This March the Test Drive series will be reborn. Since everyone from Microsoft to Sony's done the exotic sports car-racing thing, Infogrames is trying something new with this title. In Test Drive you'll play a lowly driver trying to gain a rep in the seedy underworld of street racing. Every opponent you face along the way will have a unique driving style to contend with, as well as some really sweet rides you can win from them.
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The long-running Test Drive franchise looks to kiss its lackluster forbears goodbye as Infogrames unleashes it onto Xbox and PlayStation 2 in April. The cars feature Gran Turismo 3-style real-time environmental reflections and look stunning as you guide driver Dennis Black through a plot-driven series of street races set in locations like San Francisco and London. No dents allowed, though, due to licensing restrictions boo-hoo!
Ever since games like Gran Turismo 3 and Project Gotham Racing came out, it's hard for titles like Test Drive to come off as anything but a third-rate, me-too clone. So to set this driver apart, Pitbull chose to implement a unique Story mode that challenges you to rise through the ranks of an underground racing series. You still unlock almost all your cars by finishing each race in the top three. And even though you're earning money at each event, you never need to spend any of it on cars or upgrades. So the whole thing is pretty useless. But I won't penalize the game for it. Test Drive is still a very solid racing title that, if anything, is just a tad too short. If you're one of those people who don't care about having 180+ cars or don't have the hours to spend on something like Gran Turismo 3 or Project Gotham, Test Drive is for you. Don't worry about car damage, maintenance or anything like that. It's like GT3-lite meets Tokyo Xtreme Racer as you navigate congested roads at top speeds against five competitors. Since this is an arcade-style driver, your opponents always stay within striking distance, making every race a close one. And the control is spot-on with most of the later cars (the early ones don't have very good traction). Oh...and for those of you who care, the utterly boring drag-racing feature has returned from past Test Drives. Luckily, those events are few, so they don't hurt an otherwise fun game.
Test Drive is a game that comes this close to being great but blows a tire on the home stretch. On one hand, it blends the best parts of Project Gotham Racing and Tokyo Xtreme Racer to create a white-knuckle street racer that plays out in sprawling, populated urban environments. Plus, the felonious plot that fuels the game's bread-and-butter Underground mode is compelling enough to bring out any gamer's inner hot-rod. A pity, then, that the Underground is home to brutal computer opponents, serious slowdown, psycho cops and uncompromising time limits. If Pitbull had dialed back the insanity, it would be easier to enjoy the game's merits.
Sometimes a mediocre game offends the sensibilities more than just a straight-up botch job. Take, for instance, Test Drive. On its sleek exterior, most of the visual aids we asphalt junkies have been taking for granted in recent racers--stuff like realistic reflections, accurate car models and huge environments-- are present and accounted for. But that's just the problem--in a world of "me-too" racers, TD looks like just another clone. The controls are predictable for an arcade game: easy to pick up, tons of power-slides and a lot of outrageous crashes. But why bother with TD at all when a non-racing game like GTA3 does it all so much better?
The Test Drive series has been around for as long as I can remember but has always played second fiddle to the likes of Need for Speed and Gran Turismo. Infogrames is attempting to re-establish both the Atari name and the Test Drive franchise at the same time, so let me be the first to say they're off to a great start. Before I go on, I want to make it clear that the game is scored 'Fans Only'? because of the arcade nature of the racing. If arcade racing is your gig, this is a 'Recommended Buy'? all the way. If you prefer your racers more true to life or if you prefer tweaking every detail of your car to get maximum performance, this game is not going to be for you.
There are two major differences between this version of Test Drive and versions past. The first difference is the Underground story mode. The addition of a story mode, albeit a somewhat weak story, gave me extra motivation to continue playing through the game. Instead of just racing to race, I was racing to further the story. The characters' taunting was lame, but I still felt I had a purpose for playing.
The second major difference is the fact that the graphics are now on par with the competition. The car models look great and the tracks are highly detailed. Plus, the game does an excellent job creating the sensation of speed. When you are flying down a crowded street at 150 MPH, it feels like you are going every bit of that. On the downside, there are occasions where the game gets a bit overly ambitious and the graphics noticeably slow down and stutter. Rarely is gameplay affected, but it's still a bit frustrating.
If arcade racing is your thing, you'll be in heaven; Test Drive is full of power slides, alternate paths, flying over jumps, and negotiating oncoming traffic. Needless to say, major crashes are frequent, but fortunately the computer-controlled opponents are as susceptible to collisions as you, so your opponents eat pavement as often as you do. The game also never allows you to get too far ahead or too far behind, which is weak, but it does make every race a mad dash to the finish line. The white knuckle driving tactics and intensely fun races make this game a keeper in my rotation of games.