Old School Gaming

A Glimpse Of Life Inside The Matrix

There is no background scenery.

Drive to any point you can see.

It’s been sitting on my shelf since it came out. Along with a backup of the DLC. Seven years later, I have a graphics card that can run it. Perversely, I couldn’t test drive the first car I bought in Test Drive Unlimited, but after that I can drive down any road I can find, and I can jump in any car at any dealership and see how much ground I can cover in two minutes.

Thousands of miles and tens of hours into the game, there are still long stretches of road I’ve simply never driven, never gotten to. The scale is a huge leap over my last point of reference, Midtown Madness 2, where I paced off the environments at roughly two miles in each direction.

That said, I archived more than 100 downloaded cars over the last 13 years, and tested many more, so I like to think I’m a fairly quick and competent judge of keyboard full-throttle-full-brake-full-lock-only vehicle dynamics. And when it’s sliding smoothly, the car physics are glorious. There is a delightful ease of driving at 6 to 8/10ths, and the insanity of road driving at 10/10ths is ominous. Each car has its own character, and I quickly realize (to my delight) that I need a spreadsheet for my notes on the 136 in-game vehicles. [1]

One muscle car is a high speed glacier. One supercar has the same lack of initial response followed by high grip that it has in every game I’ve played. It’s so consistent, I’m at the point of wondering if that’s how it really drives, or if the developers just all played the same games.

I buy the cars that flatter my idiotic driving on opposite lock. I buy the cars I’m comfortable sliding sideways between a firetruck and a concrete divider at 160, or putting a wheel off at top speed. Mid-corner response is everything, turn-in and great brakes are critical.

The first car I bought that was not turbocharged and AWD was a Jaguar E-Type. It was an impulse purchase. I was there to test drive a Miura. In game, the Lamborghini is affordable and has one of the higher specifications in class. But it and I were not getting along. I was taking too many liberties, spinning and bogging at most corners. The Jag does these slow, catchable, old-movie slides. It’s also gorgeous. Later, in a race, I pass a Miura. While I’m backwards in the grass at 120.

You're still driving that old thing?

That view over the long nose…

The world of computers is a world of infinite resources. Everyone can tear around in a more and more impressive facsimile of a Ferrari. Buy one Pagani, another instantly appears, ready to be optioned and purchased. Every house has a swimming pool or five along with some carefully chosen cinematography. We start by replicating reality as we see it in the movies.

In the beginning of a new game, there’s a lengthy mini-movie that alternates between the game-modeled glamor of airline travel and the dream of a perfectly rendered supercar race. I don’t expect game graphics to be perfect, and these are sufficiently cool. All the love went into the cars.

Then I was asked to pick a character. I wondered, how much time will I spend looking at this stupid character? I don’t want to be that guy, I don’t want to be that guy. Wait. Why yes, I will take the redhead in the miniskirt. I became embarrassed for how low her neckline was after about six hours of gametime. So I started doing missions to get coupons to buy new clothes. Basically, I was playing dress-up with my character. To my shock, I completely bought into it. Just like the beautiful cutscenes, that bit of detail makes game better.

I enjoy and savor the game more when I don’t skip the cutcenes. Admittedly, they are not perfect. The characters’ mouths have a Japanese monster-movie relationship to the dialogue. The cutscenes are repetitive. The same can be said of the in-game scenery. But the same can be said of real life, where even though two stretches of road are not literally identical, they might as well be. I’m old enough to expect and forgive the occasional graphical glitch and programming necessity in computer games.

I’m also trained to instantly disable the sound in driving games, and spare myself the monotonous drone of engine tones. In Test Drive Unlimited, the sounds matter again. They are so spectacular that they occasionally factor into the decision to buy a car. Appreciate the difference between the Viper coupe and convertible. Encourage the sputtering carbs of a British straight six. Tunnels are amazing. Get close to the edge of the road, and hear the howl and wind reflected off telephone poles. It adds another incredibly important factor of realism to the game.

Behind the curve.

Bought a nice driveway with a house attached to it.

When crossing the island to reach a dealership, and not wanting to crash or get a ticket, I am struck by how remarkably like my commute the long drive is. Traffic barely slides behind, and there is a sensation of real speed, even on long uninteresting roads. There’s also the distinct possibility of a realistic, frightening accident.

Civilian cars are the single biggest frustration in a world where limits are necessarily artificial and arbitrary. I feel like I’m the subject of continuous psychological experiments The programming becomes confused on four lane roads, and they spawn and panic and swerve back and forth across and against lanes, sometimes ghosting through a concrete divider. They frequently crash into each other, even though their programming allows them to instantaneously stop from 80+mph. The longer I drive in events in the game ladder, rather than just flying aimlessly around the island, the more deliberately perverse the obstacle cars seem. [2]

They’re never in the same place, they’re always in the wrong place. As a result, it’s impossible to practice a run that includes pedestrian cars. It nearly eliminates skill over luck. Strategy only really comes into play if the time limit is sufficiently generous to allow slow driving alternating with frantic passes. (Sounds fun, right?) They’ll rapidly signal and dodge back and forth toward whatever lane I’m using. The tracking plus the randomness mean they’re not even on the level of PacMan’s pink ghost. They’re Thwomps.

