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Now I'm somewhat of a racing driver game fan and love nothing more than to tear up the track in N4S or whatever; but this game really does rock.
As with most of the other games I have reviewed the graphics are outstanding and the reflections make you want to feel the screen just to make sure it isn't real. But although the cars you drive are nice the other cars inside the game are not so much, they are repetitive and have about as much character as a die-cast model of a 1984 Volvo. I can see why the developers have done it (to save space) but why not play around with two whole DVDs as opposed to one or get into the age and start using Blue Ray media to deploy games.
Unlike most other racing games, there is much freedom, there is no set tracks and you can drive around at your will quite content exploring the vast road network of Hawaii. If you decide to go one better and compete in some races then there are more than enough to keep you amused for months on end. Races also provide an income for which you can buy cars, mod them and buy more houses to fit more cars in, so building up a collection and so-on and so-forth. I like the fact that the game tries to be realistic, but it tries too hard and some pieces of the game seem monotonous; when you want to get on you can guarantee there'll be some noob in your way doing the speed limit or a copper chasing you because you've just clipped two cars. The realism is a pain and I wish I could turn off the damn police.
So a great game, and at 15GBP you can't go far wrong really, apart from you could miss out on a lot of Mars bars with that amount of money.
I will firstly confess to not playing any of the previous games in the series, but hopefully this will give a more objective review- rather than basing it on nostalgia for the older installations.
The claim on the back of the box- 'Racing Reinvented' - is surprisingly truthful. For this is not a game about racing, per se. It is about cars.
The basic premise is that you are a flamboyantly rich (and stiffly animated) character who has headed to the Hawaiian island of Oahu in search of a life of vehicular bliss.
You start your career with a modest sum to buy a car you may be able to afford in real life, and a luxurious apartment. From here on, you can enter any one of around 5 types of challenges to earn money which can be used to purchase cars, houses or clothing, bizarrely.
Of course this actually translates to buying the most ridiculously powerful cars you can afford, until you've used up your 4 car garage and need to buy a need house to horde your precious vehicles.
Test Drive's world is one utterly devoted to automobiles. The developers- Eden Games- clearly know their topic, yet they eschew the brutal realism of simulation in favour of arcade style 'pick up and play'. Easy cornering, forgiving physics and no crash damage all lead to an enjoyable sedate experience.
The charming world of Oahu is infectious with its single mindedness. Terrain is an area for roads to be built. Hills are designed to blaze down with glorious recklessness. Towns are mere vendors of cars. In reality I cannot drive, have no interest in cars and could not tell you the difference between a Saloon and a Coupe. Yet in Unlimited's islands I slowly meander around the countryside in a Jaguar E Type with smooth jazz barely audible over the low hum of the engine.
It proves that emersion and reality do not always correlate.
Of course this a game thought, and it has its flaws. The environment is aesthetically pleasing, yet over the '1000 miles of open roads' the environment is sterile and lifeless, with only the occasional oddly subhuman character for company for pre-designated tasks. These tasks all involve a variation on driving to point X. It has all the usual races (checkpoint, time trial) and a few courier missions (transporting either delicate packages or glamorous models), but nothing to really shake up the sense of driving for the sake of driving.
The myriad cars are all lovingly crafted (with both interior and exterior viewpoints), and this is clearly the main draw. Mario collects stars, Sonic hordes rings, Unlimited's freaky, personality devoid avatars amass cars.
Finally, the online system (while a pain to set up with Gamespy) is utterly brilliant. This is where all your hard earned vehicles can be appreciated by the wider community. You can instantly switch on and offline, entering a world where racing a Jeep against a Ferrari Enzo is a typical occurrence. Wheely drag races on superbikes (did I mention the bikes? Because they're great fun) make a blasé appearance at noon in the affluent suburbs. It's friendly, easy and great fun. The only downside is the limited online community now (May 09), which can make finding a buddy tough sometimes.
As long as you don't expect the frenetic Burnout or punishing realism of GT, the low price tag should surely be enticing enough to give this unique racer a try.
The technical specs are:
Operating System : Windows 2000/XP/Vista
CPU : Intel P4 @ 2.4 GHz
GPU (Video Cards) : ATI Radeon 9800 256MB VRAM or Nvidia 6600 GT with 256 MB of VRAM. Video Cards with vertex/pixel shaders 2.x and above are recommended.
System Memory : 512 MB, 1 GB recommended
Hard Disk free space: 8 GB DVD drive: 8x minimum DirectX 9.0C (included)
Which are pleasantly low for today's standards. I used XP with an Intel Quad Core at 2.33 Ghz, a Radeon HD4850 GPU and 2GB RAM. In around 20 hours of playing I had no bugs, crashes or technical issues.
I played with keyboard and mouse and an Xbox 360 controller, both of which worked flawlessly. I cannot comment on using any other control method.