Version tested: Xbox 360
It's been four and a half years since Lyon's Eden Games unfurled its manifesto for "massively open online racing" with the sprawling, quixotic Test Drive Unlimited – and like every year in the young industry of videogames, they've been long ones.
We've seen other attempts to expand the horizons of the online racing game in the interim: Forza Motorsport's bustling bazaar of customisation and hot-lap competition, Gran Turismo 5's halting attempt at a more genteel autophiles' club, and Criterion socially networking its way around the online/offline divide in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Each has delivered parts of Test Drive Unlimited's bold promise: a thriving, connected community of petrolheads; an epic physical struggle between man, machine and road; a free-roaming kingdom of speed. They've done it with more polish and panache, better graphics, more nuanced and rewarding handling, more consistency and, most importantly perhaps, more players.
But they don't have its heart, and they don't have its breathtaking horizons. On the vast Hawaiian island of Oahu, Eden dared to dream of an online racing paradise that was set in something very much like the real world (1500 square kilometres of it). Rough and ready as it was, that dream wasn't compromised for anything; Test Drive Unlimited remains the ultimate love letter to the open road in games.
With this sequel, very little has changed. Eden has expanded the things that mean the most to it, inching its game closer to being a true persistent world and a peerless theatre of wish-fulfliment.
There's tons more real estate, with clubber getaway Ibiza appending its Mediterranean hinterlands to the rugged Pacific rock of Oahu (the latter's unlocked a little way into the game). There are deepened community features around the car clubs (now better than some MMOs' guild options) and user-created challenges. There are more ways to play multiplayer, including co-op challenges, co-driving and a Hot Pursuit-style chase mode.
Solo motorists have plenty to lose themselves in too, with off-road racing in hulking SUVs replacing motorbikes and opening up hundreds of acres of untouched terrain. Beautiful dynamic weather effects and a globally synchronised day/night cycle strengthen the intoxicating illusion that you're living a second life as a sportscar-obsessed playboy.
GT5 or F1 2010 can easily boast graphical superiority. But watching the sun blush the underside of an overcast sky and reflect in scattered puddles, after driving country roads all night through a crackling thunderstorm, is a thrilling kind of poetry those snapshots can't muster. It's heightened further by the knowledge that every other player online is living the same moment.
So Test Drive Unlimited 2 still has the magic. It also still has the bugs (we tested the retail Xbox 360 version), unreliable network performance, inconsistent graphics and physics, unwieldy interface and scrappy, lightweight vehicle handling.
I've never thought TDU's handling deserved quite the evisceration it's received at the hands of press and community. It's a unique challenge to create a handling model that can cope with both weaving through traffic at 200mph and taking lots of slow right-angle turns. Gran Turismo's staggering physicality was always going to be beyond it, while Criterion's drift symphonies need fictional roads to be written for them.
But the resulting compromise lands the game with steering that's somehow twitchy and heavy at the same time, as well as a lack of conviction and weight that can fool players into thinking they're playing a breezy, full-throttle arcade racer. In fact, TDU2 requires careful control of both accelerator and brake to master its persistent understeer.
A familiar tale then, and not the improvement most were hoping for. You should bypass the abysmal default setting immediately; on Sports or Hardcore, it's quite enjoyable in the medium term, especially at higher speeds, if perhaps lacking the involvement to sustain you through TDU2's long-haul "CarPG" grind.