Test Drive Unlimited 2
I was definitly a fan of the first Test Drive Unlimited, mostly because the open world concept in a racing game was quite unique at the time. Simply cruising around Oahu in a speedy performance level car and running into other players in the persistant online world was genius. It was the first racing game that actually felt like it was truely built for the online world in mind first. I was thrilled to try out Test Drive Unlimited 2 and hoping that the developer could bring some of the same magic in the first game along with fixing the serious problems of the original. Rather than taking place in Hawaii, the player gets to explore the island of Ibiza in the Medderterain Sea. However, it feels even bigger than the first game and defintiely seems authentic. Don't fret about Hawaii though as you have the opportunity to revisit Oahu as soon as you reach level 10.
Oddly, the developers make you sit through a fairly obnoxious story during the hour long tutorial designed to play up the Ibiza lifestyle. You can, however, leave the silly narrative in the dust as soon as the island opens up for exploration. Your progress within the game is measured by four meters: Discovery, Collection, Competition and Social. By raising each of those meters, you start gaining levels within the game which opens up more territory and increases the types of cars / races that you can compete in. I would equate it to the system setup in Crackdown in terms of character building.
This game is setup identically to the original in the MMO fashion. This means you can wander around the island challenging other players to a quick race or simply watch packs of players race around. Unfortunately, the always online aspect of the game has brought the servers to a sporadic halt and Eden Games is frantically working on a patch to solve problems like players losing all their money in the casino, login issues will be fixed and the clubs will be turned back on. The club feature is a fairly deep guild system that players have been dying to explore.
If you hated how the cars controlled in the last game, you won't have any love for the vehicles in the sequel. Balancing a thin line between arcade and professional handling, the cars often felt a bit too floaty for my tastes. It never felt like there was a tremendous amount of power behind the best models in the game, even when reaching cars above level 45 or so. However, it's quite freeing to race at 200 mph down the highway and simply wander around the island. Regarding the AI, I thought it was a bit easy to evade most of the time, both the professional racers and the police. The game should have adopted a GTA style to evading the police rather than simply playing beat the clock to escape.
This definitely doesn't have the visual polish of GT5 or the Forza series. Cars models are passable and have a European feel, but the outside didn't impress me. The interior design is much better though. Character models are simply ridiculous and the designer in charge should be fired. In fact, the animation in the majority of the story scenes is just laughable. However, similar to the GTA-stigma, some of the graphical problems can be overlooked as the environment is insanely huge. Unfortunately, the giant landscape also brings along pop-up issues, low resolution textures and slowdown problems. It really feels like the game could have used an additional 6 to 9 months of performance tweaking.
I was disappointed in the amount of radio programming within the game. It couldn't have been more than a couple hours of music / dialogue. It's certainly a far cry from the Grand Theft Auto series. The voice acting in the cutscenes is hilariously poor, mostly due to a shoddy script. If I was a voice actor, I wouldn't include this game in my acting credits. The sound effects are probably the best part of the audio work, but they lack variety and some bassy punch. Perhaps I'm too spoiled by the finely tuned engines in other driving games.
The biggest problem with Test Drive Unlimited 2 is that it's a victim of it's own success and that brought on stagnation in addition to a vast array of online problems. While the developers are looking into fixing the latter, the basic formula hasn't evolved with the advances in the online landscape and the buggy gameplay quirks of the original weren't addressed for the most part. Eden Games and Atari botched the release of the game with their online difficulties and the community is growing angry. They have increased the stability as of late, but the clubs feature was still turned off when I was testing it.
All in all, they have created an amazingly large, expansive driving game that's truly a joy to get lost within, but doesn't perform well enough to keep you within that illusion. If you were a die hard fan of the original and have a large amount of patience, you can find some entertainment value here. All other fans of driving games would be well served in waiting to see if the online experience improves dramatically before purchasing; a strategy that will likely serve you well at the check-out register in a month or two. You could also try renting it first after the patch. FYI, Eden Games will be releasing the first round of DLC for the game for free due to all the online problems. (Estimate time for the release of the patch is by the first or second week of March 2011.)