Before Ubisoft’s Ivory Tower was established to create The Crew, many of its team members worked on Test Drive Unlimited. Released in 2006, the original TDU pioneered online open-world racing long before Forza Horizon popularised it.
After a long hiatus, the series is returning with the upcoming Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown from French studio KT Racing, best known for the WRC games before Codemasters acquired the license.
After years of anticipation, July saw KT Racing unveil the first Solar Crown gameplay footage based on an early alpha build. With a low frame rate and unfinished visuals, reactions were mixed, but TDU veterans remain optimistic. For the first time, Solar Crown was shown off to the media at Gamescom, where our colleagues at Gfinity Esports had a chance to take it for a test drive.
Hypercar class takes 100 hours to unlock
Casual players used to Forza Horizon’s fast progression are in for a shock: don’t expect to access the fastest cars from the get-go.
Solar Crown sees you slowly work your way up, starting with a cheap runabout until you can afford to buy your dream car. This progression system is the polar opposite of Forza Horizon, which gives away free supercars in Wheelspin roulettes.
Every car in Solar Crown you own will feel earned - but getting the best cars will take a lot of grinding. According to KT Racing, unlocking the top hypercar class will take 100 hours of play. This will alienate casual players looking for instant gratification, but reward the most dedicated players. The idea is to make you bond with your car.
Unlike in most racing games, buying a car in Solar Crown has a sense of occasion. Each car brand has a dedicated dealership, where you can choose exterior colours and configure the interior based on real manufacturer options.
Every one of the 14 dealerships you can visit is interactive. Before buying your dream car, you can walk around it and examine the exterior, enter the interior, rev the engine, and take it for a test drive for a few minutes. As you do this, other players will roam around dealerships.
As the name suggests, Test Drive’s latest entry centres around the titular Solar Crown competition. With the campaign running every three months, the campaign sees you join one of two rival gangs known as the Streets and Sharps, but story details are being kept under wraps for now.
Unfortunately, buyable houses, a fan-favourite feature of the first two TDU games won’t be in Solar Crown at launch. Instead, you get a room in the Solar Crown Hotel. Here, you can change your character’s clothes and appearance and view upcoming challenges. Depending on your level, four sizes of rooms are available, with Street Clan members getting access to a special VIP room.
Solar Crown isn’t just a racing game. It’s also an MMO focusing on socialising, racing, and cruising with other players, setting it apart from the likes of Forza Horizon and The Crew. Since this is a core part of TDU’s DNA, Solar Crown has no offline mode. This encourages you to race with other players, but empty slots are filled with AI drivers.
Race position objectives vary depending on the number of players in an event, with skill-based matchmaking and ranked races also available in multiplayer. Alternatively, you can ignore other players and play the campaign solo, but KT Racing emphasises that the social aspects are the most fun and authentic way to experience Solar Crown.
Cruis’n Hong Kong Island
While the first gameplay video focused on racing and the rival Sharps and Streets clans, cruising is a core aspect of Solar Crown, capturing the spirit of the first two TDU games. Solar Crown lets you explore 650km (403 miles) of roads in Hong Kong Island built to 1:1 scale. And that doesn’t include the abundance of off-road trails.
It’s a noticeably smaller map than TDU’s Hawaii, but the environment’s density makes it enjoyable to explore, with a variety of locations from city streets to beaches and docks.
Traffic is sparse and there are no pedestrians yet, but the density is expected to increase in the final game. Parts from two car wrecks are also hidden around the map, with 24 parts to collect for players who explore the map thoroughly.
Considering that KT Racing isn’t a triple-A studio like Forza Horizon’s Playground Games and Gran Turismo’s Polyphony Digital, the scope is impressive. As the studio’s first open-world game, Solar Crown is KT Racing’s most ambitious project yet.
Solar Crown introduces a dynamic weather system, with a full 24-hour day and night cycle taking 48 minutes in-game. As you cruise, you can open the windows, lower the roof, and switch on the indicators, headlights, and windscreen wipers with a tap of the d-pad. These animations are unique and mimic real cars. This attention to detail and sense of ownership sets TDU apart from other open-world racers.
As you cruise the streets, you can listen to six radio stations with different themes, from hip hop to indie rock. Each station has 10 hours of music and will sync up with other players if you’re playing in a party.
A deeper driving experience
We got behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang and Bugatti Chiron, and the handling differences were stark. Every car feels different to drive across different classes. Overall, the driving has more depth and is less arcadey than Forza Horizon and KT Racing is continuing to refine the physics for the final game.
While Ubisoft’s The Crew Motorfest is set to take on Forza Horizon this month, Nacon has put the brakes on Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown, with the release delayed until 2024. With the second half of 2023 gridlocked with major racing game releases, a later release will give TDUSC a better chance to stand out on the grid.
Solar Crown is shaping up to be the sequel TDU fans have been clamouring for, but its grindy MMO gameplay probably won’t steer casual racing fans away from Forza Horizon. If the final game is polished at launch, this will be KT Racing’s crowning achievement.
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