There are few words that, by their sound alone, accurately convey an experience as well as "smorgasbord".
From the moment you edge close enough in the queue to slide a plate off the stack, all pretence towards conservatism is out the window. Leering over a seemingly endless collection of steamed and not-quite-so-steamed dishes, you know there's a very real chance your future self will look back in despair twenty-four hours from now when you're paying the emergency call-out fee to your plumber.
But that's not going to stop you from constructing a tower of food on your plate, the steady wobble of which is likely to risk the collapse of the entire operation until it can be shored up with a pork chop or two.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is, rather long-windingly, a smorgasbord without the luxurious advantage of a pork chop for structural integrity. There's so much on offer that not only is it difficult to know where to begin, it's not even all that clear why it began in the first place.
Your primary task is to select an avatar from a mixed-race, mixed-gender, and probably vegetarian collection of up-and-coming racers at a poolside party in Ibiza. It's a shame to see developers Eden drop the realism ball so quickly in the title, not one of the people present have imbibed enough drugs to start their own clinic, but realism, as we shall see, is not the focus of this title.
After an extremely implausible introductory sequence which sees your character rewarded with a job and accommodation after joyriding in your employers Ferrari, you're introduced to the raison d'etre - the Solar Crown series of racing challenges, sponsored by a watchmaker with a suspiciously similar logo to Rolex. The fraternisation between competitors, sponsors and randomly introduced characters forms the basis of the achingly thin plot, around which you'll find temporary scaffolding in the form of some of the worst character acting outside of The Young and the Restless.
Fortunately, you'll be doing so much driving that it's easy to forgive, or ignore the cinematic sequences when they appear. There are two vast, sprawling areas in the game - the aforementioned Spanish island of Ibiza, and a remake of the original Test Drive Unlimited island of Hawaii. Quite why your two choices of locale are situated almost exactly opposite each other on the globe is not explained, however they are linked by an equally unlikely direct flight, accessible after you've spent a few hours gaining enough experience to be permitted entry to the airport.
Each island has a series of challenges that form the bulk of the Solar Crown series. Choosing between Classic, Off-Road and Asphalt racing for each challenge, you're then further tasked with finding an appropriately rated vehicle to use in each race. You can visit a number of dealerships, or second-hand suppliers in order to track down the right car, and if you're lacking in funds you can participate in mini-challenges along the way until you're able to afford the requisite ride. Most dealerships and other points of interest on the map need to be discovered, so random open-road driving occupies a good part of the early game.
In addition to the campaign races and challenges, there's also tuning shops to enhance the performance of your vehicle. You can go shopping for better clothes, get a haircut, a carwash, or some cosmetic surgery. You can buy a house with additional parking space for your growing car collection, and plenty of potential for interior decoration, if that's your thing. It's all as vapid and plastic as you'd imagine, which is a worrying trend throughout.
Whereas the original Test Drive Unlimited positioned itself as a somewhat aspiring open-world racing title, Unlimited 2 has taken the unusual step of clumsily adding to this foundation with vast swathes of decidedly average content. In order to reach the global experience cap of level 60, you'll need to maximise your Collection, Social, Competition, and Discovery point totals. In short, you'll need to act like the pretentious club-dwelling, casino-frequenting, street-racing socialite expounded in the many cut-scenes in order to get anywhere, which can take an awfully long time to achieve.
The rewards are obvious from the start, however. As the early Solar Crown championships pay a paltry $50,000 in prize money, it'll take you quite a while to save the $2m required to pick up some of the top-end vehicles such as the Bugatti Veyron or the Koenigsegg CCXR. That doesn't mean you can take them for a short test drive to see what your hard work will eventually be rewarded with - typically a kilometre-long four-wheel drift off the motorway at 200mph followed by an abrupt stop courtesy of a tree.
