These are troubled times for Atari. Recent offerings such as Mark Ecko's Getting Up hardly set the cash registers a-ringing, they sold off one of their biggest franchises, Driver, to Ubisoft, and even with the recent acquisition of PAL publishing rights for AQ Interactive's 360 line-up (see Scoop), their release schedule for the coming months is looking bleaker than Button's chances of bringing home this year's Formula One championship. So with this in mind, Test Drive Unlimited simply has to fly off the shelves. Chances are it will, as the gaming community's appetite for car porn has proved insatiable since the original Gran Turismo roared onto PS1. That, and the fact that this the first truly massively multiplayer online racer, a great leap forward for genre as a whole, plus - also - it is a very good game.
But herein lies the problem with TDU: it's a 'good game'. It's not a must-own classic that we'll all still be playing in years to come. It's not even a great game. It's the girl-next-door of racing titles, perfectly pleasant and suitably attractive - i.e., you 'would' - but ultimately... ultimately it's rather dull, and fails to deliver the same seat-of-your-pants intensity that PGR3 does. To stretch the analogy a little further, we'd like to quote those fine northern tunesmiths, The Macc Lads: "Your tits are too small and your legs are too short, we'd rather have a bird from the Sunday Sport." Apologies to our lady readers (all three of you). We obviously don't really think like that. Honest.
We'll get to what's hot and what's not in TDU momentarily, but first we'd like to applaud developers Eden Studios for what is an outstanding technical achievement. To recreate an island the size of Oahu in such exquisite detail - authentic road system included - and then populate it with superb representations of the world's finest sports cars, both the interiors and exteriors and signature engine noises, is nothing short of incredible. Factor in a brilliant GPS system, a heap of radio stations to tune into while you drive plus customisable avatars and numerous properties to purchase and store your cars in and you've got to wonder how Eden managed to squeeze everything onto a single DVD. But to then offer the whole affair on Xbox Live with massively multiplayer support is just mind-boggling. Full marks for turning such an ambitious vision into reality.
Paradoxically, we'd argue that the game's finest achievement, rendering the whole island of Oahu in glorious 360-o-vision, is also its biggest flaw. How so? Well, although Oahu is clearly a gorgeous place to live or visit for a holiday, what with all the luscious countryside, rolling hills, golden sands and warm seas, it actually makes for a rather boring game world. Sure you can marvel at the terrain and the foliage and so on for the first few hours but the novelty soon wears thin as you realise that it all looks the same. Okay, it's not cut-and-paste all over the island but the differences are more 'oh look, it's a green field with a few trees instead of a green hillside with lots of trees'. Trust us, we've done the 118-mile Island Tour race.
It's the same with the island's population centres. Aside from the size or the presence of some docks or a few different shops and car dealerships, you'd be hard-pressed to tell which town is which. Now we're not blaming Eden for this, they didn't make Hawaii, they're merely using creation's source material. But it's a problem. Although roads vary from straight-as-an-arrow fourlane freeways to winding mountain passes, the fundamentally similar surrounds start to breed apathy. We'd suggest that the technology could have been employed to either recreate a more environmentally diverse real-world location or to construct a totally fictional game world along the lines of San Andreas, where each city has distinct character and the world has everything from desert to mountains and countryside. But Oahu it is, so we'd better move on.