Test Drive Unlimited 2 preview: the drive of your lifestyle

The person who named that boat must be zzany

Having never been to Ibiza, where this MMO racer/auto collect- 'em-up is set, I've built my mental image of the party island from decades of compilation album covers. To me, the island of hedonism is a hundred concurrent chill-out sunsets over a dozen Hed Kandi pool parties. Ibiza: young, sexually confident people writhing in their skimpies next to something inflatable.

I'm not disappointed by the character selection screen. It's my first interactive pool party. The panel of six candidates – three boys, three girls, two from every demographically important race – are dancing for me, begging me to inhabit them. For some reason – perhaps to make the decision seem less urgent? – they're dancing in bullet time, with the dance music slowed to quarter speed. Instead of seeming stylistic, it's like I've been spiked with ketamine.

I choose the white lady, because liberal guilt makes me more comfortable mucking about with gender than race. Everything zips back up to normal speed, and I learn that it's my birthday, and that fictional local TV presenter Tess Wintory has bought me a Ferrari. I'm instantly alienated. A decadent life of casual privilege? Where's the effort in all this? The jeopardy?

What's actually happening is that the developers, Eden Games, have tricked me. I'm a valet, asleep in Tess's Ferrari, and that knocking sound isn't the engine, it's an angry fictional TV presenter rapping on my forehead.

I could be in trouble here. Luckily, Tess can see my potential as a race driver from the pool of snooze-drool on her leatherwork, so she offers to let me drive her to her appointment. All over this massively multiplayer racing world, dozens of valets are meeting their own instanced Tess Wintory.

While starting in Ibiza, the game later moves to an off-road enhanced version of O'ahu from the first game. There was offroad in that first game too, but no SUVs – these come, however, at the price of motorbikes. The official story goes that the massive rewrite of the handling code – from the ground up, as the common phrase has it – has left the developers with a top priority of getting the cars right. There's nothing stopping Eden Games from introducing bikes later, of course, as paid-for downloadable content.

The characters in Ibiza are an amazing blend of teen girl drama and Euro RPG, and there's a skin-crawling charm to them: take Miami, the privileged, spoiled cow ripped from an anarchist's straw-man handbook. Then there's your A-class licence tutor, whose smooth, reassuring voice is like having a velvet spider lay eggs in your ear drum.

I'm sure you're thinking – hang on, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is massively multiplayer, and this just sounds like any othersingleplayer racing game. Well, my playtime was meant to be multiplayer, but technical issues left many of the MMO features unavailable. I couldn't invite people over to my trailer, to see the changes I've made to my parquet flooring. I couldn't issue satisfying challenges to the other drivers I came across, because they weren't people but thoughtfullyprovided AI quasi-players.

I can, however, go into the challenge editor, a tidy and sensible feature that lets you drop checkpoints onto the map to create a unique race. You can use the normal race modes, but Speed Trap challenges add an element of extra skill by forcing you to drop to the speed limit when going through a checkpoint.

With a computer properly connected to the internet, there are new cooperative modes to enjoy. Follow The Leader offers players a more formalised way to enjoy an unexpectedly popular element of the first Test Drive game – the ability to just cruise around with their friends. Any element of competition is neatly and pleasantly eliminated by checkpoints only being visible to the designated leader. Something else special about Test Drive Unlimited was the ability to see your opponent's character at the wheel. Even though there are only six basic character models, that novelty isn't lost. As you unlock elements of the game by exploring (almost everyone laughs when the game interrupts a race with the message “you have found a hairdresser!”), you can begin to personalise your character, as well as your car. Get a quiff. Position some decals. If you see a car being driven by someone with a bandaged face, that means they've had recent plastic surgery.

The limitations of the opening sequences are deceptive; there are photography challenges, treasure hunts, clubs to join and furniture to collect, all of which level you up the game's four pillars of Social, Discovery, Competition and Collection. Solo racing alone won't get you anywhere near the level cap of 60. You'll be lucky to hit 10.

That said, solo racing is what we're stuck with for the day, so I get the full experience of the AI. And boy, did some decision-making subroutines get out of the wrong side of bed. The AI drivers are angry, clippy, weavy – it's a very punchy experience, with more paint traded than a branch of Homebase. The physics occasionally flips into cartoon mode, too, with a clipped bumper resulting in a spectacularly, needlessly, flipped vehicle. This is, I'm told, being worked on.

For all the handling renovation, it feels broadly similar to the first game. The off-road SUVs, however, are a bunch of grippy, real-feeling fun, and taking on the rough, bumpy dirt tracks, I find myself leaning in sympathy with the steering. To this simpleton's mind, that's always been the sign of a good racing game.

Test Drive Unlimited kickstarted the whole MMOR genre, which most recently, and with least success, was entered by Need for Speed World. There's very little competition for an open, explorable racing game, where you can invite people to your trailer to look at your cupboards. Eden Games are masters of their own slightly baffling genre.