Version tested: PlayStation 2
Back in the olden days, when 8 bits ruled the Earth, the only game that my younger sister showed even the faintest glimmer of interest in was Durell's Turbo Esprit on the Spectrum. The reason for this affectation had less to do with her passion for tracking down drug dealers in bright purple cars, and everything to do with the fact that she decided to rename the game Driving My Daughter To School. Completely ignoring the actual point of the game, she was quite happy to pootle around the wireframe city streets pretending to carry out common domestic chores.
I suspect that, had she not grown out of such whimsical pursuits, she'd find much the same pleasure in Test Drive Unlimited, a freeform driving game which even includes bonus missions that, if you squint a bit, could pass for Driving Your Daughter To School. Or, at the very least, Driving A Hitchhiker To A School.
Except that sounds really, really wrong.
Of course, nobody really expected the Test Drive series to be the one to shake up the driving game status quo. Twenty years old this year, there hasn't been a new entry to the series since 1999 and, even in its heyday, it always seemed to be overshadowed in the public's affections by its rivals, from Out Run to Hard Drivin' to Ridge Racer. This is rather unfair since Test Drive is hardly a lame duck, introducing as it did some concepts that the racing genre still clings to - most notably the idea of being chased by the cops, something integral to its 1987 incarnation and since co-opted wholesale by the brattish Need for Speed series.
Finally, after too many years of being a follower rather than a leader, Test Drive has delivered the sort of tidal shift in structure that should - hopefully - cause a reappraisal of the way racing games are put together in general. Quite simply, you arrive in Hawaii with a pocket full of cash and a head full of gasoline-soaked dreams. Stop off at the car rental showroom, choose a temporary vehicle and then set about buying your first speedy motor and a house from which to operate. After that, it's entirely up to you - head off and find some races, or just cruise around the island and admire the view. No pressure at all.
There are motor clubs dedicated to specific manufacturers and models, there are league races and championships, and there are quirky side quests such as the aforementioned hitchhiker or speed trap challenges, where you must blaze past a set number of cameras in a limited time, clocking up the fastest aggregate speed. Your nifty GPS system can be set to automatically direct you to the next race for big cash prizes, or you can call up the satellite map (complete with snazzy "zooming into the sky" effect) and choose your own destinations from the dozens on display. Alternatively you can ignore the GPS altogether and just drive around until you find an event or mission that appeals to you. Unlike every other racing game, with their rigidly defined tracks and linear progression, an hour spent on the sun-kissed streets of Test Drive Unlimited will never throw up the same experience twice. It feels fresh and improvisational, two words I never thought I'd use in conjunction with a racing game.
Swings and roundabouts
Already available on the 360 , this review isn't going to harp on about the differences between the next-gen and PS2 versions. Mostly because that would be a rather redundant thing to do (how many 360 owners have been waiting to see how the PS2 version turns out before making a purchase?) but also because, astonishingly, there really aren't that many differences.
The ever reliable Melbourne House has done a sterling job of cramming thousands of kilometres of open roads and Hawaiian scenery into the old black monolith. Naturally, if you play them back-to-back - as I did - then the graphical differences are evident, but that's hardly a surprise. Given the limitations of the hardware, this version serves up a visual experience that's every bit as slick and shiny as its brawnier cousin, in its own way. The island location is carefully modelled, the sports cars are detailed and glamorous, and the shift from rolling rural countryside to city streets feels realistic and natural. The game supports 60Hz display, and generally pushes the aging PS2 architecture to its limit [as Melbourne House did with the rather excellent Transformers game in 2004 - Ed].
There's some roadside pop-up, but not as much as you might think, and the only glaringly obvious concession to the smaller processor power is the absence of vehicle damage. On the 360, colliding with civilian cars would shunt and buckle their chassis, scattering debris across the street. Here, they just ricochet off you, like big car-shaped boxes, before continuing on their merry way. It looks undeniably strange, but is an understandable sacrifice given how much game has to be served up on the fly.
They've even managed to include the online mode, so vital to the core idea of Massively Open Online Racing. Again, it'd be foolish to expect the creaky old PS2 Network to deliver the same persistent online world that Xbox Live now offers, but the fact is that the feature is there and you're able to see other players cruising the same streets and challenge them to take part in races. It takes an expansive environment and populates it with like-minded gamers, all doing their own thing.
And it's here that the game conceals its trump card, something unaltered by the size of the CPU. Test Drive Unlimited is very much a game for drivers, not racers. It's for the sort of people who'll happily spend twenty minutes in a pretend car showroom, taking each staggeringly sexy and expensive sports car for a spin before leaving empty-handed to enjoy the view on a coastal drive home. There's a reason that the game clocks up points even when you're just pootling down the street for a laugh. There's a reason that the in-car view is almost as detailed as the exterior, allowing you to use the right stick to look around at the luxury of your leather-and-chrome cocoon - even while driving. And why else would you have the utterly pointless option to open and close the car windows, if not for another excuse to gaze around at the polished finish of your latest purchase and listen to the sound of traffic change while digital fresh air blows through your virtual hair? It's a game for people who love looking at cars, love sitting in cars and - yes - love racing in cars.
Apart from the rather limited vehicle upgrade options (with parts boiled down to generic packs of pre-defined stat-boosters) the only real downside to this commendably open-ended experience is that the racing itself still isn't everything it could be. This criticism applies to both this version and the 360, as for all its generous presentation the racing never quite slams into top gear. Skewing more towards the real-world handling of Gran Turismo, it takes practice to hurl your roadster around bends without pranging off the barriers or skidding into fields and, while the push for the finish line is never less than fun, nor does it grab you by the scruff of the neck and leave you gasping. For those already entranced by the freedom on offer this probably won't be a deal breaker, but for players used to the more cartoonish excesses of Burnout or NFS it may lead to erroneous accusations of "boring".
But if that's the only major complaint that can be levelled against a game making the difficult backwards transition from next-gen to last-gen then it'd take a sour curmudgeon to describe it as anything other than a roaring success. Such is its sprawling environment and potential for exploration that I've been fighting against the trite soundbite of "Oblivion with cars" for this whole review. Typically, I've been unable to hold back and it's now slipped out, like a dirty bird. Even though it's lazy journalism of the worst kind, it's also a pretty accurate summation of Unlimited's appeal - a game where the journey is just as enjoyable as the destination.
8 / 10