As well as purchasing vehicles with your prize money, you can win special models by competing in unique challenges, such as racing one of the recently defeated personalities from the Solar Crown. Quite why you would want to win a vehicle you've just spent the last half an hour watching as a dot behind you on the mini-map is unclear, and to add insult to injury, once you've received a special vehicle you can't sell it again. Ever. As each property you own has a finite parking capacity, you're going to learn to hate that god-awful, gutless, lipstick-pink Mustang in very short order.
There's also a rather redundant cash-cow in the form of the F.R.I.M. system (Free Ride Instant Money). The more you slide, jump or pass cars closely in free-roam mode, the more money is accumulated until such time as you either bank it, or lose it by hitting something. The money on offer is pretty useless past the first couple of hours of play, but you can always spend it on a new hat or something.
Despite the attempts by Eden to do as much as possible to distract you from actually driving, it's necessary to do an awful lot of it to discover many of the hidden locations on the map, as well as complete the challenges on offer. Most of the problems outlined thus far could therefore be excused by the implementation of an outstanding driving model, but sadly and somewhat inevitably, this isn't the case.
It's impossible to identify exactly which component of the driving experience is broken. It's just too subtle. Perhaps it's a combination of, well, everything. The incessant lift-off understeer. The unexpected snap oversteer on front-wheel drive cars at random speeds. The twitchy and unpredictable steering that takes an age to get used to. The ability of the game to make you think you've finally mastered it, then throw you a corner with characteristics that, to put it mildly, stretch credulity. On occasion, each wheel on the car seems to occupy a different time zone.
Could the overwhelming feeling of disappointment be down to the bug whereby the AI teleports in front of you in offline singleplayer mode? Or the utterly tedious license tests you're required to pass before you can race in any Solar Crown challenge? The selection of two radio stations that both repeat songs too often? Perhaps it's the incessant intrusion from people calling your cellphone, reading extremely poorly from a script and attempting to reset your GPS target whilst you're doing 150 mph on the motorway, it's hard to be sure.
Despite the vast world, or perhaps because of it, the environmental detail is decidedly average. Textures lack any kind of complexity, most AI vehicles look like boxes with wheels, and with the exception of some able lighting Unlimited 2 wouldn't look out of place as a launch title for either console. It's a real shame, because the transition between motorway, B-roads, towns and fields is handled well, it's just that there's no refinement on offer. When the game engine tries to extend itself, the resulting pop-in just adds to the decidedly mundane experience.
Don't expect a Grand Theft Auto-inspired world here either - despite the massive land area and the "go anywhere" attitude on offer, there's surprisingly little to do outside of the main centres.
Having failed to learn from the original title, Unlimited 2 doesn't have what you could describe as a reliable multiplayer at this time either. The online match-ups and ability to form clubs, and gain experience through user-created challenges are all promising aspects, and when they work, they work well. However with server instability whatever potential these might offer for end-game content has been hamstrung. As there's a lot of experience on offer for those who play online, it's frustrating that Eden couldn't work a bit harder to provide a more stable launch.
There's so much to admire in the potential of Unlimited 2. Or rather there was, until more and more detail started to get stacked on to an already precariously unbalanced plate. There's no suggestion that the basic underlying gameplay has really been altered much from the original, so really what is on offer is simply a case of "more is less".
But when it all works - an admittedly rare event but worthy of mention - there's a tremendous amount of enjoyment on offer. Winning races by a fraction of a second due to your previous upgrade is hugely satisfying. Slipstreaming competitors at 120mph before overtaking and handbraking around a 90 degree corner is spectacular fun. Desperately counting down the fractions of a second required to beat the clock on a time trial, or finding a new route to get a better run-up to a speed camera epitomises what this game has to offer, however ultimately it all adds to an overwhelming sense of annoyance when you realise the good bits are just too fleeting.
This was a title we'd all desperately wanted to see perform well, and while the core game does offer a lot of entertainment, it's frustrating to imagine what could have been if only Eden had a bit more vision. It's clear that if there's to be another edition to the series, it's going to need some serious work in order to remain relevant.