It is always disappointing when a game that you have looked forward to for quite some time fails to live up to the hype.  This is especially true when the first game in the series has already become one of your favorites.  In this case, I’m talking about the driving game Test Drive Unlimited, and its very recently-released sequel.

The original TDU was perhaps the quintessential driving game – not racing, exactly, but driving.  It allowed you to drive across a fairly decent-looking recreation of Hawaii in a huge variety of expensive sports cars, and the driving really was half the fun – exploring new areas, taking in the scenery, enjoying the feeling of speed.  In essence, it let you recreate the feeling you see in many car commercials – a luxury car driving deftly through a beautiful landscape – that is nearly impossible to experience driving a real car (well, legally, at least).  Yes, there’s racing as well, but in general it’s a game that seems to encourage fun and exploration, and it has fast become one of my favorite driving games, despite being a bit dated.  In fact, it was mainly due to my love of that game that  made TDU2 one of the few day-one game purchases that I anticipate this year.

Now, unfortunately, I have to get to the disappointment.  On its surface, TDU2 is quite similar to its predecessor, but starts out a bit different – instead of a rich thrill-seeker jetting to the islands to buy fast cars and race around in them, this time you’re a parking valet with dreams of racing glory.  Luckily, the introduction finishes fairly quickly, and you’re left with a starter vehicle and the island of Ibiza to explore.  However, to get much of anything more in the game – better cars, actual racing events, access to the redesigned Hawaii area – you have to first get through what the game calls “racing school.”  This, unfortunately, is where the game rapidly deteriorates into a morass of bad game design and keyboard-smashing anger that I would term “a textbook recipe for frustration.”

To sum it up, the “racing school” is a set of six test tracks that you have to successfully complete in order to actually unlock any of the racing events.  These test tracks are made to simulate an actual driving school, but are far more demanding – plus, while you can use full driving assistance elsewhere, in this mode a lot of it is turned off.  Plus, the tracks aren’t just about completion, they’re also timed – with ridiculously tight time points that seem unlikely to be met by anyone outside of the people who designed the courses, or the truly hardcore racing gamer.

For reference, here’s my progress so far (and keep in mind, out of the many races I’ve completed successfully in the original game, only one race took me ten attempts to get a first-place finish):

Racing School Step 1: 2 tries
Step 2: 3 tries
Step 3: 3 tries
Step 4: 10+ tries
Step 5: 25+ tries (attention developers:  this, right here, is a really good sign your game is broken.)
Step 6: at least 10 tries, the closest I’ve ever come is within 7 seconds of the “pass” benchmark.

So, the first problem with this exam is the fact that it’s almost impossible to complete, and that’s for someone who is at least halfway decent at racing games, including the first game in this series.  I can’t even imagine how frustrated someone must be who goes into this game with even less skill.  I mean, it’s pretty simple to me – if someone’s gone through your course twenty times and is still struggling, simply putting up a pat “practice harder” isn’t gonna cut it.  An intelligent game designer would, after a while, offer to skip the problematic track, or slowly roll the race benchmark back after a certain number of failed attempts.  To have such an inflexible system, in a “training” area no less, is basically unforgivable.

It’s even more unforgivable when your training area intentionally turns off easier or more controllable game modes to complete, especially when coupled with cars that control rather poorly on their own, especially with keyboard controls.  In fact, I am fairly well-convinced that one of the tests (test 5 of the classic driving school) may actually be nearly impossible to complete using keyboard controls (while a controller has an analog stick with variable turning rates, the keyboard controls are not, and require incredibly fast tapping to steer incrementally – just the slightest extra tap, or holding the key just a tiny bit too long, send the car into a fishtail and make the race impossible to win.  I was able to win in a few attempts once I finally game in and plugged in a controller, but it is irresponsible to release a PC game that cannot be successfully controlled with mouse/keyboard at crucial junctures.).

The final aspect in this recipe of frustration, of course, is that this test is a requirement before you can compete in any other events at all.  Given that these events are a large part of the game, and are the part of the game that lets you advance and get the cash needed to actually get other cars to drive, being stuck at this racing school bottleneck means that there’s a lot of the game you just can’t play if you don’t complete it.  The game also has levels to complete, in order to get access to other areas (want to go to Hawaii?  you’ll need at least ten), in four categories.  One is competition, which you can’t do anything at all in until you pass the impossible racing school, and another is collection, which requires you to buy things with in-game cash, which you get primarily through the competitions you can’t participate in (yes, there’s a way to get cash just by driving around, if you don’t mind racking it up a couple of hundred dollars at a time to purchase $100,000 cars).  This means that you’re pretty much barred from doing anything else in the the game besides driving around the first island in your starter car until you complete the racing school.  Because of this, one or two frustrating test races turn into a stumbling block that locks out 90% of the game.  If it wasn’t a requirement, it wouldn’t be a big deal – in the original, when I got tired of trying that frustrating race, I simply moved onto another one, progressing elsewhere.  If the original game had also had this system, I probably would have dropped it early on and not even given its sequel a look – as it is, this mess has pretty much turned me off to the eventual TDU3.

Ironically, the fix to this issue is incredibly simple, and all you’d have to do is literally change a couple of numbers.  After five failed attempts, say, you add five seconds onto the race time you have to meet.  Five more failures, you add five more seconds, or maybe ten.  That way, you get people driving on the tracks and trying to improve, but if they’re only so good at one particular race, you don’t lock them out of the rest of the game.  In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of another racing game that I’ve played that locks you out of doing any races at all if you fail the initial tracks.   This, in my mind, is an irresponsible, game-breaking flaw put in place by short-sighted game design and obviously inadequate playtesting by an actual cross-section of their gaming audience.

Honestly, I would love to love this game.  Take away the ridiculous exercise in frustration that is the racing school, and this game has a lot of the promise of the original – a decently-detailed place to drive around with some truly beautiful scenes.  One saving grace is that while events are locked out, exploration is still wide open, and you can drive across Ibiza to your heart’s content, if you don’t mind doing it in a somewhat basic starting car.  Zooming along both on- and offroad is still pretty fun, and there was one beautiful moment driving along an offroad track right next to the beach, with the water lapping up on the shore, that reminded me of the promise this game could have.  It’s such a shame that some of that promise is taken away due to the game’s crippled design, but I still have some hope.  The game launcher checks regularly for updates, and all they need is one, perhaps a few kilobytes in size, with some new qualifying times that could alleviate quite a lot of frustration.