Just for the sake of argument, let's stipulate that there are 240 working days in the year, and that the typical working day is eight hours long. Now given that on each and every one of those days I will spend a minimum of one hour driving to and from work, and assuming that my math is correct, that means I spend 240 hours each year driving the unfriendly highways and byways of my city. Using the same eight hour work day, that equates to 30 working days each year, which means an additional six work weeks every year. Now anyone that has had the (mis)fortune of enduring a ride in a car with me knows that I am not the most patient of drivers. It's not that I'm in any kind of hurry to get to work, it's just that I don't think driving is a particularly difficult task to master, and I have little patience for drivers that aren't willing to put forth any kind of effort at all in doing it correctly. And, of course, the dimwits that insist on parking themselves out in the far left lane (aka the 'fast lane') going 5 mph below the speed limit (and you must note that I consider 'speed limit' to be synonymous with 'drive no slower than') are a source of nearly endless frustration to me. When you also consider the fact that I believe the standard mark-up on highway speeds to be posted limit + 15 mph and that I am therefore constantly on the lookout for officers of the law waiting in ambush for drivers such as myself, you will begin to appreciate why I find the latest version of Atari's Test Drive series, Test Drive Unlimited, to be the coolest thing since German autobahns: while there are police officers driving the streets of Hawaii in TDU, they are completely uninterested in enforcing speed restrictions. Blow by them at 160 mph, nary a glance. But hit another car, even if it's just a scratch in the Clearcoat, and they get very interested. Compound the damage by hitting a few more while you try to get away from them, and they will set up a roadblock. These are rules that I can live with!
I've played around with previous versions of the Test Drive series, and while I found them to be entertaining in a console-ish sort of way, I never considered them to be all that great for much other than quick diversions to fill the time between when the wife says she's “almost ready to go” and the actual time when she truly is ready to go, which is often as long as half an hour. It was easy to jump right into a Test Drive session because the races were canned and short which was great in those situations, but for any serious length of play time the whole thing felt somewhat disjointed and unsatisfying. With TDU, however, a complete paradigm shift has occurred, and what is essentially a hybrid combination of the old Test Drive races and the free-form autonomy to do what you please, when you please ala the Grand Theft Auto games (albeit without the hookers and guns) makes for an absolutely addictive driving game. In TDU, you can drive real-world cars on real-world roads. You can literally map a route on MapQuest or Google maps and drive the exact same route in the game. Granted, that wouldn't be much of a benefit of the map you were using was, say, Topeka, Kansas or Altus, Oklahoma, but the TDU designers made an incredibly smart selection of the world to map: the entire island of Oahu! If you want a nice mix of city streets, wide highways, and windy mountainous roads, I don't think you could find a better place than Hawaii, and of course, the scenery is simply fantastic.
It's always a difficult thing to get a good balance between overly rigid structure and totally autonomous gameplay while retaining sufficient incentives to keep the player interested long enough to finish the game. I've complained in the past about racing games that require the player to jump through numerous flaming hoops to gain access to anything but the most basic cars, and the process of having to go out and earn money to “buy” cars that I thought I had already paid for at Best Buy always rubbed me the wrong way. Conversely, I don't think I ever finished more any more than the first few missions of a Grand Theft Auto game, preferring to just drive around town creating random mayhem. With Test Drive Unlimited, though, I think the perfect mix has been achieved. For example, to get to any of the races on the island for the first time, you have to drive there. After the first time driving in a location on the island, though, you can always go back just by left clicking on the map. This compromise ensures that you at least have the opportunity to lose some of your dollars to traffic fines rather than just transporting yourself around the island gathering gravy with no risk whatsoever. I didn't find it to be burdensome at all, and actually enjoyed seeing the scenery and weaving through traffic. Oddly enough, I often found myself reaching for the turn signals before making a turn!
If sedate sight seeing isn't enough for you, you can head to the races where you will experience events with various shapes and forms ranging from six car races to timed events. Some races will be on open, traffic-free roads winding through volcanic mountain terrain, while other races will be on city roads with non-racing folks just trying to drive down to the corner grocery for a loaf of bread without getting t-boned by a street race. If you don't want to swap paint, there are also timed races and top-speed races. It's not particularly difficult to do well against the AI controlled cars in the single player races, and you quickly earn enough cash to purchase even hotter and pimpier rides. For an even greater challenge, an online multiplayer mode is available that will allow you to race against online players.
There is also a decent variety of non-racing missions in TDU too, up to and including picking up ungrateful hitch-hikers that are ready and willing to jump in the car with you without any offer to share costs, and then make total pains of themselves by criticizing your driving and griping about how long it's taking to get there. For those of you that have been pining for a good mother-in-law simulator, here it is!
Where the real money is, though, is in delivering cars for people that are not only inexplicably lazy about driving their own car, but also seem to hold said delivery services in such high esteem that they will pay over $5,000 per mile for a safe delivery. I don't think anyone has been paid that much for doing so little since Ki-Jana Carter signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. That said, these are actually my favorite tasks in the game. The routes are usually at least 15 miles long, and it actually is more of a challenge to safely deliver one of these vehicles for the full payment than it is to beat a pack of cars in a straight up race. While the AI bot cars (aka obstacles) do a pretty good job of driving predictably and signaling their intentions, they do tend to be what I call “point zero” drivers. That means that if the “Drive No Slower Than” limit is 45 mph, then they drive at exactly 45.0 mph. No matter careful you are, it's just a matter of time until the temptation to see what a quarter of a million dollar car can do becomes too much to resist, and you come flying over a blind crest and impale your borrowed Ferrari on the back of a school bus. You know what they say: don't ask me how I know this.
The cars you can choose from to drive are nicely modeled, and demonstrate different traits adequately enough that you will develop preferences for the type of car you want to drive. Some of the older classics, for example, are heavy, under-powered, and under-braked. Some of the newer imports are light, over-powered, and over-braked. They all have their own distinctive sounds too, although I suspect that there might be a little involvement on the part of the manufacturers' marketing departments in selecting the sounds. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I have never driven or ridden in a Saturn Sky, but I would be very surprised to find that the real car sounds as powerful as the TDU version does. Pleasantly surprised to be sure, but surprised nonetheless. The physics seem decent enough, although I found the cars very difficult to control without at least minimal traction control and anti-lock braking assistance from the game. Getting up into the mountains and getting wicked air under the car by topping crests in the road at 150+ mph is a real blast! The beauty of it is that while you can do some real damage to the car of the innocent bystander that you land on, your car is completely invulnerable. I suppose some players would like to have a damage model for their own car to add the “skin in the game” factor, but that can also be accomplished as part of the vehicle transport missions I mentioned before.
After nearly 1000 miles under my belt, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Test Drive Unlimited. The previous versions of the Test Drive series that I had experienced always seemed to be just a bit short of delivering a true driving experience, but with the new mix of autonomous free-range driving with the old point-to-point racing TDU has revitalized my interest in the franchise and offers a compelling vision as to what is possible in future driving game/simulators. I eagerly await the release of Test Drive: Back Seat Driver.