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Originals

Is There Room For Test Drive Unlimited 2?

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Posted by: Louis Bedigian

The first Test Drive Unlimited was an impressive step forward in game design. Atari created a racer that dared to bring the genre to the world of MMOs while attempting to improve the general online experience between players. Ultimately, the game succeeded. Though it may not have been able to match the speed of Burnout or rival the mainstream appeal of Mario Kart, Test Drive Unlimited led the pack in online racing.

Four years later, very little has changed. Mario Kart is still the mainstream king, Burnout is still the regarded as one of fastest racing series, and Test Drive Unlimited still holds the crown for massively multiplayer online racing games.

But is that a reflection of the game’s quality or was its success partially influenced by the lack of a superior MMOR?

Competition or Decomposition?

In the years since Test Drive Unlimited’s release, many developers have tried to supersede Atari’s hit racer with gimmicks, flashy graphics and questionable promises. Need for Speed World is merely the latest in a long line of disappointments. The game is taking a beating in the press, receiving a 6.5 from GameZone and a 62% average from GameRankings and Metacritic. Though many critics argue that 6.0 is a good score, game buyers and game developers rarely agree.

Critically, Blur has been doing much better; the game averages just over 81% across all platforms (360, PS3 and PC) and received a 7.5 from GameZone. But while the online battles are solid, if not spectacular, the game wasn’t designed with MMO players in mind. Its online setup is quick and seamless, but it doesn’t have the depth or the variety provided by Test Drive Unlimited. Worst of all, gamers have not been responding to its Burnout-meets-Mario Kart gameplay, leading to weak sales figures that could prevent Activision from achieving its lofty goal.

Burnout Paradise was a much stronger effort, selling millions on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Unlike the Need for Speed franchise, which is milked annually, Burnout Paradise’s critical average is near 90%. What’s more, Criterion (the genius developer and creator of the series) proved that it had learned a thing or two from Test Drive Unlimited. The old, menu-based course selection scheme was replaced with a huge, wide-open world that could be enjoyed solo or with friends. But as great as this game was, with only eight players, Burnout Paradise is still a few miles behind MMO territory.

Wait a Sec, Those Aren’t MMORs…

Nope, they’re not. The reality is that while many racing games offer an online component, very few approach the realm of an MMOR.

Among the few MMORs available, Darkwind: War on Wheels is one of the more interesting releases. That is, of course, assuming you weren’t hoping for a Test Drive Unlimited-killer, but instead wanted a turn-based racing game that plays like an RPG. Drift City is a bit more impressive, though its cel-shaded visuals are nowhere near the quality of the seven-year-old Auto Modellista (a Capcom racing game that looked amazing but had very little replay value). Don’t even bother with the over-hyped iPhone app Race or Die – it’s as awful as it looks.

Other than that, the genre is surprisingly barren. Few have heard of the ill-fated Project Torque (perhaps explaining its fate), and while the screenshots for Upshift Strikeracer look nice, the game is hardly groundbreaking. In addition to being a mouthful of a title, Crazy Racing Kart Rider is one of the more well-known online-only racing games, but its hype as MMO was a bit misleading. Right now, the game isn’t even in service.

No Free Rides

With so little direct competition and frequent disappointments from the standard (non-MMO) racing genre, you might expect Test Drive Unlimited 2 to get a free ride. That’s not going to happen. Not only will the game have to prove itself as a killer MMO, but it will also face unrelenting scrutiny from everyone who purchased the original.

Thus far, the developers haven’t revealed much about Test Drive Unlimited 2. All signs indicate that it will offer more of what we loved about the original. But with a delay that pushes this highly anticipated sequel into the new year, you have to wonder: What will the developers do with that extra time?

Program, Fix, Repeat: Refinements are a no-brainer. Now that Atari has revived the dying Test Drive franchise, it’s not about to let the series fall by the wayside.

Launch a Bigger Beta: What’s the best way to say “thanks for being patient” while testing the game to ensure it’s ready for an early 2011 release? Launch a bigger beta. Atari has yet to reveal the specifics of its beta plans, only saying that it’s coming soon while encouraging players to sign up. But just as Activision increased its Blur beta – eventually opening it up to everyone on Xbox Live – Atari needs to consider expanding its beta plans, whatever they may be.

Start a New Promo Campaign: As of this writing, Atari hasn’t been hyping Test Drive Unlimited 2 nearly as much as the original. Initially, I assumed the publisher planned to take a different route this time around, since the original game was hyped to death. In truth, it was probably the imminent delay that scared off any serious promo campaigns. Like it or not, the biggest and most successful racing games are also the most hyped. Atari would be crazy not to follow suit.

There’s Room For More

Test Drive Unlimited 2 isn’t the only thing there’s room for. As it turns out, the whole racing genre has an enormous vacancy for innovation.

Right now, the biggest “innovations” have come from silly gimmicks like the Wii Wheel (it may have worked well but come on – it’s a piece of plastic!) and Kinect, which takes the wheel (and all game controllers) right out of our hands. Is this the best the game industry can do!?

Please don’t answer that. I’m afraid of what the answer might be, so let’s pretend that was a rhetorical question.

But if I may provide a blueprint for future developments, it’s time for racing game developers to try something entirely different. Test Drive Unlimited was one of the few unique racing games released last decade. Any industry that pulls in more than a billion dollars annually should be willing to experiment more often.

“Alright hotshot,” the game executive whines, “what are YOUR big ideas!?”

Stop right there – I’m not going to just give them away. But you can send a check to…

Fine, I’ll get serious: how about a racing game that is truly (100%) authentic? How about a NASCAR game that doesn’t feel like you’re driving in a circle? How about a fresh and futuristic racing game that doesn’t have anything to do with Wipeout or F-Zero? If nothing else, the story mode has got to go – there is no place for it in the racing genre.

Most of all, developers need to focus on the replay value. Of all the racing games I’ve purchased over the past two decades, very few are still in use. I loved Gran Turismo 1, 2 and 3 but haven’t touched them in years. I don’t play Mario Kart 64 or the SNES original anymore, and have practically forgotten that the Game Boy Advance version exists. Frankly, I’m not sure that there are any racing games for PS2 that I still play. That’s very troubling. In the area of replay value, sports games are the only ones that rank lower, mostly due to their release schedule (ex: Madden 12 will likely replace Madden 11 the day it’s released).

Test Drive Unlimited 2 could be stellar game, maybe even the best racer of 2011. But if the whole industry doesn’t start to take the racing genre more seriously, its future could be as volatile as Lindsay Lohan. Sooner or later, a crash is inevitable.

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