I actually enjoy the traffic when it doesn’t seem like a trap being sprung on me. When presented with endless possibilities, I immediately try to find one end or another. If something is limitless, I turn it into a challenge by imposing limits. How fast can I go here? What is the lowest class car I can use to win this race? Dawdling turista cars increase the sense of control and mastery when they can be anticipated and reacted to appropriately; it turns back into a game, instead of a lesson about the dangers of street racing.

I admire and do not envy the programming challenge that makes the game easy enough for a casual player to win most of the time on the first try [3], but still difficult enough to be interesting and rewarding. The AI can’t handle little bumps, high speed sweepers, or braking zones. The computer also doesn’t know where the computer is putting traffic, and it has terrible problems avoiding itself. But I still got in over my head in one race. Their 220mph cars were much faster in all the appropriate places than my mere 195mph car. Anything I gained under braking, I lost again under acceleration. I pulled out some time, doing my best to drive to the map through a winding coastal section. [4]

If there is any rubber banding in the AI, it’s like a reverse rubber band that feels sorry for me. Or likes to toy with me, it’s hard to tell which while they’re hanging off my back bumper in a vastly faster car that doesn’t even need to draft to get past me. Maybe it has something to do with varying top speeds in the inexplicable class designations? At one point, I looked down and realized I’d been racing, absorbed for 40 minutes. That alone speaks volumes. So I went back to the map, and tried to aim correctly over the next blind crests. I had no business winning that race, and would have been beaten by any third-grade bully who had the sense to ram me and take off. With no LAN support and the servers off, I worry about the replay value. But that race felt like an accomplishment, and hopefully a respectable time, given the car.

Missed the apex.

If you’re complaining, you don’t know how good you have it.

It’s amazing too how much commentary plays into it. The hitchhiker challenges are not terribly difficult, technically. There is a distance, a time limit, and a damage bar for collisions and off-road excursions. The penalty is roughly the same for parking confused on the shoulder as it is for nailing a school bus while driving 150 through a red light. The time limits are rarely insane, even when I like to have a serious cushion at the end. But the passengers are infuriating. Their perspective does not match their situation.

One required me to buy, not just rent, a particular $200,000 car, and still hoped she hadn’t been seen in it. Only one has ever complimented my car, and it was backhanded at that. They say nothing about scything through traffic at 100mph over the speed limit, but touch the grass and they freak out. They should, in my opinion, make distress noises about close calls and recognize with relief or acclaim when I manage to keep a squirrelly car three wheels on the road sidewalk. But it’s completely backwards. Kiss the dirt with the rear outside on a perfect corner exit, and they say ‘It’s OK, I can’t drive either.’ Following a repeat failure, my character actually said a bad word. I was saying many more. The only astute hitchhiker, following a second major collision, asked ‘What is this, a rental car?’

I also quickly learned that speeding is not the problem with the police, either. They only begin pursuit after back-to-back collisions, like some bizarre ultra-libertarian fantasy. The twist is that the fine is based on game progress and the number of cars I hit during a single chase. [5] Later, I found out the selective enforcement was done for legal reasons. (Think about that for a second.) I’m not sure if it had to do with licensing from the manufacturers or IP claims by other game studios. I’m mad that I can’t find the article where I read that. But I doubt either has anything to do with the glitch.

I can be driving along, minding my own business, suddenly be a bird flying into a window, and immediately be a wanted man. However unintentional, the invisible police cars come across as a massive violation of the live-and-let-live rules established elsewhere. Why an omniscient and generally uninterested police force needs extreme stealth cars is a much less interesting subject than the psychological reaction to false conviction in an imaginary game world. There’s the injustice of inconsistency, the blindness of automating fault, the rage at a world I knew was out to trap me ever since that suspicious traffic behavior. There’s the hope I hit the unit violently enough to disable it and get away. There are the flashbacks to middle school gotchas. And it’s all balanced with the need to be measured and calm, the knowledge that outrunning them without causing any more accidents will result in them gradually forgetting about me, like a swarm of bees that dissipates to get back to gathering pollen.

In any game or virtual world we create, we can define the consequences of any action. Many driving games and racers get hung up on ‘realism’, but it’s always selective. If there were traffic AND police vehicles AND a damage bar in a long race, it would be an awful game. If I needed realistic amounts of monopoly money to buy, insure, fuel, tire, and repair a car using realistic earnings from a realistic game job, why simulate at all? Artificial resource limitation can make a game mechanic interesting, but in my opinion it defeats the purpose of a massively open world of ones and zeroes. (Fortunately, the meaningless money in the game tends to pile up everywhere.)

