Genre: Rally Racing
Developer: 2XL Games
Release Date: September 22, 2008
Baja: Edge of Control is an off-road racing title that tries to capitalize on the mostly untouched market of the legendary Baja 1000 race, which is often over 1,000 miles long and takes anywhere from 10 to 30 hours to finish. Baja wants to be a deep, realistic off-road racer, and in some ways, the title succeeds, but every time the game does something right, it also manages to come up short in another area.
Upon starting up Baja, you'll breathe a sigh of relief. When I realized that the game had over 1,000 miles of track, I fully expected to have to wait for a long install process on my PlayStation 3. Thankfully, there's no install, but as a result, load times are a bit on the lengthier side. The menu presentation is beyond awful: bare-bones menus barely get the job done and are really unattractive. From the menu, you can head into a few different areas: single races, the main career offering and multiplayer.
The main offering is the single-player mode, which lets you drive several classes of off-road cars through events to get experience and money to advance your career. The progression is where things begin to fall apart in a hurry. You start off with enough money to buy a single car in the simplest class, the Baja Bug, and from there, you can race to get money and experience, allowing you to upgrade your car and do races worth even more money. Upgrading your car isn't a process that requires much thought. There are about a dozen ways to upgrade it, each with perhaps one or two parts each. The best car part is always the one at the bottom, so you quickly learn to scroll down the menu, press X and buy the part.
This upgrade system is admittedly a little shallow, but a lot of games do this. While the upgrading is a minor annoyance, the learning curve placed on the player is the big issue. There are some tutorials in Baja, but they don't prepare you very well for the game. Your first few hours with the game will be infuriating; as you struggle through the Baja Bug class, you'll find yourself thrown into the game without any idea of what you're doing. If you don't finish an event in the top half of the lineup, you get absolutely nothing for the race, and even if you somehow manage, the gained money and experience are negligible unless you place first or second.
For a while, you won't have anything to show for all your efforts, and it'll be aggravating. I constantly finished in fifth or sixth place in every league in the Baja Bug class, and even after upgrading my car all the way, it was a struggle to finish in first or second place. Amazingly, though, if you persevere through the first vehicle class, the rest of the game seems to lighten up on you. From that point on, even with cars that haven't been upgraded, I was able to race competitively with the other drivers on the track. Things became more streamlined, more fun, less about struggling repetition and more about moving onward to new and exciting things. Part of this can be attributed to conquering the title's learning curve, but it's still maddening that Baja drops you into a car without even telling you how to drive.
Baja manages to be hit-and-miss when it comes to the fun factor of the actual racing segments. Racing a car at anywhere between 80 and 150 miles per hour on bumpy, rocky dirt roads is something that I'd expect to be extremely difficult and tough on a car. Baja succeeds in this, but doesn't really prepare the player for it. Just driving straight can be a challenge at times, and although this adds to the game's intensity it also adds to its frustration. You might slightly over-adjust for a small bump in the road and suddenly find yourself flipping over. Once again, the class you're forced to start as, the Baja Bug, is by far the most annoying class with this issue; every bump in the road is going to throw the car around. Once you start unlocking vehicles classes that have better shocks, it becomes less of an issue, and you can start focusing on the racing instead of staying on the road.
Racing with any of the other classes can be a lot of fun, assuming the physics system doesn't go crazy on you. Baja was developed with fairly realistic physics in mind, but whatever is taking care of this likes to mess up on occasion. I've seen cars do backflips for no reason, I've seen them spin out for no reason, and I've even seen cars manage to get stuck together. When things are working correctly, which is most of the time, the driving physics are pretty impressive. Terrain matters, height matters, your car's weight matters, the wear and tear on your car over the race matters (i.e., brakes won't work as well if you overuse them, tires lose their grip as a race wears on, the engine can overheat), and much of this combines to make every lap of every race feel a bit different as you bounce around the tracks and adjust for new conditions each time.
Unfortunately, the AI is a bit spotty. In one race, I'll win by 30 seconds without any problems, but the next time I went back to the same race with the same car, I found myself struggling for fifth place. On many of the long-distance races, I found that a large chunk of the passes that I was making was because of cars that were veering off the road to chase down a large boulder 20 feet from the road.
Racing in Baja is available in several forms, although Standard Lap Racing is the one you'll be dealing with the most. Other variants include Hill Climbs, which are lap races that involve going up and down a very steep hill and the Open Class Challenge, where one car from every class is placed on the track, with the slowest cars being put way in front to give them an equal chance of winning. There's also a free roam mode that lets you explore any of the maps; these maps are pretty large, which makes the title's graphical shortcomings a little more forgivable. The only real fun here is to go looking around for secret areas, which can be pretty tough to find. Finally, the big granddaddies of them all are the Rally Race (long races from point A to point B) and the Baja Challenge. The Baja 250 can take about an hour, while the Baja 1000 (about 300 miles of racing as it's presented in the game) takes about three hours to finish, with each stage lasting 10 to 15 minutes over a 20-mile track. Thanks to some brilliant level design that shows the care that the devs took to make these tracks as interesting as possible (once you get past that awful Baja Bug class), most of the races can be a lot of fun.
However, Baja is not a very good game on a technical level, and n the PS3, it looks pretty terrible. People watching me play actually asked me if I was playing a PlayStation 2 game, and at times, I was inclined to agree with them. The environments have frequent pop-in, the frame rate can't stay steady for very long, the tracks and foliage are unattractive, and the cars look pretty bad. All of the screenshots that I've seen of the game make it look a lot better than it does during actual gameplay. Everything I've read states that the Xbox 360 version looks and runs a lot better, so if you have the option and want to pick up this title, go for that one instead.
I found myself enjoying the sound on Baja. While the soundtrack is very light, it fits the game very well. There's a fully licensed soundtrack that you can listen to while racing around, but it's turned off by default, which is probably a good thing, as that soundtrack isn't very good. What I really enjoyed about the sound was the sound mixing. The sound effects are very repetitive, bland and even bizarre-sounding at times, but I was able to feel the roar of the engines, where the cars were coming from, etc. While most games these days put the focus on the surround sound systems, I was very much impressed with the 2.1 mix in Baja.
If you grow weary of single-player, Baja offers up to four-player split-screen and up to 10-player online play. Playing online is a bit disappointing, as there were about a dozen people online at any given time. If you try and join a race that's already in progress, you have to sit around as a spectator until the match is over. This can be quite a while if you happen to pop in during a rally, as even the Baja 1000 is playable online. The online play can be a bit laggy, but it doesn't interfere with the gameplay very much. You're more likely to have fun grabbing a few of your friends, playing with them and listening to them laugh at how bad the game looks while they struggle to keep their cars on the track.
Baja: Edge of Control gets a lot of things right … and wrong. In virtually every category, it nails one aspect but completely misses the target on another. Driving can be a lot of fun, but there's a huge learning curve as you have to master the hardest-to-control class before you're allowed to do anything else. Upgrading and tuning the car is cool, but no real thought is needed to go into it. The level design is great, but the game isn't technically sound. If you can get past the technical problems and the first few hours of hell in dealing with the Baja Bug class, there's a good amount of fun to be had with Baja. However, that first impression is a truly awful one, and the bad taste never quite leaves your mouth.
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