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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

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Test Drive Unlimited

Test driven.

Test Drive Unlimited, then.

Test Drive. Teeeest Driiive. Whether freed from limits or not, it's not a name that draws my eye. It's not a seductive hint of under-breast from a young lady foolishly stretching her arms in a cut-off baby-tee on a hot day. It's not a dwarf with an afro playing hopscotch with Elvis. It's just Test Drive. It's safely ignored. Right?

Preview parameters comfortably telegraphed then, let us launch into the "why it's not". Test Drive Unlimited is not just a pretty driving game on the Xbox 360 given lots of publicity because it's a pretty driving game on the Xbox 360. Not here anyway. It's actually ambitious. A stated absence of limits almost assures them these days, but TDU (god, even the acronym's awful - reminds me of blank videotapes) has a vast brief. Eden Studios has built an HDR'd multi-million-poly facsimile of Honolulu where players can buy up property and high-performance cars, pull slowly out of their gates and then immediately chase down the bugger who's torn past in an Aston Martin, whipping a horn blast across his surround sound channels like a virtual glove-slapping. Gauntlet thrown and accepted, he or she can propose a race route by actually dragging lines on the GPS overlay. Or you can hunt down your Friends, forming car clubs and engaging in global competitions. It's not massively multiplayer in the truest sense, but it's a world away from lobbies and optimatches.

Smoking skills.

The framework for all of it is simple enough to understand. From your in-game living room you can check out the day's news and competitions, admire your (or in my case other people's) rankings and custom photos, trade cars by posting and responding to adverts, and decide what to wear. There will be shops dotted around the island. Obviously there will also be lots of car dealerships, boasting the latest from the likes of Mercedes, Ford, Mazda, Lamborghini and Aston Martin, and you'll be able to admire the ones you've bought in your garage area. And you'll be able to really admire them, running the camera like a virtual hand along their bumps and curves, marvelling at the reflection of your jar of screws in its glossy exterior or something, then stepping inside, twiddling with its innards, winding the windows up and down, even revving the engine. Eden's modelled a lot.

Buying more houses means more garage space. The devs are including more than 150 cars and motorbikes, which are being worked on at the moment, and the dealerships should have all sorts to pick through as well as the traditional manufacturer options for each - wheel options, the right colours, interior options and so on. Whatever you'd get if you walked into an Aston Martin dealership dressed like somebody other than me. They have deadbeat sensors for the likes of me. You'll have no trouble though - the online and offline games all take place in the same area, and you'll earn cash completing challenges offline which you can then plough into cars as well as property and clothing acquisitions, which are limited to offline, so you'll be able to buy up as much as you like. Online, it's all about the cars.

If you look closely, there's a flying bus over there. Weird.

It's not about crashing the cars, admittedly. There's no player car-damage for obvious reasons. (Not obvious? Car manufacturers don't like it when developers ring up and say, "Hey! I was modelling your new sports coupe today and I was wondering what happens when you drive it into an articulated lorry at 150 miles an hour?") You'll be able to smash up the locals if they get in the way, although police will try to arrest you if you go around causing havoc (not that there was any evidence of that in our build). What it lacks in destruction though it makes up for in authenticity and raw speed. It's a technical racer - tug the right trigger to its lowest ebb and your wheels will spin and you'll probably spiral off into the undergrowth. Do it gently and you'll pick it up. Braking distances are far from trivial too, and should be taken seriously.

Visually more detail is going in with every build - this looked noticeably better last week than it did at the Tokyo Game Show just six weeks ago, for example. The cars already look magnificent, easily on a par with some of Project Gotham Racing 3's offerings (complete with a comparable polycount figure of 60-100,000, which we braved hoots of derision from our hack-peers to collect for you, readers), while the environment is thick with detail. They're a bit heavy on the softening, but otherwise the screenshots truly are representative - thundering through the roadside forestry (you know what I'm like) was a bit like racing through a darker, more claustrophobic Far Cry. Mainly because, as I said, the thrill is speed.

These cars go FAST. With big letters. Max out the speed-o (if you can) and hit something and you can almost feel the whiplash. Playing it on a widescreen HDTV with surround speakers and the windows wound down, the sense of speed, the rush of air and the snapping back of the neck when I ran into a brick wall was palpable. Speed freaks and Gran Turismo nuts take note.

Honk honk!

Tying this to the online structure is the aforementioned on-the-fly racing, decent matchmaking that pulls in similarly skilled opposition, and a system of car clubs. These are split between private and open clubs. Private's a good place for you and whatever clan you've banded together. Specifying club rules allows you to discriminate against chaps who shun your fondness for Mercs, for example, and here you can also organise inter-club competitions and compete in official weekly challenges. Open clubs are more receptive when you hurtle into the carpark; they're places where you can admire your fellow drivers' rides, and challenge like-minded and like-vehicled folk to throw down, or whatever's suitably colloquial these days.

It really is all about the driving. Belting around Honolulu - with live radio streaming over Xbox Live, too (we had Virgin Radio on as we played), it has the mark of a big thing. If it all comes together by the middle of next year when Eden aims to complete it, no amount of top-heavy dwarves and stretchy ladies will be able to restrain us from giving it a go.

Test Drive Unlimited is due out on Xbox 360 around May/June 2006. Eden's considering a PC port.