Believe it or not, Test Drive Unlimited for the Sony PSP is one of the most technically impressive games of the year. While it may not look as good as upcoming PlayStation 3 games and isn't as deep as Forza 2, this portable racing game manages to do something that I never imagined could be done. What Atari has been able to do is accurately recreate the full Xbox 360 experience on a handheld game system. Sure it's missing a few things here and there, but Test Drive Unlimited is practically the same innovative racing experience that we saw last year on Microsoft's next generation console.
I won't kid you; the whole idea of Test Drive Unlimited is definitely intriguing. Not only does the game manage to recreate the entire island of Oahu, Hawaii, but it also keeps the massively multiplayer online aspects intact ... even if they are a bit toned down for this portable version. Test Drive Unlimited is a good looking racing game with tons of content, a great sense of style and an open world that is actually interesting to explore.
Your adventure starts in an airport as you are getting ready to board an airplane and discover the tropical island of Oahu. Once you've touched down you'll have to rent a car, buy an inexpensive house and then find some car you can call your own. The rest is pretty basic, you'll be taking part in one race after another earning credits (money), buying newer/better cars and eventually upgrading your living condition. If you're good enough you'll see every inch of this beautiful island ... even if it's when you're whipping past it at 120 miles per hour.
With such a large island at your fingertips you might think that this would be an overwhelming experience, but Test Drive Unlimited does a good job of showing you where you need to go from one race to another. Regardless of whether you're in a race or just driving around aimlessly, you'll have a handy GPS unit stuck to the bottom left of your screen. This GPS unit will show you the directions to the next race, or if you're already in a race it will keep you on the right track.
The problem is that it feels like there should be some sort of story or something that connects all of these races together. Granted, racing games aren't known for having fully fleshed out stories, but it seems a little odd that all you do is go from one race to another without any thread or reason. At its core this is just a standard racing game that takes place in a huge open world, not that there's anything wrong with that. I'll confess that I probably wouldn't be real interested in some tacked-on storyline, but it might give Test Drive Unlimited a bit more purpose.
Regardless of how or why you're there racing, Test Drive Unlimited does a good job of making you explore the island around you. At first there will only be a few races open to you (all relatively close to where you start the game), but as you start winning these events more of the island will be opened up to you. That's not to say you can't go out and look around the island on your own, but it's not until the events pop up that you really need to discover what the rest of the island has in store. By the end of the game you will have thoroughly explored Oahu, which certainly gives you a sense of accomplishment you don't normally get in standard racing games.
But exploring the island is not always your friend; sometimes it can be downright boring. Early in the game a lot of the races are only one or two miles away from each other, but as you progress through the game you'll be forced to drive 15 or more miles to your next race, something that can take a number of minutes to accomplish. This is cool if you want to see what all this island has to offer, but gamers looking to get on with the racing will probably get bored by these lengthy travel times. The good news is that if you have already been on the same road as a new race then you can just warp right there, a cool trick that only takes a minute or so. Unfortunately with so many races (and roads) you'll probably end up having to drive around more than you normally would, which can sometimes be a tedious process.
Even though you're racing through a large open environment, there isn't much variety in the types of events you take part in. For the most part you'll be playing the racing events, which are pretty much exactly what you think they are - races against three other cars where the first person to the finish line is the winner. From time to time you will also have to race some timed laps, which involve you racing as fast as possible trying to beat a set time. There's also an event where you have to race by several cameras that clock your speed, the object here is to have a fast enough average to get either first, second or third place. Sadly that's it; you'll simply be playing variations on these three events over and over again. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but considering how much time you'll be spending on Oahu you may find that the events become somewhat monotonous.
If you've played the Xbox 360 version of Test Drive Unlimited then you will likely be shocked to find out that this PSP game does not offer any of the mission-based challenges. So don't expect to drive hitchhikers around or deliver packages, these events are completely missing from this handheld version. And you know what, that's perfectly fine with me. I never liked those missions anyway, so taking them out of this PSP game makes for a more enjoyable experience that is all about the racing and not the other random stuff that just got in the way.
