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Hands-on (the wheel) with Test Drive Unlimited for the 360

Hands-on (the wheel) with Test Drive Unlimited for the 360

The Xbox 360 is a console still in its early stages, but an argument could be made that the system already has a healthy selection of racers. Each of the five traditional racers released thus far (we'll ignore the forgettable car-combat game Full Auto) have been well received, leaving little room for improvement or competition. Perhaps that's why the upcoming racer slate is a bit threadbare, with only two major titles due by the end of the year, both from established racing series. EA is bringing Need for Speed Carbon to every console and handheld under the sun in November. Atari is looking to grab a head start with Test Drive Unlimited in September, due on the 360 as well as the PC, the PS2, and the PSP. We got to take a look at the latest build of the Xbox 360 version at Atari's headquarters, but Xbox 360 owners can take a look at a more confined version by downloading the demo from the system's marketplace.

The major selling point of Test Drive Unlimited is its open-endedness, both on-road and off. Unlike the rest of the 360's racing contingent, which offers up a more structured "pick a race and go" method, Test Drive Unlimited gives you free rein in a wide-open racer's paradise: Honolulu, Hawaii. You can coast around the island seeking out races, side missions, car--and motorcycle--dealerships, and potential new homes; those automobiles and homes, by the way, can be customized, as can your character. It's a nice change of pace to be able to drive around without boundaries, but it comes at a bit of a price. Hawaii is a wide-open place, you see, with plenty of off-road areas. You can traverse the terrain, in theory, but the control is a tad wonky and navigating through the countless trees is a bit of a chore. Sure, it's realistic, but it'd be nice to be able to have more access to the land, whether you've gone off the pavement by accident or of your own accord. When you can keep it on the road, the racing's generally solid--this is representative of a real city, so it's not quite as curvaceous as a Ridge Racer track.

In addition to the wide-open city, the online multiplayer in Test Drive Unlimited is unlike most racing games on the market today. Much like the way a game such as World of Warcraft is populated with thousands of player-controlled characters, Test Drive Unlimited's Hawaiian island will be (potentially) populated with other racers online at the same time. While you can still go about your single-player business, you can also tackle special multiplayer races or user-created challenges; join a racing club complete with a hangout; or just roll up to a player, flash your headlights, and create a race on the spot. If it works as well as indicated when the wide gaming population gets their hands on the game, Test Drive's online mode could be precedent setting. For a gamer like me who's normally averse to challenging an anonymous opponent sight unseen, observing a racer on the same road allows a new level of familiarity that will make online racing a bit more approachable.

Test Drive Unlimited seems to have all the right parts in place. The racing is mostly enjoyable, and the potential new ideas are intriguing. Whether the end product will be overburdened with content--racing games typically keep things simple--or underpopulated by online gamers is still indeterminable. This one definitely has the potential to be the online community's racer of choice--that is, unless Super Off-Road becomes an Xbox Live Arcade game.