Test Drive Unlimited 2: it’s the driving, stupid

, | Game diaries

The contrast between racing and driving is monumental. Most days we all drive; few of us ever really race. It should come as no surprise then that game developers almost always let us race, giving us the kind of escapism that is gaming’s greatest strength. It doesn’t matter how we race. It could be with stock cars, finely tuned rally cars, British touring cars, or even just an old car on its last legs. But by doing this the game industry sullies the noble automobile. Sure, it’s fun to get out there and test your mettle against a swarm of other motorists but it’s only an ephemeral adrenaline-fueled moment from the greater wonder and soul of the motoring experience.

For a long time, I was content with that. But I’ve watched too many episodes of Top Gear. At some point, Jeremy Clarkson burrowed into my head and his reverence for motoring made me realize that developers have never just let us drive.

After the jump, Test Drive 2 is not about racing

It took about a month for me to get into Test Drive Unlimited 2. It was beset with problems. The multiplayer wouldn’t work, you couldn’t get together to form a club, and even saved games would get corrupted. Worse, I was disenchanted with the actual gameplay. I had come into the game expecting that the islands of Ibiza and Oahu would merely provide a sense of place for the races. So I shelved it, forgetting all about open roads and the drone of engines. But now that it’s been fixed, I’ve come back, only to rediscover that its not a very good racing game. All the races are too easy once you get past the particular handling aspects of whatever car you’re in. Sure the timed events are interesting, but when you contrast them with overlong elimination events, you realize that races are merely a way to raise money.

Ibiza lets you know all this, about how racing is a boring affair that gives you nothing other than the opportunity to expand your garage. There aren’t many great roads on that Mediterranean island. Nobody seems to really care about Ibiza. I couldn’t even get friends to care enough about the best coastal road on the island. Still, I kept with Ibiza and eventually discovered every road to unlock items and increase my gamerscore. But once I had driven over every mile of road, I left without regret for Hawaii and another game.

Touching down in Oahu you learn almost immediately that this is a different place. That’s hard enough to do in any game, much less one in which asphalt and gravel dictates your sense of place. But in Test Drive Unlimited 2, how the road feels dictates where you are. Ibizan roads consist of boring stretches of straight asphalt broken only by occasional offroad interests. If Ibiza were covered in snow I’d think I was still in Manitoba. You don’t get that feeling in Oahu. Roads curve, the ocean beckons, and those high interior ridge lines call you longingly.

But I still thought I’d be racing. My experiences is that whatever the scenery, we’ll get to the familiar roar of engines in competition. I go in search of that, getting all my licenses and grinding through a number of championships, some of which are mind-numbingly dull. At one point the game asks me to drive around an oval shaped neighborhood for what seems like an hour until my victory. What joy!

By now I’m just bored of racing. I’ve got all the cars I could want and enough money to get more. I could have a Bugatti Veyron. James May drove that around the Nurburgring, yet I can’t even get excited. So instead of making my way forward and attempting to reach the end game I look to uncover the island. It’ll count towards my exploration score. But what I find is the true game. Oahu is a wonderful island with a wonderful set of roads. It doesn’t quite matter what vehicle I drive; an Audi R8 is just as fun to drive as a Range Rover on these roads. They twist and turn in harmony with the landscape. Roads are placed in such a way that they make sense. I’ve never had that feeling with other games. The Test Drive Unlimited 2 roads actually go somewhere. They could lead you to a lighthouse, or a small cluster houses, maybe even Honolulu. But whatever road it is, you have a guarantee that it’ll go somewhere.

Up next, the joy of driving with friends, except that…

CSL, known in real life as Andrew Dagley, lives in Manitoba, Canada. In between sleeping he occasionally writes about history, after-action reports, or the adventures of Twilight Sparkle.