Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Test Drive Unlimited (PSP) - First Draft

Test Drive is one of the oldest racing game series, first appearing 20 years ago in 1987 on home computers. It was meant to be a relatively realistic driving game, giving ordinary people the chance to "test drive" exotic supercars, while evading the police. Somwhere along the way, it strayed from its roots, becoming very arcadelike (Test Drive 5-6) to destruction derby like (Even of Destruction), but this is a return to its roots.


It's set on the isle of Oahu, Hawaii. You start out with a bunch of money, and must purchase a starting car and a home to store your cars. You do various races and challenges to earn more money to buy more cars and homes. Sounds pretty typical for a racing game, right? It is, but what makes this different is the sheer scope of the game. When I said it's set on the isle of Oahu, I mean, you can drive around the whole island, which is 30 miles across from south to north, and about 45 from west to east. It actually feels bigger than that in game, you can spend almost an hour driving from one end of the island to the other.

And I don't mean just the roads, either. You can go off-road if you like, indeed, it's handy to evade police. As near as I can tell, police are really only a problem while you are free-roaming, and you are caught speeding (usually you need to be doing 120 mph+) or hit another car. In many cases they are easily evaded. If you don't, you get arrested and must pay a fine.

The driving model is realistic, but on the forgiving side. You can turn a lot easier than real life, but not nearly like in an arcade racer (say, Burnout or Midnight Club). There are 3 levels of traction control, the lower the set it, the more control you have, but the more likely it is to spin out as well. The sense of speed is also pretty realistic, which means that people used to arcade racers will find it somewhat slow.

There really seem to be 3 types of races. Races where you race other cars, races where you beat the clock, and speedtrap races, where you have to have a speed higher than a certain amount at a certain spot on the track (in some cases, several spots, which then get averaged).

Since the game is free roam, track courses are largely defined by gates that magically pop-up, along with your GPS unit (which tells you when to turn). Some races have a penalty bar which increases when you go off road. When it's full, you lose.

There's no damage to your car in the game, but collisions are elastic, depending on what you hit. If you hit another car, they go flying (similar mass, you have more momentum due to your high speed), but if you hit a semi-truck, you go flying (since their mass is much bigger). The AI is decent, although once in a while (just like real life) an AI car will do something stupid like cut you off or suddenly stop. The racing AI seems okay, but can be overly aggressive (knocking you out of the way), though not as bad as some (like Ford Street Racing, where it's downright homicidal)


How good the graphics are really depends on how close you look, and how forgiving you are. If you look at a screen, it will likely look gorgeous, among the best on the PSP. On the other hand, because it's on the PSP, it does some from some aliasing (ie, jaggies), dithering (you have to look close for that), texture warping, and sometimes you can see seems when the terrain is raised. One of the things that really isn't a problem is draw-in or pop-up (that is, where objects suddenly appear on screen, Vice City Stories on the PSP really suffers from that with trees). While there is some, the distance for it is way, way in the back.

Indeed, the graphics really remind me a lot of Oblivion on the PC, if you turned the grass off and ran it in a lower resolution. Things tend to look like a golf course, but looks really nice.

The car models are pretty detailed as well. There are maybe only 7-8 different generic cars that appear as traffic, but for the most part, there is little "clumping", that is, you don't always get all the cars of the same model all the time. It does happen sometimes, but that seems to be based on the area of the island (places like ports tend to have more heavy trucks).

The one real downside is the variety. Because it's set on Oahu, it all pretty much looks like the same. You have some beaches, and the interior is sort of just rolling hills and farmland. There aren't many notable buildings, in general, the place has sort of a run down look, it reminds me a lot of driving through Mississippi or Arkansas. There are mountains, though, but they, being volcanic, are grey masses. I guess that's realistic (well, I haven't been to Oahu, but I have seen Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum), but it's a little dull. But I guess that couldn't be helped.


