Version tested: Xbox 360
Grand Theft Auto is a genre, apparently. Or so Volition told us, explaining away the similarities between Saints Row and Rockstar's opus. We didn't really buy it. Rockstar actually found it funny. Over there this week on unrelated business, we mentioned this to a few of them and the reaction was a bit telling. "We're a genre now?"
Yes I'm doing this intro again - but with a twist! Because with Test Drive Unlimited, Atari claimed that Eden Studios had invented a new genre. The "Massively Open Online Racing" game. And we were sceptical as usual. But it turns out they were onto something, because virtually every tenet of the claim stands up.
In TDU, Eden has created a huge, open racing world that blurs the line between offline and online racing games. It's what Auto Assault might have been. It's not quite an MMO, but it's closer to that approach than the separated worlds of games like MotoGP and PGR. You could even get away with switching terminology - racing on your own against the AI and building up a stock of cash to invest in new equipment could be soloing, while its PvP is the combative encounters with racers you hunt down on the game's huge network of idyllic island highways.
In many senses it's the game that PGR3 should have been. By ripping out the guardrails and allowing you to cut your own path through a world that other racers are traversing at the same time, TDU overtakes Bizarre Creations in that sense. The question isn't whether this delivers on the "MOOR" hype - it does, and people will build on this idea in future - but whether it manages to deliver a racing experience of the same high standard.
Right from the start, you're connected to the game's online world. Having picked a character, bought a starter home with a four-car garage and rented something to drive around in, you're soon pootling down the streets of Oahu's southern-most town and exchanging glances with other beginners. The numbers are never overwhelming, thanks to the way the game pairs you with a sensible volume of similar players, which varies from area to area and obviously shifts in skill-level as you get further in, and there's lots of hapless traffic driving around to even things out. Watching other people career into it is quite amusing.
If you like, you can set right about racing the human opposition. As you move past them you can propose instant-challenges, and then race back and forward across prescribed or custom routes to find out which one of you read more of the instruction manual on the way home from the shop. But more likely you'll want to get some traction first by sampling the offline side of it. Or rather, the tasks that don't involve the other real-life players.
Finding things to do in TDU is very simple thanks to the ever-present GPS system. Like a mini-map, it appears in the bottom-left, and guides your course through races in a manner not unlike that of the Midnight Club games - although the shortcut-hunting element of MC is left out in favour of a game rooted more in pure-values racing. By hitting right on the d-pad, the GPS expands to fill the screen and you can zoom in and out of anywhere on the island.
The island's enormous, and there are a wealth of car clubs, dealers, homes, races, time trials and competitors to locate - in other words, a huge amount of icons. The game settles this by breaking them off into groups like key locations and other racers, which you can switch between intuitively using the left and right bumpers. Initially the GPS will alert you to tasks in your immediate location and a few further afield and focus on those that fit your current skill level. Selecting an icon with the analogue pointer allows you to see the classes involved, view the potential prize money and other entry conditions, and then set GPS coordinates so the mini-map will lead you to it.
In a welcome nod to accessibility, you're allowed to warp directly to locations you've already travelled through, cutting down on driving times. With tasks opening up in clusters in various locations fairly sensibly, initially at least it's a nice shortcut - and if a task is just off the beaten track you can find a beaten bit nearby and plant yourself there to shorten the distance.
Obviously there's a large variety of things to do, with checkpoints dotted on your GPS for point-to-point and lap-based races against AI cars, while a host of time-trial-oriented offerings have you delivering hitch-hikers to their destinations, or simply trying to get to a certain point within a time limit. You even get to drive models home with their shopping, as they touch themselves gingerly in the passenger seat and delicately caress your hand on the gearstick. Or so I imagine. As you complete races you build up cash, or credits you can spend in clothing stores, and so you set about building a fleet of high-end cars and decent portfolio of property.
Fairly standard, then, but what sells TDU isn't simply this blending of genres, of online and off - but also the brains that underpin the difficulty curve, and keep things interesting. With so much road to cover there's an obvious variety - with tight technical courses nesting with lengthy, high-speed runs that are more about maintaining speed and dodging traffic along endless beautiful highways than power-sliding. But the way the game squeezes you varies too, and this is more compelling.
You get a taste of it with the models, who will bail out if you go off the road so much that a small "driving" meter depletes, but more engaging examples come later in time-based checkpoint races that punish you with deductions. Ride your prancing pony over a few kerbs to shave times to gold standard and you may find the dressage-style time penalties have herded you into silver. It forces you to learn to drive steady as well as fast - and so manages to create boundaries without fencing you in the way PGR and other city-based racers do. The only slight shame is that it also doesn't allow you to build up appreciation the way PGR does - it'd be handy to be able to recoup some of that meter-depletion when you throw yourself into a difficult slide and handle it perfectly.
