Developer: Climax Studios
Release Date: Oct. 31, 2006 (US) - March, 2008 (Europe)
It seems as if there's a glut of offroad racing games out there lately, what with Rainbow Studios stepping away from the ATV Offroad Fury series to do their own thing again with the MX vs. ATV games and Climax taking the reins of the former series under Sony's banner. Rainbow had some good ideas in the first couple of Fury games, and they continue to toss in new twists with their titles, while Climax's efforts are geared largely at merely recreating prior success and putting the yearly sequel polish on their work. They seem content just refreshing that new car smell in a series that now adopts a jack-of-all-trades approach with the fourth iteration, diluting the gameplay by trying to do too many things to an average degree rather than take any one of them in a new direction. It's not bad, per se; it's just not very original or inspired.
Despite adding new vehicles and tracks, an unnecessary Story mode, and more ways to tweak your ride, ATV Offroad Fury 4 feels like a retread or an expansion pack more than a real sequel, with artificial intelligence in its opponent racers that may very well have you quitting before you put a dent in everything you have to unlock.
There are a few rather lame trends that have taken a foothold in racing games of late that are in attendance here as well. First is the obligatory Story mode. You start as a quitter who's trying to rebuild your reputation on the tracks by doing the exact same things you do in the standard single-player modes, but with the added bonus of corny cut scenes to advance said "story." It's just another hub in the interface to which to attach more unlockables. I always thought coming in first was motivation enough to jump into a race. I guess if you need a soap opera going on in the background, this mode's for you.
The next trend is that a ridiculous amount of the game's content is locked up tight when you first fire it up. Long gone are the days of not sweating if you lose your memory card saves. Forget practicing your tracks before starting the championship, as they're usually not available. What's more, there are modes, tracks, vehicles and events that you can't unlock unless you also happen to own a PSP and Climax's ATV offering on that platform, which you have to connect via USB cable to open up. Give me a break. With the relentless, unforgiving, and sometimes cheap AI you're up against, prepare to restart a lot of these five-lap races and run them again and again, just in hopes of opening up the next track.
This brings us to the next trend perpetuated here: The AI seldom fights each other, but more often gangs up on the player only to push him as far as possible out of the lead. AI players typically run in a single file line on the best path, just waiting for you to get close before coordinating some of the most elaborate multi-car pins and race-ending shoves and spinouts this side of Need for Speed: Most Wanted's crazy police maneuvers. By lining up the perfect (impossible) mid-air collision on every attempt, the other racers knock you off your wheels and send your limp figure tumbling to the turf. Despite the AI being able to get a huge lead when in first place (their "buddies" help block you instead of trying to win), if you get in front, more often than not, they'll stay right on your bumper for the rest of the race, just waiting for you to hit a bad bump. It seems the AI also gets little speed boosts whenever they need them, usually to your detriment.
With all of this stacked against the player, it's unfortunate that you have to put up with so much frustration for the first several hours to have enough money to become competitive by buying new rides and upgrades. Running the same races over and over to make enough coin to get the right equipment to move up makes a game get repetitive quickly, but if you get past it, the improved vehicle specs can help somewhat with the aggravating AI. Then you still have Pro mode waiting for you.
The trick system is basically a rehash with a couple of new features. The riders do the same tricks in the same ways that they did in the last iteration, making it a bit stale, whereas Rainbow's Unleashed worked in flips and spins, a more noticeable preload effect, more effective clutch turning (here it's just a powerslide; in Unleashed, when mastered, it can fling you out of a turn with gusto), and more imaginative track design. However, while the ATVs and MX bikes feel more or less the same as they did five years ago, the new buggies and trucks add some worthwhile diversity. It's arguably the most fun part of ATV Offroad Fury 4 for me, though it begs the question, why not simply rename the series to Offroad Fury?
Since you can't do tricks in these bigger vehicles, your point-earning potential is limited to powerslides and jumps, and linking those together earns you multipliers, but it's more determined by the track design than user improvisation. Also, sliding slows you down, giving the AI a good chance to pass you. Points for tricks or slides, regardless of vehicle, get added up at the end of the race to boost the amount of money you make. With the AI being so aggressive and tricks being so risky to do (flub the landing, and prepare to be last place), some other use for them would have been nice to justify the risk, such as adding some boost, resilience to shoving, or some other beneficial effect for the player. Maybe it wouldn't be quite in keeping with the more simulation nature of the game, but in a series that's really getting long in the tooth, a bit more freshness would have helped. Compare Burnout 2 to Burnout 3: Takedown. Change can be a good thing.
