Freedom! I always like having freedom in a game. Be it freedom of choice, possibilities of customization or simply a large playground to run around in, this characteristic is always on my priority list when it comes to enjoying a game. The Test Drive series hasn’t always catered to this need very well, although the first title came out way back in 1987. There hasn’t really been a great identity associated with the series as the games coming out were radically different from each other and usually in the shadow of other racing titles like Need for Speed. Several spin-offs were attempted, with games tackling issues like the Le Mans race or four Test Drive Off Road titles, but they were generally dismissed by the press and the fans, usually for poor control of the vehicles.
Test Drive Unlimited seems to be a great leap forward for the series. The producers recreated a whole island in Hawaii on an almost perfect 1 to 1 scale, with roads, trees, houses, stores and pretty much everything one would expect from such an exotic location. And there are no loading times! And there is a large selection of licensed vehicles! And there’s an interesting multiplayer option! This all sounds too good to be true, right?
TDU starts off in an airport, where you get a chance to pick one of the characters waiting in line for boarding a plane – this will be your in-game persona. There aren’t a lot of customization options available initially, so from this point of view there’s really no comparison to games like Oblivion or even Def Jam Icon. The character you selected gets on the plane and is flown to the island of Oahu with just enough cash to buy a house and car. The game offers the choice of a few apartments or villas through a real estate agency and at first you can afford one with just a few parking spaces in the garage and the number of vehicles you can acquire is limited to these spaces, so in time you must invest some more in the real-estate department.
Buying a car can be done by visiting one of the official showrooms available at first, which are presented with great attention to detail, with all the cars lined up all nice and shiny. You have access to all the important technical information like acceleration, maximum speed and there is a rating system for the handling of the vehicle. A price tag is also attached to it and according to its performance, the car is placed in a class that starts with F and goes all the way up to A for the incredibly expensive supercars like Mercedes SLR or Pagani Zonda.
Once the living and driving arrangements have been made, it’s time to get out there and explore the island. The initial impression is overwhelming. Everything is wonderfully modeled, with real life distances and speeds and other cars on the streets which are following their own routes. You really feel like this is an actual place people might live in, except you can’t see them walking around (there are certain characters on the sidewalk that offer missions but they are few and far apart) and this leads to a feeling of estrangement with the game, especially after playing some Grand Theft Auto. However, the island abounds in different types of vegetation, so looking out the window will always offer something new.
After the initial shock of being able to drive around anywhere with no artificial barriers or loading screens, your attention is drawn to the multitude of vehicles in the game. There are over 125 cars (although there are small differences between line-ups when comparing the Xbox 360 to the PC version) and the resemblance to their real-life versions is uncanny. Sure, at first you can buy cars within the budget limit, so a less exotic Alfa Romeo 147 GTA or Audi S3 is a nice place to start, but you constantly feel the need to get more cash so you can buy more buildings and more powerful vehicles. Unfortunately, a few important names like BMW or Porsche are missing from the game’s impressive brand line-up – which includes Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ducati, Aston Martin, Mercedes, Saleen, Shelby and Jaguar – but the game compensates by including exotic vehicles like Koenigsegg, Spyker and TVR.