDU and you'll see a lot of similarities, it's just toned down quite a few notches.

    As for the servers, well Atari have said on their forums that they are working on a new update to fix the trade problem (it's turned off because if you put a car up for e-sale and then sell the house the car is in your game save corrupts), and quite frankly simulating the 100,000's of people jumping on to servers in one big go isn't something that is really feasible. Look at all the MMORPG games, how many server problems did they have starting up? The only MMORPG on the 360, Final Fantasy, charges a hefty fee every month, TDU doesn't, I can put up with the odd problem which to be honest has gotten a lot better the past few days. It's only at peak times when things go to crap.

  4. @Paul: You'd definitely have a problem with TDU then. Same as me, just can't let it go.

    @Stewart: Thanks for the great feedback! I think the biggest problem I have is that I realize you can't just floor it and expect to be able to hit every turn. That's not feasible in any situation. But you have to drive extremely fast for a lot of the missions while taking little to no damage. When feel like you don't have full control of your vehicle, this simply isn't fun. And that's where I've been stuck with it. I've got all this stuff to do, about 8 cars and 3 bikes in my garages and I've put in tons of time experimenting with the driving aids and steering sensitivity and am still having trouble with it. Maybe it's too much of a learning curve? Whatever the case, I feel that I've put in sufficient time to learn the mechanics of the vehicles and am still not comfortable with them.

    There's a balance between realism and fun that's hard to nail and I feel that TDU has missed that mark. I've never driven a high performance vehicle so I don't know how they handle. I imagine it would take hours on end to really get a feel for an F430 before you're at the point where you could drive around a track without smoking the wall or spinning out. If I had a Ferrari in real life, you bet your ass I'd be willing to put that time in to learn it back to front. But we're talking about a video game here. To me, more than a few hours learning curve is unacceptable.

    Lastly, I meant to touch on the direction of the game, or lack there of. The most fun I've had is just cruising around the island and exploring. It's when I started really getting into challenges that I got bored with it. Unfortunately, you don't earn any money just cruising (except for those transport challenges that are few and far between) so that gets tired quick as well.

    I don't know – maybe I expected something different? In any case, TDU isn't fun and the fun factor is one of the most important to me these days. I have enough stress and do enough tedious tasks on a day-to-day that I don't need to spend my leisure time doing the same. Perhaps I'll give TDU a try again when the racing wheel comes out. Or maybe I'll just wait for Forza 2.

  5. I agree with Stewart – Infact what sold me on the game was a post on the xbox forums where people were talking about how relaxing the game was. Just cruising around and driving like how you would in real life.

    I would only recommend this game to someone who loves driving.

    However Matt I agree its weak in many areas, I was realy dissapointed with the "Car customization" features. What's the point of selling a car on a market place when anyone could easily get the same car.

    If this game had the customization level as Forza racing I could see the value of wanting to go pay more money in game for a tuned car.

    Anyway, its a buy for me – and if anything I think its a step in the right direction for racing games as well as xbox360 connected games. I love the passive MMO model, that was some real innovation.

  6. Crap forgot to say this regards to the car sounds — yea some sound pretty weak.. but some sound really awesome. Buy the Skyline – I love the sound of the super charger (maybe it was a turbo… hard to tell when its just a STAGE3 UPGRADE GRRR!) kicking in. Plus the Sagaris sounded really cool too.

    However the muscle car sounds were an insult to the v8 engine:)

  7. I definitely agree with your review. I downloaded the demo and I've played it twice – it's OK. There are definitely some cool things about it. However, after playing it (and even during) I can't help but think "holy cow, I am totally just wasting my time on this."

    Oddly enough, it's the same feeling I got playing the last two Driver games, both of which were also by Atari. It's as though your mind just enters a void of bad sound and mediocre visuals, and you just get stuck there. Suddenly, you snap back to reality and realize you just spent hours doing nothing.

  8. We were shooting messages back and forth on Live (I still need to race you man). Anyways, I'd give it a slightly higher rating.

    Personally, I'm used to in-car from PGR3, but I find myself switching between that and 3rd person depending on the car / race. Bikes I must race in 3rd, cars it depends on the course (like uphills I just cant pull it off).

    Overall, I'm having a blast just driving around with friends. Some things have been irritating, like server related, but I don't think Atari believed this game would be as popular has it has become. I hear they are working on upgrading their servers, which should help.

  9. I also just purchased it – I like the look of it however I do agree the handling is a bit of a thing to get used to, however it appeals to me. So far, I like the handling of the Merc's pretty good. 😀

  10. I must say that I fall somewhere in between both Matt and Stewart. With Matt I agree that the game has some learning curves. And with Stewart, I agree that the "laid-back" attitude is refreshing. One thing no one mention (maybe I missed it) was the speed to motion ratio. Not sure if it's just me, but has anyone else noticed that while zooming along at about 180mph that the landscaping doesn't quite seem in sync with real-life speeds? I can't put my finger on it, but something just doesn't add up. I look at the spedometer and the distance left to a checkpoint and I swear I should be getting there faster. Does anyone agree or disagree with this?

  11. Yes i totally agree, the handling in this game is really bad. I'm driving my car down the street and as soon as i speed up CRASH i'm already lodged into a tree. Really frustrating!

  12. The reason they didn't put damage in is because it pisses people off when after every race you have to repair your car at a cost. The broken police chase system is enough to deal with 😉

  13. Try playing TDU on PC with a Logitech Driving Force GT wheel. Using the wheel feels incredible, and you’ll never want to go back to the pad. It is still one of the best driving games for the money if you can find it after all these years, and it works fine on Windows 10!