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The Double-A Team: Test Drive Unlimited drew a new horizon for racing games

Did you know that they’re making a new Test Drive Unlimited? It’s true! Kylotonn, the French studio behind the well-regarded WRC and Isle of Man TT series, has acquired the Test Drive licence from Atari, and there are veterans of the Eden Games team that made it working at the studio. It’s exciting, but also a little scary. Kylotonn is a small studio owned by a small publisher. Test Drive Unlimited was something of a scrappy underdog in its day, too, of course, but back then its only competition in open-world racing was Need for Speed, a very different beast. Now, a new TDU would be going up against a game that has taken its rough frame and polished it to a gleaming finish: Playground Games’ Forza Horizon. Why bother?

It is, however, only fair that the French series returns to try to grab a slice of this pie: it wrote the recipe. Forza Horizon simply wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for 2006’s Test Drive Unlimited. Released so early in the last generation that it beat the PS3 to market, TDU dreamed of a different kind of real-world road racing to the studious lapping and tweaking of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. Inspired by the original 1987 Test Drive’s winding ribbon of cliffside tarmac, this would be a game about the glory of the open road; about exploring exotic, sun-kissed landscapes; about freedom and danger as you weave through traffic; about cruising as well as going flat out.

Revisiting the game on Xbox 360 now, it’s almost hard to believe it launched on the same platform that hosted the first Forza Horizon in 2012. It wobbles on what was then new hardware, stretching the limits of what the Eden team could achieve with it. The visuals now look muddy and plain, the car handling is agricultural, the frame tears and stutters and the human characters all look like weirdly sarcastic shop mannequins. (Did I mention the game is French?) Some aspects of the game seem embarrassingly dated now: the fashion brands (remember when people wore Ecko Unltd hoodies with cargo shorts?); the glossy, Second Life-style lifestyle MMO elements; the missions that require you to give ladies a lift home with their shopping. Suddenly the noughties seem like a distant land.

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