Speed camera challenges and the like will be familiar, meanwhile, but the free-roam aspect gives them variance. The only black mark against all this is that while you can switch cars at the start of a mission that demands a different class, you're forced to visit one of your homes to switch at other times. It makes sense, I suppose, but it's inconsistent. That said, you're not always driving your own car - some of the most hair-raising tasks are "once-only" affairs that involve delivering a car to the other side of the island - with bundles of cash lost forever if you fail.
Around now, with your first "big" car in the garage - probably the Ferrari 430, which proves rather tantalising once you top $150k - you'll feel more like taking on the world. Instant races are fine, but the game also has preset races dotted around, and if there are people waiting for them to kick off you can get in on that. You can also tackle tasks set by other people.
This element of TDU stretches the mission-creator idea of games like PGR in a way that makes them more appealing. Turn to a drive-in and you can view challenges posted by other players. These usually have to be bought into, and involve setting a time on a particular circuit or course during the window of play chosen by the original player. Once that's over, the person with the best time wins the cash. The next step is clubs, which are the game's version of clans, allowing you to band together with fellow Ferrari-lovers, for example, or other men called Steve, or whatever. Later you can write fan-fiction about the models. And of course TDU embraces the global leaderboard systems you'd expect, with one for every task in the game.
All good then. But conspicuously absent from the review so far is the answer to that question of whether the standard of racing experience lives up to all this bluster about structure. And so it will remain for at least one more paragraph.
Because I should certainly mention how it looks. The screenshots talk loudly of sexy cars and traditional settings. Lots of tarmac, buildings and trees. But there's a lot to be said for how these are delivered. Oahu isn't exactly OutRun2 - there's a consistency of tone throughout that becomes repetitious - but the versatility of lighting conditions and the superb ambiance goes some way to making up for this. The first time you peer closely at the GPS and spot a little plane cutting a path slowly over the island is nifty, but when you're attempting a race for the third time and you swing onto the coastal section to see a gigantic ferry plodding along next to the shore, oblivious to you, that sense of the environment is properly reinforced. It's a game that makes great use of a decent sound system too - the sense of speed is terrific on its own, but with the windows wound down as you pelt along a highway it's doubly imposing. Even a Sunday drive across the island ought to be compelling. At least for a while.
But despite an excellent engine and genuinely seamless integration with Xbox Live, TDU can still feel a bit sterile. Pelting along is less imposing when you realise you can't do much to dent your car. Exploring Oahu is only so varied, and long hauls to distant objectives that you can't beam to leave a big skidmark on your patience. And in many ways it's just too ambitious for its own good. The economics of levelling up and building a collection of supercars are a bit skewed. There are terrific amounts of money available too soon, and though you'll need to work long hours for some of the more desirable cars - particularly the concepts - you will discover that the actual racing model isn't quite there to make it worthwhile.
So in answer to the question I keep avoiding, it doesn't quite do it for me. Handling sort of straddles the line dividing PGR's slick-slidey pursuits and the less hospitable approach of something like Gran Turismo, and over the course of the game it's inconsistent. Some cars handle very nicely - that Ferrari I mentioned seems to have been given some love - but whereas PGR3's cars were a thrill to master, most of these aren't. Cars that should zip and squirm don't tend to, and the motorbikes, unlocked later, handle like an afterthought. You can tweak the steering sensitivity, but you can't do much to modify the cars from spec, and on the whole the driving doesn't really capture the imagination. The mud-wrestling fun of testing a new car in PGR3 is replaced with something more akin to yachting in a windy fjord.
There are some other minor issues that work against it too. The general AI of other road-users is depressingly self-destructive, and your fellow racers are weak. The races against the clock are more engaging. And the local constabulary are a bit unfair on you. Initially little more than a passing threat, their interest in you grows, and a slight scratch on a highway can escalate into a full-blown roadblock if you continue to run into them, however innocently. Particularly frustrating in the middle of a race, it's almost worse if you're out and about, because diving into a task will force you to swallow a huge fine unless you've shaken them first. And no, the models can't flash the coppers to get you out of it.
Even so, TDU is a game you'll probably want to play. As an example of how Xbox Live can be put to use in the racing genre, it's unmatched. Were it not for inconsistent handling, it'd score higher - and even at that it still deserves a lot of credit. It's just that it's up against PGR3, and the thought of how good this would've been with Bizarre behind the steering wheel haunted me throughout. An unfair comment really, since Eden's done bloody well here - but then God always was a bit unfair when it came to Eden.
8 / 10