Test Drive 6 Review
By Chad Montague |
I've had a long relationship with the venerable Test Drive franchise. One of my first experiences with computer games was playing the arcade racer on the Commodore 64. Looking back at the game now it's a little difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was that enthralled me hour after hour. But once you get past the aged graphics and bizarre controls, the basic idea of driving the most exotic cars on earth very fast still has a lot of appeal. Test Drive 6 tries to carry on in this vein and the results are at times very successful.
The original Test Drive only had one game mode- drive from Point A to Point B as fast as possible to beat the clock. TD6 raises the complexity a little while still keeping the focus on fast driving. You start out with a set amount of money and can purchase a car only from the cheapest 'Class 1' category. If you're looking for something a little more powerful, don't worry - there are actually some very fine machines in this category. To progress further in the game and buy the faster cars you'll need more money that you can win by racing the various modes of TD6.
The gameplay style of the original Test Drive is repeated in TD6 in the 'Challenges' mode. Each Challenge takes place on one of the international street circuits and the aim is simply to get to the finish line before the clock runs out. If you're looking for something a little more competitive, you might want to try races against opposition over similar street courses that also feature cop cars that do their best to halt your progress. In the single race mode the player must then bet between $500 and $2000 with the top three finishers sharing the spoils. In tournament race mode the action is played out over three stages and for the first time real racetracks are introduced. While the chance to race these production cars on an all-out race circuit seems like a promising idea, the end result is much less interesting than the street courses. The final gameplay option was borrowed straight from Test Drive's main competition, the Need for Speed series the police pursuit. Here you can choose from a variety of sport car cop cars and then try to nab any illegal racers who wander into your area. I still find it odd that the process of 'giving a ticket' basically consists of bashing into the offenders as hard as possible. I'm glad they don't do this on the freeways near my house. All of these different race modes were nice, but I kept coming back to Challenges, addicted to the simple goal of beating the clock.
As mentioned, the various gameplay modes take place on a number of international street tracks in exotic locations like London, Rome and New York. The tracks don't follow actual street layouts but there are plenty of significant landmarks, environmental detail and other features such as taxicabs to add appropriate flavor to each city. That said, the cities don't offer much in the way of variety because they are all, er, cities and pretty soon they become repetitive. There is no highway driving through forests or canyons to switch up the pace and the circuit tracks are a pretty plain set of tracks that aren't likely to take up much of your time. Fortunately, there's a lot more variety to be found in the cars.
Infogrames have done their best to assist UK developers The Pitbull Syndicate by licensing no fewer than 37 cars in the game. Several of the big names such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche are conspicuous absentees from the line up, but a good number of the latest sports cars are available as well as an interesting selection of roadsters from the past. Car aficionados will enjoy seeing the '66 Shelby Cobra, '68 Mustang 428 and 68 GT-40 line up against modern cars like the Lotus GT 1, Jaguar XJ220 and a personal favorite of mine the Aston Martin Project Vantage.
The greatest thing about all the cars in the game is that they drive excellently. While the game's driving model is pretty simple, it works wonderfully for an arcade racer. I find that with any racing game you have to allow a period of time to come to grips with game's handling. If it takes the average gamer too long to achieve basic competency (to be able to drive for a couple of minutes without spinning off or crashing) the game has to offer up something extremely compelling to hold the irritated gamer's attention. Luckily, TD6 does pretty well here. I found that after just a few races I had a pretty good feel for the controls and at this point found it hard to put the game away. The great handling is enhanced by a fantastic sensation of speed that I found just as addictive. Flying down some of the street tracks in TD6 offered up some of the best driving I have ever experienced on a PC. Unfortunately, the game runs very choppy, to the point of unplayability, unless you turn the detail pretty far down, no matter what kind of system you are running.
Sadly, even with the detail all the way up, this range of cars and driving fun is presented via some pretty crude visuals. The car models are big and bright but don't look particularly realistic and lag well behind the bar set by Need For Speed. The "Environment Mapping" technology that Infogrames is touting is actually very passe. 'Advanced' features like reflections, shadows and shading have all been done before and much better at that. Reflections appear bright white on the rear of the car and end up making the cars look like shiny plastic. Not very realistic. When you drive under a bridge or tree a shadow is cast over your car and it makes it appear darker. While this sounds simple enough, the gleaming reflections sadly stay as bright as ever and aren't affected by the shadows at all. The result is a big slap in the face to your suspension of disbelief.
