Genre: Rally Racing
Developer: 2XL Games
Release Date: September 22, 2008
With this latest round of gaming consoles out on the market, a genre that has flourished is racing. There seems to be a racing game for just about any vehicle and any style, whether you want to race with expensive sports cars or futuristic hovercrafts or go-karts. One sub-genre of racing that has received plenty of exposure is off-road racing. There were already several off-road racing games in the past, but the graphics and sound upgrades have made them more desirable than ever. THQ has had a fair share of racing games in the past, thanks to their MX series, some of which have been great examples on how to do the genre right. Their latest racing game, Baja: Edge of Control, seeks to put a new twist on the off-road game by making it a little less arcade-y and a little more simulation. Does the gamble pay off, or was it a mistake to change a winning formula in the first place?
Baja: Edge of Control is split up into two single-player components (Race and Career, which will be discussed later) and one multiplayer component. Race is your standard mode, where you choose one track to race on against the AI. There are six different modes in Race. Circuit Racing is just like most other racing titles out there, where you run a pre-set number of laps on a course and try to be the leader at the very end. Rally Races have you racing from checkpoint to checkpoint against other cars in your class, despite the presence of other cars in different classes. Hill Climb has you trying to climb up and down several hills in the fastest time possible. Open Class challenge is much like the Rally Race mode, except that all car classes now get to compete against each other. Baja racing simulates the real event, so you get to do an endurance race for 250, 500 or 1000 miles, keeping track of your car damage along the way. Finally, Free Ride lets you fully explore a level without any opponents or time penalties.
Everything that was available in the standard Race modes in single-player is also available in the multiplayer component. The multiplayer options here are a little more robust than in other racing titles, though. Split-screen, for example, supports up to four players, something you don't see too often in racing titles that don't feature mascots racing in go-karts. System Link is also available for multiplayer, a mode that rarely gets used nowadays with the newer consoles. Of course, there's Xbox Live support with 10-player multiplayer in any mode of racing you choose. The experience only has a minimal amount of lag at worst, making races more enjoyable and only frustrating since you'll lose based on lack of skill as opposed to bad network code. There's also a panorama mode that is probably the most expensive way to play Baja: Edge of Control. You hook up three monitors, three Xbox 360 consoles and three copies of the game. With this mode selected, you have a dedicated left and right screen as well as a middle screen. For racing enthusiasts, this is a dream setup. It's rare to see it outside of a hardcore car sim like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, so kudos to the team for accomplishing this. It's also odd to see this mode under multiplayer, since only one person can play here.
The real meat of the game lies in the Baja Career mode, where you begin climbing up the ranks and win championships in different racing classes before moving forward. You start in the VW leagues and end up with specialty trucks, taking on different race types along the way. While that may sound very pedestrian, what you'll notice here is that Baja: Edge of Control takes a sim standpoint to off-road racing. Your vehicle performance depends on how well or how poorly you drive. For example, you can pre-load a buggy for some big air and possibly jump ahead of the leader in the race. You can land poorly and see your car collapse into pieces, or you can land it just fine. In a normal game, landing is good. However, in Baja, such a high jump could add more wear or damage to your suspension, so you must be careful about your driving and the condition of your car. To that end, not only can you buy different car parts, but you can also tweak them. The customization lies somewhere between Need for Speed ProStreet and Forza Motorsport 2. You can tweak just about every part here, but the game simplifies it for you in case it becomes overwhelming. It's pretty refreshing to see a sim take on the genre of off-road racing, and car junkies will love this aspect of the title.
Gameplay is a very mixed affair in Baja: Edge of Control. The controls are rather standard stuff, and 360 owners will be already familiar with the trigger system for acceleration and braking. However, racing with these off-road vehicles feels slippery. More often than not, you'll begin steering left and because of the terrain, you'll have a tendency to oversteer left. Your natural reaction would be to steer right, which will make you fishtail the vehicle. It takes some getting used to, but beginners with little to no patience will essentially give up playing at this point.
