Test Drive Unlimited

FBT lives the dream

I avoid dedicated Driving games - I'm a strictly Carmageddon, Driver, Saints Row and GTA driver; games where I can go off road and over pedestrians. I can’t stand track-games, winning by going round in circles. I want my car to be a weapon. And I really can’t stand the idea of Driving Sims; why would I digitally behave? TDU seemed like GTA without the GT. But I’ve come to accept I’ll never own a Bugatti Veyron, so the closest I’ll get is a game like TDU, putting me behind a wheel I’ll never afford.

Doesn’t even look like I’ll get to drive a digital Veyron. TDU is, or was, bolted to Gamespy and once that went, so did the servers and ability to connect. Although TDU can play offline, it was very insistent about being logged into Gamespy, warning “you won’t be able to finish the game completely”. Well that sucks. Luckily, I’ll never be good enough to reach the end anyway.

We open with a nice little scene-setter – picking my character from a passport line, I’m flown to Hawaii to rent a low-end car then purchase a house. No reason, no backstory, no further plotting. We literally have $ to spend and time to fill. With what I have left I pick my first car (should not have bought the most expensive house) - a dinky Golf R32. If I squint it kinda looks like a Veyron.

Although the map is open, I can only trigger missions/races by discovering them. It’s kinda like a car-based Skyrim, heading out and discovering things. I put my foot down and … nothing. Turns out I have to turn the key with a separate button, something that will constantly infuriate me as I get into it. The first icon I discover is a Ben Sherman shop – at first I assumed product placement but I can actually visit and buy clothes. I’m not racing for Ben Sherman shirts. I consider rage quitting but you can’t really rage quit in a Golf, and once I zoom into the map I realise there is a lot to do here; challenges, races, missions, plus dozens of very posh looking houses and what seems like hundreds of cars. Everything way out of my price range. I have a purpose. This really is feeling like an RPG but instead of bringing peace or justice to the land I’m buying it up like some tax-dodging absent landlord who gets his Veyron towed and just buys another one. There’s also clubhouses where you can hang with other drivers (well, used to), buy and sell cars, and the island itself acts much like an online world with other drivers logging in. Except not anymore. It’s just me and the AI.

The main issue with TDU is your fellow drivers. They’re not dangerous but they are stupid. They will indicate, which is helpful, but often make last minute lane changes, break suddenly or just pull over. It’s fraught. Although your cars can’t be damaged, the worry is a bump slows you down and every millisecond counts; winning means $ and when granny decides to change lanes it’s the difference between affording a Cadillac and a Veyron. I can’t be sure if they’re reacting to me, other drivers or just doing random stuff, but it can be frustrating. The game also cheats to keep up with you so once you have a speedy little number you’ll suddenly spot some titchy little car scream across the intersection to catch up, making it hard to anticipate. But you can anticipate the cops blaming you for it.

Although the cops don’t seem concerned with speed - I’ve passed them at 400kph before (Not in my Golf, mind) and never gotten a flash but if I clip an AI’s wing mirror they’re on me like it’s GTA5. And they’re tenacious. You’ll hear the call go over the radio then have to avoid them until the heat dies down. The more mayhem you cause (Or the AI Cars cause for you) the worse it gets until they’re throwing up roadblocks and cornering you. It’s not like Driver where it turns into Car Wars, if you keep out of sight long enough they’ll give up, but every time they spot you it’s reset and a lot of the roads don’t have many options. Going off road pauses the meter so the second rubber touches asphalt again they’re on you. And getting pulled over means a hefty fine. It’ll take two or three races to make that back.

Money is as free-flowing as the game is free-roam. Most races will net you from $1,000 up to and beyond $100,000 - soon you’re buying up the most insane houses and filling the garages with cars and bikes and it becomes more than just race, race, race. Well it is purely racing, but if you get your head into an RPG state of mind, TDU is something special. It’s not just a driving sim, it’s a lifestyle sim. I am a Rockstar sauntering out, staring at my motors and deciding which to take for a spin and see where the day takes me. I didn't expect it but there's something incredibly cool about swaggering into a dealership, your wallet flush, and buying your first hyper-car. When the cut scene plays of you driving it out, it's as cool as leveling up or upgrading a weapon - you smirk and can't wait to take it out for a spin.

The ‘quests’ are usually pretty cool, stuff like “160mph in heavy traffic” or go quick enough to set off speed cameras. You can pick up rich wives (well, ‘Models’), assuming you have a cool enough car and they’ll give you their unused Groupons for clothing stores if you didn’t ruffle their hair. It’s a bit of a low prize, especially considering how rough some of them are. The routes, not the wives. Hitchhikers don’t care what jalopy you’re in but like the Model Wives, too much jostling and they’ll bail. I’ll never get that Ben Sherman shirt at this rate. Courier missions are a bit more GTA-like; while the package doesn’t care about being lobbed about, you will care about the cops on your tail and the tight time limit. There’s also missions where you rock up to some rich dude’s house and drive his car to his other house. Those are high-earners, but they come at a high cost; if you chip his car your earnings will take a beating. So go easy, obey the Highway Code and all is well, right? Wrong, because there’s a car out there all TDU drivers fear … The Ghost Car.

