In many ways, Test Drive Unlimited is a typical arcade-type driving game. The AI racing is nothing special. The physics and car control leave a lot to be desired. While the online component is an interesting attempt to blend the normal single player experience with real head-to-head racing, unfortunately it also opens the door to the usual online frustrations with griefers, cheats, and unavailable servers.

Where TDU excels is in presenting an immense, detailed environment you can freely explore. The developer, Eden Games, has modeled the entire Hawaiian island of Oahu, from the open countryside and mountains to the city of Honolulu.

That map is not just a pretty picture. It's an interactive model you zoom into while looking for races or places to go, ultimately going down right to street level.

Even while driving around, the draw distance and LOD (level of detail) work is amazing. The mountains or high rises are clearly visible from a long way away. As you get closer they gradually resolve into very detailed structures or terrain. The transition is generally very smooth and natural feeling. The only exception are trees. Some of them tend to pop in unnaturally, while others fade into view more subtly. Plus thereís an awkward distance range where tree shadows appear on hillsides but the trees do not, which leads to a strange blotchy appearance. It seems that SpeedTree or something similar is used for many of the trees, but billboarding is only noticeable during a few overhead cut scenes. Tall roadside weeds are nicely modeled and seem to be well designed to avoid popping into view as you drive along. Buildings come in sufficient variety that you rarely notice any repetition until you've played for many days.

In short, it is surprisingly enjoyable to simply drive around and do some virtual sightseeing.

If you were going to choose a locale to encourage casual touring, itís hard to go wrong with a tropical island. Sunny blue skies and lush foliage are a welcome respite during dull winter months.

The game does have some nice water effects, but you have to look hard to find them. Click on the thumbnail to see a larger image. Some shots may appear too dark when viewed in bright ambient light, e.g. an office, or on a dim laptop screen.

This shot shows the long view distance of a typical Honolulu street. The buildings in the far distance are simple shaded boxes, but the transition through various LOD to the fully detailed facades in the foreground is very smooth.

Look at all the detail that is picked up - flowers, railings, air conditioners, etc. The variety of building facades, plus the way they are stepped back and overlap, convey the complexity that exists in the real world. This comes across even more strongly when driving through the streets.

Much of the island features lush vegetation covering rugged mountain ranges. These provide an ideal setting for hairpin roads. Unfortunately they are often unrealistically bumpy when driving from the in-car view.

This is just outside of a small crossroads cluster of houses on western side of the island interior. It's drier and more open in this region, and there are some great long distance vistas.

While driving through these areas, itís so satisfying to know that you can actually reach those distant mountains and see whatís on the other side. The NFS Underground series offered a moderately large area to explore, but TDU is in a whole different class.

Of course, such extensive freedom is not nearly enough for some drivers. Off-road excursions are possible too, preferably over rocky cliffs. Extreme test driving!

Again, look at the long draw distance in the image above. Sure, the most distant mountains are pretty simple shapes. But way down there you can see a highway hugging the coast that leads to Honolulu and beyond.

Classic cars and classic tropical waters. In this case, an Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato climbing up up from the shoreline in the Diamond Head area with a Jaguar XJ220 lurking in the background.

Now doesn't that look like an inviting twisty road? There is normally a fair amount of traffic along the coast, this brief lull provides a perfect opportunity to launch the McLaren F1 and see what she'll do.

Any driving game has to provide sleek, detailed cars, and TDU doesnít disappoint. Besides the expected exotics, there are more humble hot hatches, a few old school muscle cars, classic sports cars, even some bikes. There are a few glaring gaps, for example, almost no Japanese nameplates. You'll find a 350Z, and I believe a Skyline and Lexus IS350 come in an XBox360 download pack, but no Hondas, Acuras, Subies, Evos, Toyotas, other Nissans, etc. Maybe the NFS franchise has those locked up? There are also no Porsches or BMWs -- I want to see an E46 and 944S2!

You'll notice that there is often a shadow rendering error by the front tire of pretty much any car. Rather annoying, but sometimes you can work around it.

This overhead shot of the Lamborghini Gallardo shows its dramatic design to good effect. It is definitely a piece of rolling scuplture.

From the modern to a classic. This Jaguar XKE has nicely modeled exhaust and wire wheel details, but the rear quarter window is a little rough.

The fertile fields of Oahu provide a stark setting for the Shelby Cobra Concept car. A great modern re-interpretation of the original, although the windshield pillars seem a little too blocky.

The Ferrari Enzo becomes available upon reaching Champion level. Downtown Honolulu provides the backdrop. I really wanted an industrial-looking shot, but this classic beauty shot will do for now.

Ahhh, vacationing on the beach. The Ford GT-40 is offered with stripes to really complete the look. You can even approximate the classic Gulf-Mobile color scheme using the custom paint shop.

The Lamborghini Muira has always been one of my favorites. It took the 1966 Geneva auto show by storm with its sideways-mounted rear V12 and stunning styling.

The Lamborghini Muira again. I added a custom orange-bronze paint color that felt appropriate for that swinging '60s era. Notice that shadow error appearing at the front tire.

Classic muscle cars like this Z/28 are also present. TDU is not quite the resurrection of Motor City Online, but it's still fun to cruise around in Detroit iron.

Playing in "Hardcore" mode lets you do some terrific jumps, so I had to set up a Smokey and the Bandit type of scene. Yee-haw! Not exactly the best shot, but getting the timing just right is rather tricky.

Considering that the essence of TDU is racing along roads at high speeds, dodging traffic and competitors, itís amazing to see all the incidental detail that the developer has included.

Here's a classic example. You'll never see this recreational area from the street since it's tucked behind a school, but the developers took the time to create colorful playground equipment.

Here's a beach behind an upscale hotel in Honolulu. Impossible to see from the road and actually quite difficult to reach. But they added beach chairs and umbrellas anyway.

In the Pearl Harbor dockyard area you'll find a number of vessels, both cargo boats and warships, that are fairly well detailed despite being just part of the background scenery.

Below are few other fancy screenshots that I had fun creating, but just didn't seem to fit into any of the other sections.

The built-in screenshot utility gives quite good control over the camera, as you can see by this extreme wide angle shot. I only wish it allowed a little more freedom in positioning the camera.

Youíll notice that sometimes I park on sidewalks so I can swing the viewing angle down low enough. In addition, the time-of-day adjustment should be a bit broader so you could get real sunset or sunrise shots. Perhaps the environmental lighting system doesn't provide for those conditions.

But from time to time, the weather system does generate these sorts of overly dramatic storm clouds. Maybe it's the smoke monster from the Lost TV show? After all, it is filmed on Oahu.

The quintessential "motoring in paradise" shot -- palm trees reflected in the hood of an Aston Martin Vanquish. Fortunately the paint is more vibrant than the classic British Racing Green, that's actually a pretty dull color.

When I get some decent racing action shots, I'll stick 'em here.

See you on the road!