Another place where TD6 headed in the right direction but blew it at the last minute is with the traffic AI. You meet a multitude of traffic in the game and large portion of the time, you'll be headed straight into it. The first few times I tired this, I was happy to see the other cars swerving out of the way. Soon after, I realized that they were just as likely to swerve into your path as out of it. Even if you are flying down the right side (or rather the correct side - you'll be driving on the left in London) of the road cars you overtake occasionally swerve violently into your path. While it may be said this adds challenge of the game, I found it infuriating. After fighting out a tough race against the opposing driver AI and the police, howls of despair (and abuse) come pretty quickly when you are taken out by a dodgy civilian driver swerving into you and drop you from first place to last. Another annoying problem is the 'unpredictable cross traffic'. This feature was actually quite predictable. The AI judges when you are likely to be passing a cross street and fires a few cars at you from the sides. Getting side swiped when you can't see anything coming is, once again, very frustrating. If you were actually running through a full moving intersection this would be realistic and acceptable but when the AI cars literally come out of the walls of dead end streets it's pretty hard to bare. Both of these problems are best summed up by the number of massive pile-ups that the AI traffic is usually involved in even before you arrive at that part of the course. For average drivers (the player is the only maniac on the roads surely!) their insurance premiums must be sky-high.
The AI swerve problems are made even worse by the game's poor collision detection. You can often happily sail right through the many lampposts in the game, but sometimes they instead bring you to a grinding halt. Some consistency is definitely needed here. Head on collisions are handled in a similarly inconsistent way. When you run head on into another car, on many occasions the other car will fly high into the air off the screen as if they were made of polystyrene and you keep driving along without a care. I quite liked this effect and it fitted well with the arcade feel of the game. Unfortunately, at other times, the more realistic outcome of coming to a crunching halt or spinning out of control would occur instead. Occasionally, you may be the one flying into the air to end up spinning, quite literally, like a top on the nose of your car. Any of these crash outcomes would have been perfectly acceptable to me, as long as there were some way that I could predict the outcome of the collision so I would know when to push the limits.
I'm sure many of these issues could and would have been resolved if TD6 had spent a little longer in development just polishing up the work that we see in the game already. This same general lack of quality is evident in game menus that are not completely functional (you can't switch player profiles without exiting the game completely) and the frequent lock ups that occur when accessing the menu while 'in-game'. One such lock up caused all my driver profiles and all my progress up to that point to be wiped.
Another area where some great potential is squandered by less than perfect execution is in the game's music. An interesting selection of tracks have been licensed including the main theme, an excellent Fear Factory cover of the Gary Numan classic 'Cars' (the full length music video is available via the options menu). Unfortunately the team ruined this powerful soundtrack by using it over and over for the same tracks, and by repeating it on the same track. If, for example, you are having trouble completing a Challenge course you can end up listening to the same song ten times in a row. The rest of the sound effects are pretty standard but I would have preferred a lot more work on the crash noises. Having recently run into a kangaroo while traveling at 60mph, I know that crashes make some BIG noises, a lot more than a little tinkle of glass. (Did I just give away my geographic location?)
For all my negative comments on TD6 I still found the game delivered a positive overall experience. Despite all the glaring flaws I found myself wanting to race some of the tracks over and over for the sheer pleasure of flying through some of the city streets. I personally haven't been this taken by the actual driving in a game since playing IGNPC's 1998 racing game of the year for Powerslide (including the latest NFS). Even so, I never had any real desire to unlock more tracks or challenges in TD6 because chances are the track would be end up being an uninspired rehash of the one right before it. If you don't already own many (or any) arcade racing titles you may Test Drive 6 to be a fun distraction. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a deeper racing experience, this game will force you to look past some very annoying features on your way to driving excitement. With such a high quality opponent already sitting on the shelf, TD6 will always come up in my mind a solid second choice.
-- Arun Devidas