It’s not often that a racing game actually demands something of its players. I can remember playing the original Gran Turismo on Playstation and failing to earn my driver’s license before giving up and deciding that I’d just watch my brother play. But in the sense that the game actually asked much of its users, Gran Turismo was not unlike most racers. Once you complete their not-that-arbitrary requirements, you’re ushered on your way to win races, upgrade your car, and dominate racing circuits. Test Drive Unlimited 2 shuns this model in favor of a sandbox world that requires players to explore, innovate, and interact.
The game opens during an extravagant birthday party held in a palatial, albeit contemporary, ocean-side manor. You’re allowed to choose your avatar from one of a number of “diverse” characters: white and black men and women, primarily. From there, you’re escorted to your garage where you’re given a blazing red Ferrari for your birthday, not unlike something you’d dream about. After driving—probably recklessly—for a few minutes and being shown the various functions of the controller, a Big Brother-like voice overcomes you and you awake in a valet’s uniform, sitting in the driver’s seat of the car that you were just dreaming about. After much telephonic hemming and hawing about your tardiness to the father of a scantily dressed socialite—did you drive asleep?—she essentially offers you a place in a televised racing circuit.
Despite the game’s inauspicious beginnings, it continues in a relatively intuitive manner. After discovering that you don’t own a car or home, you’re afforded a jalopy and small trailer to reside in. At this point, you’re let loose onto an island—Ibiza—and told essentially to figure it out. The game, despite teaching you the controls that could be easily discovered by flipping through the instruction manual, offers little or no information on the ever important map system, the challenges that you can discover throughout the island, or where to go.
In this sense, the learning curve for Test Drive Unlimited 2 is frustratingly steep, but that’s also part of the game’s design. A significant portion of play is spent “unrewardingly” in the activity free driving around the island. One of the game’s four experience-building metrics—competition, collection, discovery, and social—is designed specifically around your inclination to drive aimlessly around an island until everyone on your GPS/map is marked as explored. But the more you drive, the more you uncover, including car dealerships, tuning shops, plastic surgery clinics, and clothing shops. What you come to realize is that once you have obtained a full grasp of the dynamics of the game that discovering these locations is the quickest and most intuitive way to navigate and progress; with your GPS, you can visit anywhere that you’ve already driven or uncovered without manually doing so, saving time and tedium. However, the process by which this becomes a useful tool is not unlike traditional RPG grinding.
The racing dynamics of Test Drive Unlimited 2 are what really sell the game. There’s a distinct balance between realism and arcade-level fun. Changing weather conditions need to be monitored to determine how your car will react. So too do different terrains change the handling, speed, and functionality of the car that you’re driving. However, getting into what would be catastrophic crashes does no damage to your vehicles, and you aren’t responsible for repairing cars should you treat them with less than the utmost respect. In addition, the three different classes of cars—asphalt, off-road, and classic—allow you to not only experience various racing styles, but they keep you interested and engaged in a game that may otherwise fall victim to mindless freeway driving.
The other achievement of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is the relative ease of the AI racing. The game, despite having many real-life driving qualities, allows you to pretty handily blow through the predetermined storyline in order to purchase faster cars and, as the game intends, interact with other Test Drive Unlimited 2 players. Ibiza—as well as the second island that you can fly to later in the game—is filled with other players that are doing the same thing as you: driving around discovering hidden secrets and advancing their own careers. The game strikes a perfect balance between time spent online interacting with others and time spent racing against computer opponents.
Despite initial concerns about the storyline and how the game unfolds, Test Drive Unlimited 2 offers an expansive driving experience that simultaneously takes itself too seriously but allows you to enjoy the more arcade-y aspects of the game. The voice overs and cut scenes are all tacky and poorly done, but they’re inconsequential to the aims of the game. So while Test Drive Unlimited 2 often asks you to do things that seem unnecessary and taxing, the payoff is unlike almost all contemporary racing games.