Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown hands-on preview: Five key features

We’ve been hands-on with the much anticipated open-world racing game, Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown, with a newer build than the recent TDU Connect event. How’s it shaping up so far?
Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown hands-on preview, truly unique

Following a substantial gestation period, which is still ongoing, the anticipation nearly got to us. 12 years since the last Test Drive Unlimited game, the questions levied against Solar Crown have built and built into a barrage of frustration and out-there theories.

Does it rely too much on rose-tinted spectacles? Can it differentiate itself from a crowded market against the likes of The Crew, Forza Horizon and Need for Speed? Will it ever be released?

To answer the latter point – yes, eventually. To wade through the former queries, we went hands-on at Gamescom

Cars are earnt, not rewarded

There will be around 100 cars at launch in Solar Crown, which will be bolstered post-release. In true TDU style, they are displayed in lavish showrooms that players explore in a first-person perspective. 

When in the dealership, you’ll be able to check out key stats, open doors, sit inside and take it for a…. yes, you’ve guessed it, a test drive before purchasing. All exterior paint and interior combinations are in line with real-world options. 

Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown Italian car dealership

They will be broken down into four main categories, although the main focus is aspirational luxury: 

  • Daily drivers 
  • Off-road 
  • Supercars 
  • Hypercars 

Behind closed doors at the recent German Gamescom event, developers Niels Coueffe and Guillaume Guinet were keen to double down on the slow pace of vehicle acquisition. The Bugattis and Koenigseggs we purchased should take tens of hours to unlock. The idea is that you keep a car for “days and days,” Coueffe reveals “so you build a bond and cherish it.” 

Upgrading from Alfa Romeo Mito to an 8C should feel like a significant achievement. This progression is at odds with most contemporary rivals, perhaps Need for Speed Unbound is the closest to offering an analogous grind. While it may put some people off, we hope that this long-term view is an approach that ultimately pays dividends. 

Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown interior

While in motion, the car models don’t appear as detailed (in terms of polygon count or lighting effects) as some rival titles. There are still many months of development ahead, but this is an area that needs a polish. Interiors, however, are par for the course. 

Each car has the ability to toggle lights and indicators plus if it’s a convertible, you can raise or lower the roof. Engine sounds seem like a significant step forward over the prior World Rally Championship games that share the same technology base. 

The environment is diverse

Mapping Hong Kong one-to-one (1:1) is going to be quite the challenge for the Kylotonn development team. 

The region is known for its narrow alleyways, so some of these and the main roads have been widened a bit for easier online gameplay, but otherwise, the aim is for something that’s faithful. There are over 600km of open roads, excluding trails, with a rough 50/50 split asphalt to dirt. 

Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown off-road trial driving gameplay

Of note, driving a supercar on gravel without suitable modifications is, rightly, a bit of a pain, but trucks and SUVs are part of the roster which should handle the rough with greater ease. 

During our gameplay session, we were led down one of the trails, which are essentially gravel walkways, and it’s here where over 200 collectables could be found. 

Not only is Hong Kong dense, but it’s also vertical, with giant skyscrapers, and the development team was keen to stress that this has been one of the challenges so far, sapping resources. 

Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown Alfa Romeo 8C Spider gameplay

Perhaps that may go some way to explain why the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions have been canned – although we did ask about the Nintendo Switch release and its fate is yet to be decided. 

The handling is… strange

Being based on the KT Engine, which formerly has been used for the likes of WRC games and TT Isle of Man title, means that the vehicle handling is on the more serious end of the open-world racing spectrum. 

    Surprisingly so. Slamming on the brakes at the last minute can lead to lock-ups and ploughing straight into a building or rock face. When we watched July’s TDU Connect event we thought some of the driving was ineptitude, until we tried it ourselves and slammed into the nearest van. Oops. 

    Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown Nissan GT-R

    So far, this is the most challenging driving experience in a game of this ilk, and it’s hard to tell at this stage if that is a unique selling point or a drawback. Certainly, there’s a depth to the physics and car set-up options you’d expect from a track racer such as Forza Motorsport, not a Forza Horizon rival.

    There’s also an incredible sense of speed when hurtling at 300km/h down a busy main road, but not necessarily from visual effects, but because you never really feel in control. Petrified that you’ll miss the next 90-degree right-hander, we found ourselves backing off to reduce the chances of yet another costly accident. 

    It’s an MMO

    At Gamescom, the scope of Solar Crown finally hit us. This is the driving game equivalent of World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls Online

      It’s not necessarily going for the shiniest visuals on the market, aiming for a youth market with a hip-hop star on the cover nor an overload of sugary rewards… 

      Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown radio stations

      It’s like those open-world Assetto Corsa PC mods mixed with the slow grind of an early Gran Turismo game but permanently online. 

      As you explore Hong Kong, six radio stations each with around 10 hours of audio will tickle your ears. What you hear is synched with every player around the world at the same time. The same is true of the dynamic time of day or weather effects. 

      Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown night club

      You will see up to eight players in a workshop modifying a car, witness up to 12 players in free roam close to you and bump into 16 players in hubs such as hotel lobbies and nightclubs, knowing that every player in the world is listening to the same music at the same time of day could make the environment feel more populous than it really is. 

      There’s a lot of work still to do

      It’s amazing what gameplay can do to your perception of a game, even in the embryonic stages with several rough edges.  

        Following the initial announcement of Solar Crown in 2020, before delays from 2022, then to 2023 and now ‘early 2024’ we were, along with Miley Cyrus, a bit Jaded. The gameplay footage took years to materialise, and when it did, the presentation felt stilted while the visuals looked behind the pace. 

        Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown Gamescom

        But now we’ve played it, we can see there’s the possibility for something that harks back to former glories, and by doing so, offers something fresh in the current era. We’re a little suspicious about the visuals and are yet to get the hang of the vehicle handling, but hopefully, these will be refined with time. 

        Our main takeaway is that Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown is here for the long haul. The aim is to continually support it for “hopefully years after launch”, according to Coueffe, with seasonal gameplay and unlocks mixed with the online gameplay and a glacial reward loop. 

        Whenever it does eventually release, and the first half of 2024 is all we know so far, it will be judged not just on that moment, but the communities it hopes to build years down the line. 

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