Which to lose – Esprit or Hummer? Not much of a choice, especially since the early Off Road races on dirt tracks are lumbering and unexciting. There's still potential in this side of the game, though, hinted at by the licence tests on more rugged terrain; the SUV driving style contrasts nicely with the rallying we're used to. And the simple liberty to explore the island off the tarmac is very welcome.
It's another touch of variety for a game which was already bursting with it – especially compared to the lap grind of other "CarPGs" like Forza and Gran Turismo. TDU2 is simply overflowing with different stuff to do.
The first game's celebrated special challenges are back, now appearing and disappearing at random around the map – timers indicate how long they'll stay around, so getting to one can be a race in itself. Deliver a car without scratching it, give a car-sick girl a smooth lift, or even, hilariously, help a jealous boyfriend tail his cheating lover without being noticed; there are numerous entertaining twists that ask you to think about something other than just going faster.
There's multiplayer, of course. Although you only ever share your vicinity with eight other players these cycle at random, giving the impression of a true massively multiplayer environment. You can flash your lights at any of them to trigger an impromptu race challenge, betting your earnings in instant "revenge" bouts.
The set multiplayer events even include some unusual co-op game designs. Some make more sense than others, but 'Follow the Leader' was a pleasant detour into cross-country convoy driving, with alternating players being shown the next checkpoint on their sat nav.
A fantastic event lobby lets you walk around, inspect and even sit in each others' cars parked on the roadside. You can even meet other players on foot in shops and event hubs, like in a real MMO. Sadly, finding and joining the same instance of the game as a friend can be unreliable and confusing
Covering longer distances on your own as you explore the island is enlivened by a system rejoicing in the quaint acronym FRIM, or Free Ride Instant Money. Using this, you can chain manoeuvres like jumps, drifts and Burnout-style near misses to earn extra cash, with an escalating balance of risk and reward as you decide whether to bank your money or gamble it.
Progression through TDU2's sprawling automotive activity centre is organised into 60 levels (you get access to the airport, and thus Oahu, at level 10). These are divided into 15 levels each of competition, discovery, collection (houses, clothes and cosmetic surgery options as well as cars) and social goals.
Devoting a quarter of the game's experience-based progression to social activities – participating in clubs and the like – is bound to be a controversial decision. It does seem like a forced attempt to push the game's community features, which had only limited traction last time. Still, the sheer breadth and choice of play styles offered by TDU2 shame its competition.
You can't be this ambitious and have everything, however. The casualty, as was the case with Test Drive Unlimited, is the car handling. As strenuously as Eden and Atari claim that the handling model has been completely revamped – and allowing for the fact that only some of the cars in the build I played had their full physics model applied – it's nothing like as satisfying as a race-tuned Forza or free-wheeling Hot Pursuit.
The huge range of roads, corners and situations that Test Drive has to handle forces so many compromises on the handling that it loses physicality, feedback and personality as a result – and that applies across its range of difficulty settings. Realism needn't be a target, but it would be nice for the cars' individual characters to come across more strongly than they do.
This is still the area Eden needs to work hardest on between now and the game's launch early next year. But the good news is Test Drive Unlimited 2 is still a charming and bold original. Four hours in, the game had easily excused its flaws by offering an addictive and unique driving experience. No other racer offers such a romantic, indulgent celebration of the open road. And no other racer has hairdressers, either.