Test Drive Unlimited 2
Racing games have always been aspirational. From roaring along in OutRun's gleaming Ferrari, glamorous blonde at your side, to curating a vast collection of showroom catalogue supercars in Gran Turismo, the genre excels in offering a taste of a better life.
So when Eden went about bolting on a narrative to their open-world racing sequel, an aspirational story about your rise through the social and racing ranks, you can see what they were getting at. It's just a pity that they made it so repugnant.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 opens on footage of a selection of vapid, iffily-attired playable characters dancing limply around a huge swimming pool. Pick from any one of the slightly shonky models and you're zipped into a first-person perspective to discover it's your birthday and your girlfriend has just bought you a Ferrarri. As they do.
Except they don't. It's a dream sequence. You are actually just a humble valet, asleep at the wheel of a rich woman's Pininfarina.
The rich woman is a hateful, spoilt, demanding, arrogant woman who also happens to be a participant and tv presenter of the island's racing series. You are supposed to dislike her, this much is obvious. Eden have gone out of their way to paint her as a gloriously offensive caricature. So why then are you encouraged, cajoled even, into aspiring to her lifestyle? For that is the point of the game, to become like her.
Entered into the tournament, your character begins his or her rise through the social ranks, upgrading from a valet attendant's uniform to ever-more euro-trashy outfits, a caravan for a succession of minimalist apartments, and the keys to the rich woman's Ferrari for the keys to your own. It's all purchasable stuff, bought with the money you earn while racing. The spoils of your success.
Oh, and because only beautiful people are allowed to be successful and appear on television, you're encouraged to get a spot of cosmetic surgery along the way too.
This distasteful wealth isn't just confined to the rich woman. So rife are the overprivileged brats with questionable values, you would hope that TDU2 is at least partly satirical. But if it is, it falls way short of the blunt comedic snarking of Grand Theft Auto. In those games the satire is written large across the dialogue, the radio stations, the environments and the narrative itself. Here, where such things are attempted they lack the bite of their inspiration. The result is a game that asks you to be far more complicit in the world it has created.
So into the world of dubious ladder-climbing you plunge, moving up rung by rung by way of your exploits behind the wheel. TDU2 features an open world, set across a sun-bleached Ibiza (and later Hawaii) in which, once you've navigated a dull opening section, stretches out to offer huge environments littered with a plethora of co-op challenges, races and community features. The scale of Eden's ambition here is hugely impressive.
It's worth noting that Test Drive Unlimited 2's remit in this regard has been much copied in the years since the original game. Titles like Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit have taken that blueprint of a socially-rich open world and built upon it in with increasingly stylish and innovative verve. It leaves TDU2 with a steep challenge, despite its head start.
Thankfully, however, in some areas TDU2 is a glorious success. Strip away the distasteful context and the sensation of bombing along the highways of the beautiful exotic setting is wonderfully liberating. Within a game that rewards so much for exploration , this is a real plus. The world created here is far more engaging than that of its peers. While it lacks their technical punch, it's a decidedly artistic victory.
Grinding through the levels, your XP is attributed across four categories: Collection, Social, Competition and Discovery. Collection accounts for all the clothes, cars and yes, cosmetic surgery you amass. Social speaks to your participation in the various car clubs and online races. Competition, meanwhile, is geared towards a range of single-player races, in three classes: Asphalt, Off-Road and Classic. Discovery is built-up by stumbling across Ibiza and Hawaii's various shops and showrooms.
My first exposure to the handling of the cars was terrifying. Picking a Mustang as my first ride I spent much of the early races and license tests snaking across roads and spinning out while attempting to deal with the persistent understeer. This feeling was compounded when I progressed to the first of the off-road tests. With a different car, even on a gravelly dirt-track, my Audi held the road, far, far better.
So there are handling issues here, especially among the Classic cars. It's a steep learning curve to come to terms with. The issue is that, in order to tame many of the cars you'll find yourself driving, you'll have to be so deliberate with your speed that the racing looses much of its dynamism. Thats particularly true of the classic muscle cars. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit this is not. But there's satisfaction to come from mastering it fully.
Indeed, there's pleasure to be had throughout. As I pushed through the narrative I willed the game to conjure more imagery to fuel my righteous indignation, becoming more incensed with the grubby aspirational lifestyle it peddled. But somewhere along the line I realised that, yeah, when it's not being a shallow, consumerist twat, this game is pretty fun.
It's the design of the various stat-building challenges on offer here that work so well. While TDU2's claim to be a racing MMO is perhaps a stretch, the constant drip-feed of experience and levelling is a compulsive one. Similarly - some unnecessarily poor UI design, and flaky netcode aside - the online social stuff is beyond anything Ive seen. You can create your own challenges, your own car clubs and races - with the right people, you could plunge hours into a rewarding experience.
So Test Drive Unlimited made me like it despite myself. It has issues, sure, but it's an ambitious game with a character all of its own. My only hope is that next time Eden put a little more thought into that tasteless narrative.