By Jake Carder
Infrogrames, under the ever-famous Atari name brand, has released the next installment in the long running Test Drive series. While being neither a full-fledged simulation nor an arcade experience, Test Drive straddles the proverbial fence between the two. Although Test Drive has a lot going for it, the inconsistencies in design take away from the overall experience.
You will not only find the customary assortment of ways this game can be played, such as the always present quick races, but also a few uncommon races to take part in. For example there is the Drag Race where the key to victory rests in your ability to shift the manual transmission at the right moment. Then there is the Cop Chase in which you embody the local law enforcement in pursuit of six street racers; the objective here is to strike the cars enough to make an arrest before they reach the finish line. A friend can participate, not only through the two race modes already mentioned but also in the regular tracks that are both linear and circuit based as well. And finally there is a last race mode where you must use your skill to navigate through a twisting course as fast as you can.
A story mode entitled Underground is available for the solo players to partake of; as the main character, you have been hired to race against five opponents through certain sections of San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and Monte Carlo. To help get a feel for the course a practice run is available before each race starts; this is highly recommended due to some nagging issues in the game, which will be discussed a little later. If you're successful you can unlock more cars to be played in the other modes.
The cars you begin or unlock with each victory are officially licensed: Viper, Camaro, and Hemi are just a few choice selections out of nearly 40 cars that can be played. The appearance of each car is even changeable; if you don't like the three preset colors, you can customize the paint job and surface type, either matte or reflective, to your liking. So if your favorite colors are purple and gray with a reflective surface, every car can be altered to make them as appealing to your eyes as possible.
Two major problems that plague Test Drive are the yo-yo AI and how the physics work. Yo-yo AI takes place when the run you're making is perfect and the opponent racers are right behind you; no matter what you do, you can't shake them. Another scenario the yo-yo AI effects is when you make the worst crash of your driving career at the start of the race. You would think the rest of the pack would be halfway around the track by the time you get things back together but they won't be. You'll still be able to catch them with little or no trouble at all. The time limit and your own skills are the only real adversaries in the game. If you're spanking the competition hardcore, but you screw up near the finish, you won't be in the top three, guaranteed! Yet, if you're a slow starter, you can make some mistakes ands still have plenty of opportunities to take the lead and win.
How the cars handle has nothing to do with the physics problem in the game; in fact they handle quite well and aren't loose to the point of fighting the car for control. Collision detection is where the problem lies; essentially what you're driving is a battering ram that travels over a hundred miles an hour. Knocking a car backwards, in the air, is a common occurrence in this game and can actually be used to get past a rival by holding them up. That still isn't the real problem though. The trouble is in the local foliage. Test Drive has the strongest vegetation around. Sure you can take on a 2000lb vehicle and usually come out with your wheels still on the ground but lock horns with a small bush or railing and your world will literally be turned around. Even still, strike a power pole or fire hydrant and they'll quickly be uprooted and tossed aside like they were nothing. It's all these inconsistencies that start to add up and prevent Test Drive from ever becoming what it should be.
By utilizing the custom soundtrack feature I was able to play the music I wanted to hear, and since they had a Hemi I thought it would be fitting to play some Lynard Skynard in homage to the movie Joe Dirt. Test Drive's own soundtrack is brimming with well-known artists and offers a good mix of music styles. Though I found it distracting that only one song plays per track; the constant repeat is a nuisance. Another drawback is the lack of a way to cycle through the tracks to one that is more enjoyable. Filling out the rest of the audio is sub-par sound effects and engines.
Test Drive runs at a fluid pace, keeping it around 60fps, even with all the effects on. The car models are accurate to their real-world counterparts and the scenery reflecting off the mirror-like surfaces is cool, with a drawback. If you are going fast enough, at times the reflections don't match what you're passing; this is extremely noticeable in the night driving scenes. Don't worry about marring the paint-jobs on those gorgeous cars, if you wreck havoc with either car or bush the vehicles themselves tend to stay unscathed; on a side note, the fender-benders can be quite stunning, especially when you start a chain reaction--the more cars involved the merrier.
Ultimately, Test Drive is most enjoyed in moderation, so for the majority of us it's a rental. Being a rather easy game to beat, the only replay value is the multi-player portion, and there are much better games out there for that. If you're curious about Test Drive, rent it; the most you can lose is five dollars and five days of your life.