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VMware - ESXi Cost and features?

Hi,
  I'm putting together a test environment completely separate from our production. We want to utilize VMware for rolling out a test domain, DC's, Exchange, etc. We only have 1 physical server at this time, and I'm thinking we could simply install ESXi and create the vm's via vshpere client. However, I'm being told that we NEED vcenter and this is expensive. From my understanding, Vcenter is to be able to centrally manage the virtual environment, and for HA, DR, and a bunch of other management features; but for 1 host, we can do this completely free.
Any advise is appreciated.

Thanks
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Luciano Patrão
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thanks