Like a lot of other racing games, the object in Test Drive Unlimited is to complete as many of these events so that you can amass a large amount of credits and then go shopping. Early on the most important thing is to earn enough credits to buy new cars; after all, that's the only way you'll be able to race some of the more advanced events. Thankfully Test Drive Unlimited offers a good sized collection of vehicles to choose from, including vehicles from Volkswagens, Chryslers, Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Saturn. This PSP version is missing all of the motorcycles that the Xbox 360 game had, but that's just fine by me.
But cars aren't the only things you can spend your credits on, you are also able to upgrade your vehicles and buy better houses to stay in. While upgrading your car is useful, buying a bigger house will ultimately become imperative if you want to further your progress in Test Drive Unlimited. Each of the houses only has room for a certain amount of cars, so it's important that you buy new pads so that you can increase your garage. The houses all look different, but outside of acting as your central hub you probably won't be doing much here.
Of course, the big thing that sets Test Drive Unlimited apart from all the other racing games is that it is essentially a massively multiplayer online racing game, an ambitious idea (on any system, not just the PSP). While the online modes are a welcome addition to the game, there are a few problems that keep this from being the be-all, end-all online racing experience it could have been. For example, it's not always easy to find an online race to jump into. Where most online racing games offer some sort of menu system to get you into a race, Test Drive Unlimited requires you to find an icon that will start an online race. While this is definitely not a deal breaker, it does seem like it's a bit too difficult to quickly get into an online match.
Like the Xbox 360 original you can play the entire game logged onto Atari's server via the PSP's Wi-Fi infrastructure connection. This means that as you drive around the island you will see other vehicles driven by real people, something that is actually pretty cool to see on the handheld system. This is also cool because you can flash your headlights and trigger a challenge. If you're looking to take on random people then this is definitely the best way to go about it.
One problem I had with the game is that there seems to be some sort of limit on how many other racers can be in any given area, so finding specific people can sometimes be needlessly confusing. Most hardcore Test Drive Unlimited players will be able to find ways around these problems, but the fact that they are here makes the online mode a little less impressive than what we saw on other consoles. Then again, this is the first time anything like this has even been tried on the PSP, so Atari certainly gets points for being ambitious enough to even attempt such an online mode. Atari also gets points for giving PSP owners offline multiplayer modes, something that none of the other console versions had.
But no matter how cool the online mode is or how large the world is, a racing game lives and dies by how it controls. While this is not the best handling racing game I've ever played, Test Drive Unlimited does a good job of recreating the feel of these vehicles. There are times when I felt that the cars were a bit too floaty, but it was never to the point where I stopped having fun with the game.
Seeing as this is a real world environment you are driving through it only makes sense to have other cars driving around and cops patrolling the island. Like Burnout, the other vehicles are only there to get in your way, which can sometimes be annoying when you are trying to get to a new race in a hurry. Oddly enough, if you hit a computer-controlled vehicle while going a hundred miles per hour it will send that car a good thirty feet into the air, which is just one of the unrealistic aspects of this game. Unfortunately if you do this while a cop is around you will have to either pay for a ticket or try your best to outrun the fuzz. Sadly the cops aren't part of the actual races; I could definitely see that adding a lot to the intensity of the various events. It's also worth noting that if you're playing online the cops don't appear at all, which actually makes that mode a bit easier.
Given how ambitious this game is you might expect the graphics to take a hit, but they don't. While it's certainly not as attractive as the Xbox 360 version, Test Drive Unlimited manages to be a really good looking PSP game. There are a few minor graphic problems, but nothing that will get in the way of you having a good time and being impressed by the beautiful scenery. Also impressive are the load times, regardless of whether you're loading up a race or jumping from one part of the island to another, the load times are extremely short and rarely get in the way.
While the PSP version of Test Drive Unlimited is not the most complete version of the game available, it's certainly the most impressive from a technical standpoint. It's one thing to put all of this into an Xbox 360 game, but to cram all of Oahu and the massive online game modes into a portable is just crazy, yet Atari has managed to do it. If you're looking for a lengthy racing game for the PSP then Test Drive Unlimited is well worth checking out, even if there's not a lot of variety in the actual events. Make no mistake about it, it's games like this that show off just how much power Sony's portable game system has when somebody takes the time to work with it.