The AI is good enough at keeping players on their toes, since they never seem too far behind to let you run away with a race. They also do a good job of ruining the race for themselves at times, giving you a feeling that you're playing with human players. The biggest gripe with this section is something one almost always expects in racing titles: car stats. More often than not, whenever you go and choose a car to race with or purhcase, you're given a car name, color selection and model of the car. That's it. You have no idea how fast the car can go, how durable it is, etc. If some of the cars weren't so expensive to get, buying blindly wouldn't be so bad. However, considering how time-consuming it is to earn enough to get a new vehicle in any racing class, it becomes a huge annoyance that you can't find out how well a car can perform until after you've purchased the thing.
The graphics in Baja: Edge of Control shine in some places and falter in others. The cars all look great, with some good details in them. Players will be able to notice all of the little decals that are plastered in just about every card there. The detail also comes through as the car gets torn to shreds. Some pieces will fly off completely and stay on the track until the race is over, while other pieces will hang on for dear life to the frame of the vehicle. While this attention to detail is there, the team didn't seem to go far enough. Dust, for example, can be seen on the tires, but not on the car itself, although the car may have just completed a long drive in the desert and mud. The almost-got-it feeling transfers over to the environments as well. While players expect all of the environments to look the same thanks to the desert setting, the dev team has put in enough to make each environment feel a bit different. The time progression from sunrise to sunset, for example, is a nice and subtle touch that players will appreciate when they see it for the first time. However, the water effects in some areas are just bad. This is especially noticeable in muddy areas, where deep tire treads that still hold water look like streaks in the ground that lack color and texture.
The sound in the game is good when it's available. The music used in the menu system is unique; instead of going for a licensed soundtrack like almost every other racing title, Baja: Edge of Control uses acoustic guitar riffs. The music definitely gives you the feeling of being in the Mexican desert, but it mostly comes off as a bit mellow. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but when you try and prepare for a big race, mellow isn't exactly the feeling that you want.
During the races, the sound effects come through nicely. Crashing into objects and other cars also sounds good. You can hear the crunch of metal very well as the cars collide into any solid objects. The roar of the various engines is deep, and the sound differs between a trophy truck engine and a VW buggy engine. The engine noises especially stand out what you get into a group of cars all huddled together, but the overall intensity of the engine noises is fantastic.
Although everything sounds good when you're with a pack of cars, the sound doesn't hold up too well when you break away from the pack. Yes, the engine noises are still there and sound good, but that's about it. By default, the music in game is always turned off, so unless you tweak your audio settings, you have no music to race with. Some players will be fine with this, while others will want their MP3 player handy for times like this.
Much like the graphics, the sound also lacks attention to detail. Granted, this is a desert race environment, but it would be nice to hear something other than your engine sounds come in over the speakers. This is especially noticeable when you pass by structures other than vegetation and parked cars. For example, one of the tracks has you pass by a casino resort in Nevada, complete with an outdoor roller coaster. As you pass by the coaster structure, you'll sometimes see the coaster appear on-screen as it travels down its tracks. Hearing the riders scream as you pass by it would be preferred, although just the sound of the coaster traveling down the tracks would suffice. Unfortunately, all you get is silence when you drive by it.
Baja: Edge of Control takes a few risks in the off-road racing genre and, for the most part, comes out a winner. Making it more of a sim and less of an arcade racer isn't exactly the safest thing that the developers could have done, but the result is a game that treats the sport seriously and gives enthusiasts something else to play when they tire of driving expensive sports cars around asphalt roads. While they got the gameplay down, they neglected to put some attention to the details in the rest of the game, which hurt the overall product in the process. If you're the sim gamer who puts gameplay over beauty, give Baja: Edge of Control a shot and see for yourself whether or not the devs did things right. Otherwise, with the plethora of other racing games coming out in the next few months, you might want to sit this one out.
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