Sound effects are pretty basic, but they get the job done. After a half-hour of mosquito-pitched engine buzz, I muted the effects and relied on the five songs that I could stand in the 40-track playlist to fill the auditory void. However, despite letting you customize your playlist in the Jukebox feature, this apparently only applies to the races, as songs I completely disabled still found their way into the rotation when working through the menus, tweaking the ride in the garage, or exploring the different event types and classes. With the focus on vehicle tweaking and the amount of time you'll spend off the track, this glitch bugged me.
But hey, how about that multiplayer! You can play offline or online games, featuring standard racing and freestyle events as well as minigames of hockey, basketball, bowling and other sports, built to put the ATVs into the game. Again, more isn't always better, as each one is pretty simplistic and not terribly engaging. In bowling, it took me about two runs to figure out where to hit the pins to get a strike almost every time. Soccer, hockey and basketball are basically the same game with different balls, and they feature the same sort or screwy handling, making it feel clumsy and frantic. Having a separate score screen pop up after every single point breaks up the flow of it all, too. Completely missing are any music in these modes, as is the ability to play these games against AI or to practice solo. In fact, any sort of free ride in any of the modes is completely lacking, as are the wide-open freestyle areas that debuted in the very first Fury game. Freestyle areas now are significantly smaller, featuring a handful of jumps, pitfalls and a time limit. Everything has a time limit. Running around playing tag and trying to play trick-HORSE in the original with a buddy simply isn't possible here, as everything is tied to a course, time constraint, or some tight, enclosed space they want to keep you in or other restrictions that work against it being fun.
Some trumpet online multiplayer as ATV Offroad Fury 4's saving grace. Before you even think about it, make sure you have a half-empty memory card lying around, as you have to download a 2.5MB patch just to get online with the game, which must be stored on your memory card and kept on-hand indefinitely. On the PS3, I might forgive that, given the hard drive's ample space and the system's propensity toward patching, but I doubt a lot of players keep a spare empty memory card around for things like this. Beyond that, many of the same modes and minigames are available for online play that you could play offline. If you can handle the patch, make the most of it.
ATV Offroad Fury 4 sports a track editor that can apparently swap tracks back and forth between this and the PSP version. This proves somewhat useful for those who want to buy both versions and have both systems, but given this is the second feature that requires the PSP game, I have to wonder why they didn't just pack it in with the PS2 version. Anyway, the track editor is nothing fantastic and relies entirely on a puzzle-piece layout within a square, using all 90-degree turns. The area doesn't feel big enough to allow too much creativity, though. It would have been nice if it supported more setting customization (anything but the desert?), and maybe use a virtual stylus to just drag and draw the track. The available pieces are typically variations on a theme (wide straight, narrow straight, straight with a dip in it, etc.) and don't get too crazy. I'm sure any of the Tony Hawk level editors has more depth.
Other issues pop up here and there. The detection of leaving the track boundaries is spotty, allowing you to cut some corners entirely, although you get penalized in other situations if a single tire wanders off the designated surface during a powerslide. Any time it has to place you back on the track for an infraction, it's an instant recipe for losing about five places in the pack. In contrast, Rainbow's Unleashed addressed this by often letting you get back on the track further down the road. So long as you don't try to completely skip a section of track, it'll keep you moving forward.
ATV Offroad Fury 4 is probably the best-looking game in the series, though it's nowhere near as shiny or detailed as other PS2 games out there now. Cumulative dirt effects look nice and reminded me of Motorstorm on the PS3, though that's where the favorable similarities between those two games end. Offroad racing sim fans may milk some enjoyment out of this if they can get past the AI and other annoyances, but it's so unremarkable in any particular way that I had trouble finding things to say about it when asked. While perhaps an improvement over the third iteration in the series, I can't recommend ATV Offroad Fury 4 over the open and fun feel of the original.
If Climax is going to keep going with the ATV Offroad Fury series, they could take a lesson or two from their contemporaries, or even Nintendo's Excite Truck in terms of trying something new and being more fun. Fans of realism in the sport may enjoy it, but even for them, it's basically a retread. ATV Offroad Fury 4 is overwhelmingly average in many regards, and each type of racing it tries to cover is done better on an individual basis elsewhere. If you prefer quantity to quality, there's a lot to do here, several hours' worth of gameplay and online after that (patch notwithstanding). It's budget-priced, which also works in its favor, but I don't see myself putting this in the PS2 again after finishing this review. I doubt this series is done yet, so here's hoping they inject a little creativity as opposed to "more of the same, only … more!" into the inevitable sequel on the PS3.
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