I’m a little schizophrenic on this one. On the one hand, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is the ultimate car lover’s fantasy. It has a huge roster of realistic cars, a solid driving model, and absolutely gorgeous locations. On the other hands, it’s a wreck, burdened with a laughable economy, too much irrelevant content and weak multiplayer options. When you add up all the good and all the bad, you’re left with a game that’s inconsistent. At one moment, you’re having the time of your life and at the next you’re bored out of your mind.

Even though the game’s content is battling against you, you can have a good time here if you’re resolved to focus on the positives. The cars themselves are the real attraction, and you can have tons of fun just shopping for the right vehicles, customizing their appearance and performance, and driving them all around town. The sheer range of vehicles is the first thing that really impressed me. You can drive everything from piece of crap $15,000 hatchbacks to high-end Ferraris that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each car is rated in a number of performance areas, so you really feel the difference when you switch to a new vehicle. The weight of the Hummers, the loose steering of the Mustangs, and the tight acceleration of the Audis all lend substantial credibility to the game.

The driving model has some funny bits, like the appearance and disappearance of other cars, or the finicky collision models, but overall it’s very enjoyable. The cars here feel like real cars should and respond very naturally to your touch. Spinning tires, drifting, overtaking, off-roading and everything else you’d like to do with these cars just feels right. You can even customize your cars with various performance enhancements to get them driving as good as possible. The only hitch is that the various challenges around the islands of Ibiza and Hawaii require specific classes of car, so you’ll have to have a large roster if you want to get the most out of the game.

The places you drive are also fantastic. Featuring two entire islands filled with realistic scenery including cities, highways, forests, mountains and coasts, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a game where you can have fun just driving around, at least for a while. The realistic weather and day-night cycles add to the experience, but you’ll still notice an unrealistic absence of life in the cities. There are a few drivers on the roads, but that’s about it. Still, it’s amazing to just get in the car and see what you can discover as you make your way around the islands.

While there’s a lot to discover here, there’s just not enough compelling content. It might be fun for a while to go get your haircut, or own a nightclub, or redecorate your apartment, but the game is called Test Drive after all, so all this lifestyle stuff tends to obscure what the game ought to be delivering. Picking out fabric for your new couch or shopping for sneakers might be compelling in the real world, but it just seems like so much wasted effort in this game. None of the options seems to have much, if any, practical benefit, which makes you wonder why you’re sitting at home watching the weather channel on the TV when you could be out driving. I get that the developers wanted to embrace the larger culture of car ownership, but there’s simply not enough compelling gameplay to make all that window-dressing worthwhile.

The various one-off challenges are good for making money but even here the challenges are strange. Either you’re driving a businessman to three miles down the road in exchange for $3000 or you’re being given the keys to a $300,000 sports car by a total stranger who trusts that you’ll take it to the mechanic. Even if you can get there without damaging the car, you’ll need several thousand dollars for repairs. It just doesn’t make sense. Well, at least it doesn’t make sense if you’re not willing to account for the other confusing elements of the game’s economy where car washes are $1500 and having your head enlarged through plastic surgery is only about $300. Seriously? I can have my head enlarged three times and buy two couches for the same price as a car wash?

To be fair, there are some compelling challenges and large scale events you can take part in and, for the most part, they’re generally quite fun. Checkpoint races, time trials, and such are all part of the game here. While they might not be terribly inventive, it is a nice way to give some direction to the game, not to mention a great way to earn the money you need to buy all those apartments, t-shirts, and haircuts you need. The only real pain is that you need specific classes of car for certain types of races, and you’ll need garage space to hold them all, which means you’ll have to buy into the lifestyle game just to take part in the driving game. Some of the other elements, like finding wrecks or taking pictures of the scenery, also play into the economy, but I just didn’t find them all that compelling.

There are plenty of multiplayer challenges as well, including one-off races against the other drivers you see online. Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a bit like a persistent world in that other players will be present in your game and can challenge you to certain races. There’s also apparently a robust set of multiplayer challenges, but the servers haven’t been terribly reliable over the last few weeks and getting into an online match is a hit or miss affair.

Bottom Line: Test Drive Unlimited 2 definitely has its moments and I can’t deny the game’s quirky charm. But the great strength of the roster of cars, the enjoyable driving model and compelling location can’t eclipse the lack of enjoyable content or the confusing economy.

Recommendation: Get it if you like cars but aren’t too particular about gameplay.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.

[rating=2]

What our review scores mean.

Game: Test Drive Unlimited 2
Genre: Vehicle Simulation
Developer: Eden Games
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: February 8, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Available from: Amazon, EB Games

Steve Butts still wants to sell that piece of crap pink Mustang with the Kiss stickers all over it.

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