It's been four years -- a.k.a. a long time -- since Eden Studios introduced "massively open online racing" with the original Test Drive Unlimited. The series returns this fall in the sequel, which is still MOOR but not just MOAR of the same.

Eden and publisher Atari gave me a peek at the work-in-progress racer yesterday, which was running on PC for demo purposes but at the same resolution and level of detail planned for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. It's already looking gorgeous -- the video above doesn't do it nearly enough justice -- but that's not what impressed me the most. So much has been expanded, tweaked and added to this sequel that I would have believed it if the developer had told me it'd been working on the game since 2006. It also seemed so finished that I couldn't believe we won't be playing it until near the end of this year.
Before getting a look at the game in action, the developer gave me a rundown of what it is looking to accomplish with its "rags to riches" story mode / leveling system. In TDU2, winning races isn't the only means of increasing your driver level (which is joined by an elaborate "MyProfile," er, profile, complete with mood icons and photos you've snapped in-game). Instead, experience is doled out in categories including competitions, discovery percentage, collection completion and even socialization with other players.

This first look at the game world, its textures and extra-saturated colors was eye popping.

There's a level cap of 60 and at level 10 you're able to drive to the airport and hop a flight from Ibiza (the game's first location) to Hawaii (its second and the setting of the first TDU, which has been expanded with an additional 600 KM of asphalt and off-road trails). You'll eventually be able to put your winnings into buying the ultimate home -- a yacht -- which comes complete with a totally customizable interior a la PlayStation Home's personal spaces, a jacuzzi to invite friends into and ... the ability to dock it at either island.

Provided you have a constant PSN or XBL connection, single- and multiplayer are meant to blend seamlessly together, allowing you to create groups with other players that stay together until disbanded, moving as a group between races and even hangouts.

The game demo started out in a garage, which, in TDU2, is one of the places that can serve as a social hub. You can walk around in first person in these, inviting other players to join you in admiring your collection. The cars themselves look great, with detail to the nth degree -- outside and in. The car interiors I was shown were far and away the most impressive I've seen in a game, with details down to real-looking carpet, suede and hand--stitched leather. At any time, a friend hanging out in the garage could hop into the passenger seat of the same car to admire its craftsmanship, and even even stay in it as a "co-driver" (who can issue directional icons) if you decide to take it out for a spin.


For the next part of the demo, Eden hit the streets of Ibiza in a blue metallic fleck Audi, driving down to one of the many beach front villages to show off the day and night cycle (which is consistent for everyone playing online and lasts two-and-a-half hours), speeding up time in order to show me a fantastic sunset and the lights of the village turning on. This first look at the game world, its textures and extra-saturated colors was eye-popping. So was the incredible sense of speed.

Next up was some flat-out driving along a road further inland, as traffic zipped by and a sunny day quickly transitioned to pouring rain and lighting (again, sped up for the demo) with the developer commenting that the wet roads will affect the game's reworked, "immediately accessible" car handling. In fact, the demo driver lost control at one point, spinning out and scraping his car's passenger side -- I'm just going to assume it was planned in order to show off the full damage modeling, which I was told will begin with paint scratches and scrapes, and progress to losing entire body panels. However, it won't affect handling.

Clubs even have treasurer, who collect money from members to wager on challenges with other clubs, clubhouse improvements or buying rare cars.

Eden said it didn't want to penalize players for having fun, although I'd like to see an option to enable or disable it. The developer also said it found that players really liked just cruising the open world of the first game, so it's including "cruise chains," a small HUD that pops up as drifts, jumps and other "daring" feats are chained together, racking up money in the process. Hit something, though, and whatever's been earned during the chain is forfeited.

I got a quick look at another addition: off-road trails. In fact, while tearing down one, the driver came across an old wreck. This counted as a discovery, and I was told that if you find a certain number of each unique wreck, you can then buy that car, which isn't available for purchase in the game any other way. There are other special cars like this which can only be purchased once you've created a racing club with friends (complete with an upgradable clubhouse) and saved up to buy them. Clubs can have presidents and treasurers, the latter being responsible for collecting money from members to wager on challenges with other clubs, clubhouse improvements or buying said cars -- which include an ultra-rare Gumpert Apollo Sport. Then it's just a matter of everyone agreeing who gets to take it out when.

If all of this sounds like a lot ... it is. And it's not even including the challenge editor (create a route, race it to set a reference time, then post it for the world to race with in-game money going to whoever beats your time first). If TDU2 sounds impressive, well, it is. That and fun-looking -- and done-looking.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.