Genre: Off-road Racing
Developer: 2XL Games
Release Date: August 2008
"It's the Gran Turismo of off-roading," was how Rick Baltman, president of 2XL Games, described Baja when he sat down to give us a demo. Needless to say, such a boast had us intrigued. After all, it's not every day that a new franchise compares itself to one of the leading contenders in the field. So with that in mind, we gave Baja a go.
Inspired by the annual Baja 1000 championship event on the Mexican Baja peninsula, Baja is designed to be a grueling off-road adventure through nine massive worlds. This isn't a full simulation of the typical Baja 1000 course, as all of the environments are fictional tracks, but it is meant to match the look and feel of what you might see were to you participate in the famed race.
The worlds include Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Canyon De Chelly in Arizona; Canyon Lake in Arizona; Cocono Island, a fictional island off the coast of Mexico; Lake Powell, Nevada; Mogollon Rim National Park in Arizona; Nevada, featuring the towns of Laughlin, Parker and Primm; Painted Desert, Arizona; and the Uyuni Salt Flats, which is a fictional course modeled after the salt flats in Bolivia. Each world contains approximately 10 tracks, with the entire game boasting nearly 100 different courses.
Baja features approximately 50 body styles, which can be combined with different skins to create approximately 200 vehicles in the game. These vehicles can then be further customized in the garage via tuning or upgrades in order to match your personal driving style. All of the vehicles are licensed from either their manufacturers or established racing teams. Baltman told us to expect to see the Ford F150, F250, Hummer, Jeeps, Toyota Tacoma and Volkswagen Bugs among the final selection.
Add-ons and upgrades for your car include brakes, engines, power train, suspension, tires, weight and aerodynamic items, as well as cooling and plumbing systems. You can tune upper and lower springs, bound and rebound damping settings, front and rear brake bias, hand brake effectiveness, transmission gear ratio and the shift points. You can also customize the look via painting and decals. Each individual setting can be tweaked, making it easy to spend hours in the garage alone. And that's just working on one car.
Out on the road, it's time to put your new toy to the test, and for that, there are five different game types: circuit races, free ride, hill climb, open class challenge and the Baja 1000 itself. Circuit race is a standard run through one of the courses in a specific world, and free ride is your chance to explore each world at your leisure. The hill climb is a race up a treacherous incline, while open class challenge is a mixed event featuring one of each vehicle type. Cars are handicapped by way of starting point, so slower vehicles have a shorter course to run in the open class challenge.
Finally there is the Baja 1000. This game mode takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to race through each of the nine worlds in one massive endurance run. Designed to test the skills of advanced players, the Baja 1000 doesn't have room for breaks. If you need to take a quick breather, you can let the AI take over for a few minutes, but saving the game and picking it up later is out of the question. You also won't want to let the AI remain in control for too long because it runs a conservative track through the course. It won't lose you the race, but it also won't run at top speed so every minute you're away is a minute that your competitors are gaining.
Like any endurance race, car damage is part of the game, and Baja incorporates the toll of the terrain well. You will never experience a total failure; however, damage is visible on your vehicle, and performance will suffer if your car sustains too many hits or rolls over a bit too often. Repairs can be made trackside by calling in a repair chopper at the cost of time.
Taking control of a dune buggy, we navigated one of the courses with relative skill, though sharp corners were something of an undoing the first time around (at least it gave us a chance to see the aforementioned damage system in action). Though there was a lot of play due to the off-road nature of the course, control felt generally solid as we played. Baltman explained that the game is purposefully tuned for an arcade style of play in order to make it more accessible to a wider audience. Advanced players will appreciate the options for Tiptronic and manual shifting, in addition to the standard automatic transmission. Baja also has full support for steering wheels.
One area where we would like to see some improvement before release is in the game's visuals. While the focus in a racing game should always be on the driving and the handling, what we saw on-screen was looking a bit rough in the textures. Hopefully, the team can give it another pass to ensure the visuals are on par with competing titles in the genre.
Multiplayer options include four player split-screen, and up to 10-player multiplayer via system link and online. For the truly hardcore enthusiast with a little extra cash to blow, Baja also supports a three-console panorama mode. Panorama mode is a single-player experience that requires three consoles, three TVs, three copies of the game and a LAN. Each console drives one view from the front of the car, giving you discrete left, front and right screens. Incidentally, the visuals in panorama mode looked a bit better than when the game was running in single-player mode. Both versions of the game will support panorama mode.
It's still too early to tell if Baja will live up to Baltman's initial description, but there is certainly a lot of depth hiding under the surface. Assuming 2XL can spend the next few months really polishing the title before release, off-road enthusiasts may just have something to keep them occupied during the winter off-season.