There have been plenty of driving games over the years, but none have probably been as ambitious as Eden Games' latest project, Test Drive Unlimited 2. Why is it ambitious? Because the entire premise is based around not just driving, but vast amounts of customisation and freedom - you can even undergo cosmetic surgery if you want. But too much freedom can be a deterrent if it isn't properly structured and that's where Test Drive Unlimited 2's ambition starts to be its downfall.
After starting off as nothing more than a rather bad valet, circumstance falls in your favour and you get recruited to be the eighth member in an elite racing tournament called Solar Crown. From here, you have to complete licences and compete in tournaments across Ibiza and Hawaii to try and win the Solar Crown. That's pretty much it. There are some cookie-cutter cutscenes along the way, which feature some small amounts of banter between your rivals, but they do little to make you actually care about your competitors or your own character.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 isn't about the story though, that's just an annoying part that needs to be there; much like the NPCs who constantly ring your mobile phone. They're either telling you that you really should get a make-over or that you shouldn't have wasted their time doing a licence if you weren't going to go and compete in the tournament. They also seem to call right when you're getting to an objective that you've set yourself, it's like they have some kind of sixth sense.
There are 22 different championships to compete in, but the type of driving differs greatly from tournament to tournament. And this is due to the game's real-time weather and day/night cycles, which means that even doing the same tournament again can feel like a vastly different experience - even when racing the same type of car.
Despite this, quite often the game limits itself and it ends up feeling like a bit of a chore - quite far from the "do anything, anytime" mantra. Early on, for example, you will have limited space in your garage, but you'll also have limited funds due to the restrictions on tournaments you can compete in. So, if you want to own more than two cars, you'll have to buy a new place, which, unless you're a shrewd investor, will leave you with little cash to buy the next car you actually need. Then there's the fact that if you want to just splash the cash to buy an Aston Martin before the game says you're supposed to, you end up with a car that's useful for speeding around the island, but has no practical purpose with regards to progression. You'll probably have to end up selling it so that you can afford the car you're supposed to have in order to compete in the next tournament you're supposed to undertake.
Either that or you do one of the various "event" missions, which task you with following an aggrieved lover, or getting someone from A to B quickly. Then there's also the very basic F.R.I.M.S system, which nets you small amounts of money for performing things like close over-taking, drifting or getting some air.
Things get a bit better once you get to Hawaii, but by that point, the core content has lost a bit of its appeal. And this is probably because, despite the points mentioned earlier, the races seem to drag on a bit. Having to do a 10 mile race in a not-so-fast car, with very little challenge, isn't going to keep many people entertained. It's odd really, because some of the races can be really fun and enjoyable, like the speed-trap challenges or the time trials, whereas some of them can feel really long and arduous.
Really, it's a shame the game has these faults because the core driving experience isn't a bad one. Each of the different cars featured throughout handles as you'd expect, and it's a ton of fun going from a standard VW Golf to a Pagani Zonda. The different road surfaces also have a distinct feel, as well as the type of car you're able to drive. There are three types featured in the game, and these are classic, asphalt and off-road. The classic and asphalt are similar, if only because they're both based on driving on the road, but the off-road racing is a completely different ball-game.
Driving around randomly, going from objective to objective, is honestly more fun than taking part in the Solar Crown events. And if that's the case, then something is wrong. Yes, it's a free-roaming driving simulator, but in order to get anywhere progression-wise, you have to compete in the Solar Crown events. It's like a catch 22.
One of the big draws will be the social aspects though. You'll find other players driving around in the same game-world as you, and you can challenge them on the spot by flashing your headlights at them. There's also a huge race centre where you can set challenges for people to complete, or take part in others. Just by going to the expansive map you'll instantly see various gauntlets which have been laid down - so from that perspective, as long as you're up for the challenge, the game does have user generated content to give it some legs.
To further this, there's a whole levelling system, with level 60 being the maximum. The game outlines exactly what you need to do to progress, although getting some points are distinctively easier than others. For example, you can get 100 "collection" points for undergoing four pieces of cosmetic surgery, but you get the same amount of points for buying 20 pieces of clothing. In comparison, completing a lower-tier championship will net you 155 "competition" points. So you might find that, unless you actively seek things out, you'll get a ton of points in one area and have hardly any in others. Still, it's something to keep you busy and driving around every single part of every road in the game will take even the best drivers a while.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. At one end of the spectrum it's trying to be this really social, open world driving experience. While at the other end it's driving to actually be a driving experience. It ends up somewhere in the middle, neglecting both to some degree. But at the end of the day, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a driving game, and had Eden Games spent more time focussing on making the game consistently fun throughout instead of worrying about all the role-playing elements, it would have been a much better experience.