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.