The car list is heavily dominated by, though is not exclusively, supercars. That is, extremely expensive high performance cars that most "real" people can't even dream of buying. There are a few normal performance cars (Mustang, Camaro, GTO/Monaro, Skyline, 350Z), but these make up the lower end. There's also a selection of classic cars, including the Shelby GT-500 and AC 289/427, the 70s Firebird with the big bird on the hood, some older corvettes and a couple others. But mostly it's about supercars.

Unfortunately, this is where the game suffers a bit. The two big names in supercars, Porsche and Ferrari, are absent. Probably the biggest name manufacturer in it is Lamborghini. There are some other companies you've heard of, like Lotus, Aston Martin, Pagani and McLaren. But a lot that are sort of on the fringes - companies like Spyker, Saleen, Koenigsegg. Sure, they are nice cars (indeed, some of the best), and you might have heard of them, even seen a car of these in some games. But not the big names when you think supercar. Then there are some you've probably never heard of (I hadn't), like Ascari and Noble. And there are supercars from "normal" companies, like Ford, VW, Chrysler and Jaguar. And few others that are mostly forgettable.

You can modify the cars a little, but not much. Basically, you can simply get them performance upgrades - 3 levels. You can pick the color of your car, but only from the list of manufacturer colors (which can stink in a lot of cases, like the new Mustangs which come in 11 shades, 10 of which are ugly, and the other is red). In some cars, you can pick different wheels, but only a very few.

Cars are divided into 5 categories: E,D,C,B,A, based apparently on overall performance, with E being the worst and A the best. Many races are restricted to cars of certain categories, but sometimes, like in Club races, it's the car manufacturer or something other trait that determines the eligibility.

Sometimes though, your opponents in supposedly restricted races won't be. In one race, I was using a Lotus Espirit, a C class car, and my opponents included an Ascari, a class A car. I still easily won, so I redid the race on "Hard". This time around though, my opponents were class C (and I won the race even easier).


The sound itself is pretty good. The larger engines sound pretty good, although the PSP speakers do tend to take away some of the bass. There is also a sound which increases as you go faster, I guess it's supposed to be the wind. But you usually don't hear that unless you have the window open. So it's a little annoying.

The music in the game, well, it's a large selection, but most of it is pretty bad. A lot of it seems to be generic "electronica", divided up into "Maximum Beats", "Phat Grooves" and "Chill Vibes" (the music is presented in radio station format). I can't imagine it would have been that expensive to get some real electronic dance music in real genres.

Beyond that, there are some songs that are considered "good", but probably aren't to the taste of most players. Notably, a classical music channel featuring such songs like Swan Lake, the Magic Flute, 4 Seasons, Ride of Valkyries, William Tell Overture, etc, which is almost like a greatest hits of classical artists; and "Sweet Radio", basically a collection of "funk"/old R&B songs. Like Big Bird, Funky Chicken, I'm a Road Runner. Also the classic rock staple, the James Gang's Funk 49.

There are rock and rap stations as well, but also it seems to be full of generic stuff that is basically the equivalent of muzak.

Given the setting of the game (Hawaii) and even the premise (car racing), I think they really missed the boat by not having a Surf Rock station.

Loading Times:

As any honest PSP owner knows, PSP games can suffer from some bad loading times. Amazingly enough, the loading times in this are minimal, even by PS2 standards, much less PSP standards. It takes about 3-4 seconds to go from the free roam mode to your "home" or other location, and the same to go back. Opening up the map of the island takes about 5-6 seconds, and is a little jerky, but that's about the worst. While free roaming you can occasionally have a slight pause or stutter, but that's fairly rare, even at high speeds, and usually is tiny when it happens.

Final Thoughts:

This is by far the best driving game on the PSP. Yes, it's lacking features found in the Xbox 360 version, which is disappointing (especially since it's the same price as the 360 version), but try playing a 360 on the go, even if you have one (which I don't). Judged by its own merits, it's extremely impressive and a lot of fun.

That said, it's mostly a driving game. If you are someone that likes car modding, this is not for you. If you like varied types of racing, then this is probably not for you.