Test Drive Unlimited

Pre-E3: We take it for a, oh never mind.

"Nobody ever passes first time," I told my sister the other day. She's about to start driving, see. Although that had nothing to do with the situation we were in, where I'd just swerved out from behind a lorry and then swerved back in because I wanted to avoid hitting a rabbit. Or a small child - I forget. She looked at me, moderately terrified, and said: "I don't want to learn any more." "Of course you do!" I said, casually mowing down a garden gnome for effect. "There's nothing more entertaining than going round corners when you're not quite sure whether you can brake enough."

I was talking about computer games, obviously. Driving nuts love cornering. It's tasty - like nuts in general. Just wrestling a McLaren F1 into a straight line in Project Gotham Racing 3 is wonderfully amusing. I could do it all day. Which is why I find Test Drive Unlimited a bit odd, really - because having spent some time playing it in the run up to E3, I must confess I have far more fun going in a straight line.

Don't get me wrong - the cornering's fine. Good, even. Developer Eden's opting for a "realistic" approach, meaning that it wants you to brake, it wants you to BRAKE, and it wants you learn that not braking means breaking things. Which is fair enough - judicious use of the left trigger and the X-button handbrake helps you take the corners without sacrificing too much speed, and while it's nowhere near as ludicrous as PGR3, it's quite beguiling.

But the going-in-straight-lines: Crikey.

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As with PGR3, there's a photo-viewer mode for selecting and storing your pretties. Like this one.

It's fast. When it comes to racing games, us hacks often remark on the "sense of speed" before hurling a few superlatives around and vanishing to the pub. In TDU, "sense of speed" is the superlative. This game's McLaren F1, which is the top car, admittedly, doesn't just go fast on the authentic speed-o, but it goes FAST. Racing down a stretch of the Hawaiian highway at 250mph-plus, the environment hurtles by, and you don't want to bother with the corners; you just want more highway. You press the button to wind down the windows because it sounds fast. Raw. It's as much about holding the shimmy of the road at ridiculous speeds as it is about racing and collecting cars and all that jazz. The slight bumps and terrified traffic around you coupled with the speeds you're going are more fun than a donut or a powerslide. Whether they'll prove as much over the whole game is a question best left for the review to answer - but you'd be a fool to under-play the speed element.

In the meantime, we've been exploring some more of the game's options - having clued you in on the general set-up during our trip to see the game in Lyon last November.

The first thing to note is that the Hawaiian island setting is Oahu, not Honolulu. I'm not sure I was wrong last time - the police speed tickets say "Honolulu" on them even now - but since virtually none of you has been to Honolulu or Oahu anyway, it's a moot point. You have, haven't you? I hate you.

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Motorbikes! (Open shot in two windows at the same time for effect.)

Oahu, here, is 1000 miles of island road, mapped to within six inches of the real layout according to a stat-heavy Atari guide, thanks to the use of satellite mapping. Ooh la-di-dah, satellite mapping! But you'll come to rely on that yourself, as it forms the basis of the game's excellent GPS system, which allows you to zoom out and view the whole island and the many challenges available and plot a course to them. Your on-screen GPS will highlight the route, and a nice lady will voice over directions at intersections (unless you want to turn her off, obviously). In a nice touch, you can also teleport to single-player challenges within areas of the free-roaming island you've already driven to, helping to avoid backtracking, but to reach out of the way ones you'll have to explore there yourself - familiarising yourself with the layout in the process.

TDU's huge island setting is deliberately vast and varied for a couple of reasons. First of all, it allows you to simply drive, and there's lots to be said for that; second, it forms the basis of the online world Eden's crafting. As we explained last time out, you'll be able to use the zoomed-out GPS page to filter the players that share the island with you - those close to your TrueSkill level (the same system PGR3 uses), or filtered any way you might like, whether by car, Friends or whatever. You can select who you want to see and even save a filter 'bookmark' to smooth out the process next time you want the same. And if you happen upon another racer, simply flash your lights to propose a race. Elsewhere you can join clubs to get involved in bigger races, and set all manner of parameters in the way you'd expect.

The key to getting a rise out of it will be the way you can bet your property and money - and that's a reflection of your offline standing. The single-player game will be a lot like online - Oahu populated by lots of other racers - but it's here you'll build up your empire. There are hundreds of challenges - races, of course, with all manner of restrictions and layouts, but also cop chases (you get fined if you're caught), hitchhikers to deliver without smashing yourself up, and various daft ladies to court and taxi around. The range of challenges opens up over time and as you move up through the ranks, for which you'll be awarded Xbox Achievements and gamerpoints too - though the final balance of these is still being tweaked.

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And here's a lighthouse, looking rather handsome.

As you get good, you can visit dealerships (specced out to the manufacturer's standard), as well as clothing shops, real estate sellers and parts shops. Just drive past whatever you want and hit A when the icon pops up to head inside. Soon you'll have all sorts of pads and vehicles - and, as we said in November, the level of car detail is every bit as anal as the level of environmental detail. Eden's placing a lot of emphasis on the value of the cars, and that leads us back to the question of betting. While obviously there'll be doubling up - you're all trying to collect the same stuff offline - the prospect of tangible loss and gain based on the size of your ego (hell, the prospect of hustling!) ought to add some intensity to proceedings, however they work it out.

Having marvelled at the cars, we also got to see the bikes this time around. Ducatis, Kawasakis, Triumphs and others still in licensing negotiations are in (or not, I suppose - death to lawyers), drawn up to the same graphical quality as their 60-100k-poly car equivalents. Like the cars, you'll be able to pour over the bike details in close-up views, and as you drive you can opt for behind-the-bike, down in front or the intimacy of the in-helmet view.

The final car and bike list is still being refined, Atari says, but Eden's done a couple of hundred at least. One of the reasons it hasn't decided exactly which cars to line up on the disc also comes down to the use of Xbox Live Marketplace. Eden wants to support TDU with post-release content, with more than 50 cars - including exclusive additions and classic cars - among those you'll be able to download once you exhaust the game's standing set.

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Off-roading isn't best-advised, but, like sex on a trampoline, it's bumpy fun.

One slight disappointment is the decision to drop in-game radio streams. Back in Lyon, we found it rather exciting to pipe Virgin Radio and the like into the cars, but apparently it's not to be. Licensing issues. Again: DEATH TO LAWYERS. Instead you'll listen to music on an attached music player (iPod, for example), stored on your hard disk, or as part of the game's extensive licensed soundtrack - compiled by the same folks who picked out the songs for Driver: Parallel Lines. The good news, however, is that streaming radio is still being considered for the PC version. So, er, save some of the lawyers.

With the game due out at the start of September, Eden's spending most of the time now polishing and making up its mind about which bits to include. The build we saw was pretty far along, with the sort of neat touches you'd expect from polishing - a sensible recovery system that repositions you when you spill, GPS bookmarks and the like - and although it won't surprise you to learn that Atari's talking the whole thing up as one of the 360's strongest racers, in this case it looks like they might be onto something. Even if you can't run over squirrels.

Test Drive Unlimited is down for release on September 1st on Xbox 360, with a PC version also in development. It's on show at E3 in networked form.

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