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.