Endless amounts of time I smack into a car that isn’t there. It triggers police interest, costs me valuable credits, ruins my speed laps, has cost me 1st. It’s costing me a Veyron. You’ll have no inkling, just a sudden cloud of smoke, sparks and police sirens. They don’t even appear afterwards, a victim of slow-ass Draw Distance. They’re just not rendered, only the collision. You’re concentrating on passing one car only to hit one you didn’t even know was there – they’re like Velociraptors. I had a perfectly good Sunday afternoon bike ride ruined by a ghost car. Wound up costing me nearly $100,000 in fines by the time the police had caught me – and how did they catch me? I ran into another invisible car.

‘Side-quests’ aside, the races and high-performance challenges are where the big money is, and in order to do them you step up in classes; designated by the cars you buy. The higher the class, the classier the car required. While the physics and handling are very 2006, the cars do all differ, and it’s also about getting to know the island. Like an RPG, know what you’re driving into, start getting tactical with your car choices. Then you’ll start earning. It’s so much fun getting enough money to rev out of the showroom with something as beautiful as a … well, they’re all beautiful.

The Ferrari Enzo, Pagani Zonda, Koenigsegg, the Vanquish; they’re eye-watering. The Maserati MC12 might look like art incarnate, but it handles like it’s on ice. Still, look at it. But for me, it was the Saleen S7 Twin-Turbo. That thing GOES. I passed 430kph before losing it. It was exhilarating being in the driving seat. You can change views, from behind to driver’s seat to basically sitting on the bonnet and they all provide a different experience. But if you want to just to pootle around town, I recommend the McLaren F1 GTR, a snip at $1.5 mil. Sounds like the devil’s having a coughing fit when you floor it. It’s no Veyron, but damn.

But it’s not all hyper-cars - I’m not compensating for something. There’s classics in here. Maserati 3500 GT, Lambo Miura, E-Type Jag and the Aston Zagato. When you get in one of those you feel like 60’s-era Michael Caine, James Bond, The Saint (hang on, he drove a Volvo) - you get a real sense of accomplishment, excitement – when you drive those cars into your eight-garage house with an infinity pool, you’ve arrived. You earnt this. Stroke the dash, rev the engine, peal out of the driveway, and smash into a Ghost Car.

Muscle cars are taken care of too; Camaro, Mustang, Firebird, the Ford GT and the Shelby GT. Plus there’s concept cars, AC, TVR, some oddities and the low-end starter cars which shouldn’t be ignored. Who am I kidding, they’re totally ignored but you'll buy them anyway because you're so freaking rich.

Once you’re in the top-class cars, the games really step up. It’s cool to come across a race for just Ferrari, like an exclusive little club. Best thing though, it goes by make not model, so get yourself the best of the bunch, then pile it over to a garage and get it pimped. My fave was finding a race for Alpha Romeros and rocking up in my Competizione, unlocked only by completing the Tour of the Island challenge. It’s a zippy little filly but luxurious too. I feel like I should be wearing driving gloves and a flat-cap playing this game.

There’s bikes too, which for the most part just show how basic the physics are. Ranging from Triumphs to Ducatis, riding them does call to mind GTA VC-style cornering and steering. As in, they don’t do either. But I bought them all anyway because I look fabulous in leathers.

Some of the cars have hidden qualities, especially if you upgrade them; a middling c-class is suddenly a dark horse that can trouble a Ferrari, but it’s here that the game struggles. Each house you buy has a number of garages, and while you can tour the garage of the home you’re in, you only get a text list of the others, which doesn’t compare cars at a glance. As such, that XJ220 that can ruin anything else in the B-class is constantly missed because you’re flicking back and forth trying to remember what it's called or track all their stats – that’s one hell of a first world problem to have, too many houses and cars but it's an annoyance when you know there’s the perfect car and you can’t find it.

Unlike it's cars, TDU hasn’t aged that well, the ghost cars are a major frustration as is the bloody start button and the menu sucks, plus there’s the coupons – since you only see yourself lounging or getting into or out of cars it seems a bit redundant; I get that I have to look the part but do I need to scroll through 24 Ben Sherman shirts? To be honest, there’s nothing in TDU that we haven’t played in other racer games, and many have done it better. Without Ghost Cars. And now Gamespy is no more, TDU is unsupported; some cars are missing due to online activation and there’s no DLC to download anymore - But, by the near-end of it all I had amassed the kind of car and house collection only billionaires dream of.

Because you’re not battling a leader board or trying to win a season, losing doesn’t matter so much. Just go back to one of your ten garages and pick one of two dozen cars and try again. Some of the races and challenges are insanely hard/unfair, but as a sim, a genre I avoid, it’s brilliant. In real-time, I drove my Enzo on a Cannonball Run called the Millionaire’s Cup around Hawaii's coasts, bringing it 1 minute 10 seconds under the one-hour limit. That meant something; I drove a Ferrari for nearly an hour straight and loved every minute. And netted $1Mill in the process. It's awesome.

While I tried very hard to turn TDU into GTA, eventually I realised I was missing out on the sheer joy of just driving. I still drove like a loon, but there’s just something classy about TDU, taking the scenic route in a E-Type is pure wish fulfilment. It’s one of those laid-back games that doesn’t put pressure on you yet makes it very hard to leave.

Just one last tour of my garages, maybe a quick drive into the mountains with some Frank playing. Think I’ll take the …

Wait, there is no Bugatti Veyron. I bet that’s the Ghost Car …

2006 | Developer, Eden Games | Publisher, Atari Inc.

Platforms; Win | PS2 | X360