Let's get the bad news over with. Given that it's been a good 5 years since the release of Test Drive Unlimited, it's hugely disappointing that the sequel arrives feeling so unpolished in key areas, so dated in others, and with the major issue that so many players complained about the last time - the handling - largely unfixed.
In a world where Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Split/Second are setting new benchmarks for arcade racers and Forza III and Gran Turismo 5 have established a gold standard for sims, Test Drive Unlimited 2 doesn't make a great first impression. Within the first hour you'll encounter tatty graphics, sub-standard racing, and an ongoing storyline with characters and dialogue to make you cringe.
Yet TDU2 isn't the disaster that it first appears. In fact, it's what music critics, back in the days when people actually bought whole albums, called a grower. The problems and the frustrations never quite go away, but after a few hours you find yourself noticing less and less. In a surprisingly short time, you actually find yourself hooked.
The secret is the series' unique premise. TDU2, like TDU before it, is the nearest thing we've seen to a free-roaming, driving MMORPG - a sort of World of Carcraft, if you like. The play world is a fictionalised version of Ibitha, populated by a gang of rich kid racers competing in a multi-disciple driving championship, Solar Crown. This provides the core campaign, with traditional MMO quests replaced by a range of road, off-road and classic car tournaments played against the AI-controlled drivers. Yet with hordes of other players racing around, you can also enjoy ad-hoc racing challenges and multiplayer events against real human beings, levelling up as you might in an MMO and unlocking new events and new items. TDU2 also goes big on purchasable perks like housing, decor, clothes for your avatar and haircuts, all of which you'll see while wandering around your home or key locations in a first-person view, as will other players you meet.
Best of all, you're free to roam where you will, both on Ibitha's extensive highway network and through the forests, mountains and scrubland of the island's interior. Doing so is the only way to discover new car showrooms, clothing outlets and one-off events, and the game actively rewards you for exploring, with side-quests that focus on trailing cars, photographing the scenery and collecting parts from wrecks.
It's this combination of exploration, levelling and online competition that brings the game alive. It's the kind of game where you're happy to spend half an hour just driving, racing at high speeds around Ibitha's coastline in an Audi TT RS Roadster or rumbling across the interior in a Range Rover Sport HSE. It's the kind of game where you're willing to spend an hour pushing your way through one tough championship just so you can get enough money to buy a new house. And why do you want a new house? So you can accommodate new cars which you'll then want to try in new championships. It just goes on.
Stuck on a tournament? Don't worry - there's always something else you could be doing, and if you drive around long enough you'll always find someone who wants to challenge you to a quick one-on-one duel, with hard (in-game) cash riding on the outcome. It can be difficult at times to find and successfully join a multiplayer race, but it can be done and the actual racing is a lot more fun. Get involved with car clubs - the game's equivalent if guilds - and we can see it taking off. And while we're not sure some of the game's social features, with avatars mixing with avatars, will ever take off, it's nice to see a racing game that tries to go beyond the world inside the cockpit. Whatever else you might say about it, you can't accuse TDU2 of lacking depth.
You can, however, grumble all you like about the surface. As we mentioned, the graphics aren't consistently impressive. Some of the Ibizan scenery is beautiful, and there are times when the cars, the lighting and the views all come together to create something that borders on sublime. The weather effects are brilliantly done, and the off-road mud splattering looks fantastic. Then, just when it all looks great, you're back in an Aston Martin, racing through Ibiza city in the daytime, and it's like you're back in 2005 when the Xbox 360 first appeared and developers didn't really know what they were doing. While the game tries to give you a compelling storyline and a bunch of highly hiss-able rival racers, the human models are shockingly old-fashioned, and the TV-style coverage that prefaces each race is woefully repetitive. What's that? Are the Wilder brothers squabbling AGAIN? You don't say!
Worse, the handling is a frequent source of frustration, oddly exaggerated with one car, strangely underplayed the next. The steering can feel remote, then over-sensitive, and the result is that some cars are just plain horrible to drive. The model works better with off-road races, which provide many of the highlights of TDU2, than the classic car tournaments, where the opposite applies, but even within those types there's a lot of variation. What's more, some of the courses seem designed to ensure that one mistake will send you spinning off the track and - effectively - force you to restart the event. If ever a game needed a rewind function in the style of GRID and Forza, this is it.
All of this stuff is annoying, yet what you keep coming back to again and again is the game's boundless generosity. When it all comes together, the racing is still a lot of fun, and the fact that you can give the current championship a break, do something else for a while, then come back to it later keeps you from just switching off with irritation. And once you've made your mark in Ibiza, made some friends and worked your way through the first ten levels, you can jet off to Hawaii - the first game's setting - and carry on the action over there. Sure, GT5 had so many cars and track variations that you could play for months and not see everything, but we’re not so sure that we’d actually want to. There's something about TFU2's free-roaming style that keeps you interested and coming back for more.
TDU2's rough edges are bad enough to stop it building up a higher score, but there's something very different and absorbing about this unique take on the racing game. We'd almost recommend you buy it anyway. If you just want to race, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit does it better. If you want realism, then GT5 and Forza III leave TDU2 in the dust. But if you want a game that lets you explore, compete and collect at your own pace, then TDU2 is richer and deeper than anything else around. If you think you can love it for all its defects, then take it for a spin.