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Test Drive III: The Passion

Unsafe At Any Clock Speed

The Good
Upon its 1990 debut, Test Drive III was unique in many ways. As one among several early 3D driving titles, it included what users had come to expect from the genre: a flat-shaded polygonal environment that could be navigated in any direction. But Test Drive III also offered a living, breathing world full of life, and a sense of immersion unattainable in most of its contemporaries.

The game was beautiful. Its environment was full of colorful hills, fields, trees, lakes, barns, and wildlife. Butterflies would sometimes splatter on your windshield, but the pixelated mess could be removed with the windshield wipers - a nice touch. Squirrels and chickens scampered across the roadway in various places, and both could be squashed under the wheels of your car. Even an occasional cow loitered at the roadside, but hitting one was not a good idea!

But TD3 was about more than just terrorizing the local fauna. Plenty of creative touches fleshed-out the world environment, including working traffic lights, thunderstorms, snowstorms, and a variety of non-player vehicles including trains and airplanes. You would occasionally find yourself stopped at a railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass, or using your wipers to clear raindrops accumulating on your windshield. Exploration was encouraged, as the world was sprinkled with shortcuts and hidden treasures. Intersections and forks offered multiple routes to the finish line, and the player always knew he was heading in the right direction when the text on the road signs was visible. Sound effects were adequate, and there were three in-game radio stations to choose from, offering rock, classical, and country MIDI music.

The cars cockpits were also highly detailed, with working headlights and windshield wipers, a compass and radar detector, and a rear-view mirror. Engines could blow if over-revved, and the steering would be knocked out of alignment by rough driving. Outside, the 3D vehicle models were nicely built, complete with trim pieces and functioning brake lights. A good selection of driveable cars included the Lamborghini Diablo, a Chevy CERV III, and a Pininfarina Mythos, with an Acura NSX and Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo available in an expansion pack.

The Bad
The absolute shame about Test Drive III is that it presented the player with such a wonderful set of features, and then completely ruined the racing experience with what might be the worst control scheme of any driving game ever released.

To begin with, the steering seemed to offer only two turn rates: frustratingly gradual, and unmanageably fast. Following a curve was nearly impossible as you would constantly veer left and right of the racing line. Even simply changing lanes was a test of the player's patience, requiring several taps of the keyboard just to break the car's exaggerated tendency to continue in a straight line. In fact, the entire game quickly devolved into a white-knuckled, button-mashing effort to simply stay on the road, which typically ended with an unplanned trip across a field and into the nearest tree. Control was even impossible with a joystick, which behaved more like a glorified keyboard.

These control problems were exacerbated by the game's second major flaw, its CPU-dependent timing. The programmers apparently neglected to tie the simulation engine to the realtime system clock, so the game essentially ran as fast as your computer. A 33MHz 386 was about ideal for running the game at a normal, playable speed. A 486 would run the game too quickly, making driving even more difficult than it already was, and with a Pentium processor, minutes would whiz by like seconds on the clock at the upper left of the screen.

The oblivious AI drivers presented another source of constant frustration. Police cars were either extremely aggressive or insanely stupid, because they would indiscriminately ram you during pursuit. But the biggest in-game threat was presented by the bitmapped trees, which refused to scale beyond a certain size as you approached, making it difficult or impossible to tell how close they were. The hapless player would often find his hood wrapped around a pine tree that appeared to be forty feet in front of him.

These problems were ultimately fatal to gameplay, and after hours of losing races, the frustrated player would throw in the towel and simply tour the 3D environment at a manageable 35mph.

The Bottom Line
Test Drive III had the potential to be a standard-bearer, offering a glimpse into the future of 3D gaming. It seamlessly combined a lot of unique and innovative elements into one package, and included charming touches that have not been replicated even twenty years later. But an impossible control scheme and frustrating technical quirks made the game more fun to watch than to play.

by SiliconClassics (861) on November 14th, 2009

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