The limits of our imagination carry over into the futures we create, coded or otherwise. The oversimplifications are the biggest threat. The game is full of lazy sexism. All female hitchhikers are models tired from carrying their shopping bags. The women are impossibly statuesque, and the guys look like a bunch of regular idiots. It’s hard to find clothing that isn’t giving away the whole store. There are no female owners in transport or illegal courier missions. My character often looks adoringly at the hitchhikers, none of whom ever appreciate her incredible taste in cars or amazing driving skills. All in all, it’s based in an idiotic vodka commercial mentality.

And the long term irony is that land transport becomes unnecessary in an immersive virtual reality. The spectacular ‘house’ can have a door to New Japan next to the bathroom. Ideally we won’t even have to switch modes to warp, though it works very well in-game. The appeal and enthusiasm for cars will dwindle to the level of horses and trains as they recede from life.

But the expanse of imagination is also what will save this game. Small things like mods to control the police and traffic levels and change the class requirements will be as important as additional cars to taste and savor. A hack for resuscitating multiplayer modes is a long shot, but there’s always just competing for time if I find someone to race. What Test Drive Unlimited already has is the other, low pressure side of that coin: the Soma of just getting in the car and driving for miles. Fast.

I'll take it.

Never cleared the guardrail there before.

[1] The driver aids seem to alternate between increasing the realistic responsiveness and realistic unresponsiveness. The responsiveness of modes two (second easiest) and four (hardest) suit me, but four is such a huge amount of work to maintain control that I settle on two. It smooths things out while still letting things step out of line, still letting me sense what it will take to catch a slide. And when the roads are bumpy, more than one otherwise good car is completely ruined and useless. I understand that real roads are bumpy. I don’t usually dream about racing on them.

[2] A very good road car – no rental SUV packed with surfboards – can stop from 60mph in maybe 100ft. From 100mph, 300ft is an impressive feat. Even at 225mph, 100ft is .3 seconds. 300ft is .9 seconds, and I have repeatedly felt robbed of more time than that to react and avoid a crash. Also, visibility becomes a potential dealbreaker, since I favor the in-car view. Also, in game and on my real commute, I feel like I’m the subject of continuous psychological experiments.

[3] Even though I’ve been away from new-release games, and have never owned a console, I’m probably into driving games far deeper than I realize or admit.

[4]This is the place to mention that the GPS is an IDIOT. I’m in a race, I’m doing anything between 120 and 220, and I get an arrow and a voice letting me know to turn left in, oh, five feet. Effectively, this means I get no indication to turn until ‘You are driving in the wrong direction.’ It is definitely programmed to point straight through non-turning intersections, but this happens even when there’s only one isolated turn to take. When I hear the voice, I hammer the brakes. Even the Corvette’s tailhook-on-a-carrier braking isn’t enough.

[5] You character goes to jail if you don’t have enough money, but that’s another story.


No cheats, and no tuning because I’m a stubborn idealist who appreciates the real engineering that goes into modern cars. But did I ever lean on this walkthrough to keep track of everything.
Game Pressure – Test Drive Unlimited

Car And Driver – The Power To Stop

Motor Trend – 22 Cars That Stop From 60 In Less Than 100 Feet

All images taken by the author with in-game tools, thankyouverymuch.

  • <img src="http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02525/dory_2525738b.jpg&quot; width=350>

    "You're awfully cute! And I know you're talking! But I can't understand what you're saying!"

  • PowerTryp

    This was incredibly detailed and as such I (like most others here I'm sure) didn't read the whole thing. However I can't seem to get this quote out of my head

    "One muscle car is a high speed glacier. One supercar has the same lack of initial response followed by high grip that it has in every game I’ve played. It’s so consistent, I’m at the point of wondering if that’s how it really drives, or if the developers just all played the same games."

    In fact I'm certain that these cars are modeled so accurately that if you have experience with them in real life you'll have a legitimate advantage in the game. I recall an interview with the developers for the Forza series and the guy was talking about testing the Ferrari Enzo in game. He was shocked at the completely impossible handling at low speed and didn't believe that the car could be that bad. Of course it was proven that it was lousy at low speed by Eddy Griffin when he crashed an Enzo at a press event for the god awful movie Redline.

  • Plecostomus

    It looks like you're playing Test Drive Unlimited.

    I really hated the handling dynamics of the game but loved it – I wish Forza Horizon had been HALF as large as driving around the entire island of Oahu…

    Unfortunately I deleted my DLC for the damn game and it's no longer available on XBL, meaning my updated and complete gamefile is utterly unplayable 🙁

    • skitter

      I noticed the very mixed reviews for the handling dynamics. And it's no skill-free arcade game, and it's no OEM grade simulator. I wonder if there were differences between the console and PC versions? One thing I noticed: In out-of-car views, the handling seemed terrible; completely unresponsive. With the in car views, I got every little twitch, beginning of roll, and the sense that the car was working very hard to turn even when I got understeer.