Customization is one of the backbones of the MMO genre -- in a persistent world full of thousands of people, you've got to do everything you can to try and stand out. So Eden has made almost everything in the game customizable: the vehicles you drive, your own character, your home and your location. The first title in the series toyed with customization, but the second title almost puts it front and center.
I say almost, because driving is still front and center in this game. The team has revamped the driving mechanics -- even they admit that they weren't quite right in the first title -- and the cars feel like they have a nice balance between arcade and simulation driving. If you want to be challenged to make perfect turns and brake at exactly the right times, the higher-end cars will do that. But if you just want to tool around the island and see the sights, there are plenty of low-to-middle-end cars that are fun to drive around as well.
Racing is as it was last time -- you can run single-player events, start up a race from anywhere by challenging a friend or a stranger in free roam, or join an online competition from a menu. Co-op modes are brand new to the series, actually borrowed from the MMO genre. One such mode I played was called Follow the Leader -- all members of the party are sent to run a series of checkpoints, but only one of them can see the next checkpoint at any given time, so the team has to work together. Once all of the team's members have made it through all of the checkpoints, the time for that course is uploaded, so co-op teams can compete worldwide to see how fast they can complete races together.
And the game does play worldwide -- while it's not strictly a persistent MMO (with thousands of players on the same server at a time), Eden Games has put together some "special mojo" that allows new players to constantly appear in your free roam game, so as you drive across the island, you might encounter people from all over the globe.
The graphics have been given an update as well -- they already looked great in the first game, but with a weather system and a day and night cycle, TDU's Hawaii is just as beautiful as the licensed vehicles you're driving. And even the customizable environments serve their purpose well -- clean lines and smooth models let the graphics stand back and allow your custom colors and design choices to stand out.
No social customization game is complete without allowing other players to see what you've created and bought, and Test Drive Unlimited 2 lets you show off your cars and home to friends in quite a few social spaces. Unfortunately, I don't think that connects in directly to the gameplay (there are a few social achievements that give rewards in the game, and it's possible that inviting friends over might help you unlock cars or money), so any time you spend with friends in houses or social areas is purely for fun. But it can be fun -- especially if you've spent time customizing things just right, or have unlocked one of the more impressive areas, just inhabiting the space with a friend can be a good time.
Almost all of the game's aspects have been improved -- you can now level up over 60 levels by unlocking challenges in four different categories: Racing, Collection, Discovery (which consists of finding car parts scattered around the in-game world), and Social. You can explore cars in first-person view while opening the doors, raising or lowering the roof, or examining the interior in fine detail. Cars will take cosmetic damage now, although the only way to keep your car pristine is to reload it somewhere. And though I didn't get to see much of this system, players can form clubs in the game, with their own funds and challenges to tackle.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 looks like it's shaping up very well for its September 21st release. Eden tried an experiment with the first version of the game, and it's clear that with the success of that title, the chance they took was validated. In this second go-round, they're clearly taking the original premise and driving with it.