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.
That grind is now much more structured, with 60 levels to make your way through. These are divided into 15 each in Competition, Collection, Discovery and Community.
Competition is single- and multiplayer races, time trials and speed challenges, including the point-to-point dashes you can initiate by flashing your lights at a nearby player. The championships and cups are more manageable and focused than the first game's scattershot races, and the event design is strong, if prone to padding; the characters and "story" that grace them are a cheerfully terrible, but inoffensive and not entirely unwelcome, hook.
Collection encompasses buying and customising cars and houses, as well as tailoring your avatar with clothes, haircuts and cosmetic surgey. Discovery rewards exploration, the excellent one-off driving challenges (now time-limited), photography and the discovery of car wrecks (which can be assembled into prize cars). Community progress is earned through Club activity, co-op racing, player challenges and multiplayer cop chases.
It's an effective way of parcelling out and promoting all the elements that make TDU2 unique, and ensures you'll make progress whichever of the varied and absorbing pastimes happens to hook you. The structure is more complex than it needs to be, though – why assign points to specific achievements, rather than just dole out XP indiscriminately? Why link Collection progress to Discovery (which unlocks things in shops)? And why force players to grind through Community achievements if they're not that way inclined?
That theme is taken up by the game's cumbersome interface. It's essential to the romance of TDU that you should uncover the game by exploring the island – in contrast to Hot Pursuit's blunt navigation, say – but it's not essential that you spend a quarter of your game time cross-referencing menus, watching the GPS map zoom in and out and observing sinister plastic mannequins in ridiculous clothes greet each other in shops. (For a game so obsessed with image and lifestyle, TDU2 is hilariously, if endearingly, uncool.)
Much of the multiplayer is similarly hard to access. The online Casino mini-games are only free to those who preorder. There is no immediately obvious way to initiate a cop chase or play as a co-driver, and the convoy-driving co-op modes are currently unpopular (Keep Your Distance is an unglamorous trundle, but Follow The Leader is a fun relay race). Lobby-based racing works reliably, and you can easily jump to any player's location, but trying to stay together in free ride mode is like trying to mud-wrestle an octopus, as players flicker in and out of different instances.
It soon becomes apparent that Test Drive Unlimited 2's multiplayer is best enjoyed in a Club with a group of like-minded friends, organising your own fun or marshalling Eden's bizarre multiplayer diversions, like the hyperactive destruction-derby cop chases, into some semblance of working order. Meet the game in good company and with enthusiasm and patience, and it will reward you.
Or, even better perhaps, just approach it on your own. Like many "true" MMOs, TDU2 is a world that draws much of its life and atmosphere from other players, but in which it's wonderful to be alone: windows wound down to let the exhaust howl in and the thump of the radio out to the sea air you swear you can smell.
It's a long journey through this huge game and TDU2 offers an unrefined, bumpy ride. Thankfully, if it all gets too much, you can set the grind aside for a long journey of your own – just following your front wheels across the islands, revelling in one of the great videogame open worlds.
Unsteady but passionate and ambitious, TDU2 is fantastic escapism. It's just a shame it sometimes needs to escape from itself.
7 / 10