Larry Ragland's 4x4 Challenge Review
By Michael Richter |
Off road racing... It's hard to resist the allure of careening through pits of mud, wildly slamming about in your cab as the perilous terrain curvature flies beneath you at maddening speeds, dictating in an instant whether you flip or fly. The original Sega Rally, Rally Cross, GT3 (rally portion) and even the recent 4x4 EVO 2 proved readily and steadily that bouncing around, driving like a madman outside of the white lines could be as fun in the virtual world as it is in real life. Those games either offered meticulously designed tracks, intensely polished gameplay, a wealth of features and options, or all of the above. Larry Ragland's really has none of these.
Apparently the game is the selection you'll be choosing most from the main menu, that's at least according to Louis Porter Jr., the man accredited with writing the six page plain black text on white paper manual boxed with the game, (six minutes of work, and bam, your name is in the credits). Packaged paper isn't going to sway the score any, but it is indicative of the level of production value to be found throughout. There exists only two modes of single play, very basic multiplayer, and two in-game options: sound and controls.
Binding controls is awkward. Instead of selecting each control and entering a desired input for that control (I think it's called the normal way), you run down a list and input them in sequence, if you make a mistake you have to go through the entire list again, assuring the game that you still want left to go left and right to go right. It's not that big of a deal because there can't be more than ten assignable controls, but still.
Multiplayer includes a splitscreen and LAN modes, but it's all very basic racing among the same eight tracks that comprise the single player game's two modes: championship and arcade. In championship, it's required that you beat a series of races segmented into three different difficulty classes in sequence. First come all the races of the first class, only then can you access the second, it's only after which that you can then access the third. Arcade lets you take on these same courses individually, only now under strict, and sometimes unforgiving time regulations, but you still must complete one to unlock another (the game only starts with one arcade track initially playable). Fortunately, romping through a lot of these will be relatively easy to anyone who's picked up a controller in the last year. Avid racers should find little stopping them from completing all the game has to offer in less than a day's time.
That's assuming you're not bumped down to fifth or sixth place even though you've acquired first. Approximately 40% of the time when I finished in first place I would be magically demoted to fifth or even sixth position and awarded the completion points for those lesser ranks. This is baffling because even my positional counter read "1/6" while the screen was blinking 6th place, unceremoniously insisting upon awarding me a trivial 1 point. "What am I?" I exclaimed, "Some kind of Dan?" There is but other glaringly apparent bug. This is the first I've seen of it, but skid marks are apparently of a vertical nature now, and don't actually have to be on the ground to be seen. In every single tight turn where a slip in the dirt was to be left on the ground behind me, a flurry of garbled black skid marks would instead shoot into the air, obstructing the view. This would have been the coolest visual effect ever and wouldn't have been at all annoying if I were blind.
The rest of the game features ne'er a graphical glitch. 4x4 Challenge is visually smooth, well rounded, and gives a distinctive, almost airbrushed like quality. There is, however, no abundance of gratuitous visual glitz, but then nor is there any sheer lack of quality. It's a simple, solid design, not painfully suffering in any areas, but not competing with anything otherwise considered higher end. Larry Ragland can never hope to compete with the likes of Moto Racer 3, as there's nothing that even shoots it past now severely aged favorites like NFS 3. Six cars to a track keeps things consistently close (considering the bundled, confined track design), but none feature outstanding detail.
It seems that aside from having his name prominently embroidered atop the box, 4x4 Challenge has little to nothing to do with Larry Ragland, his endorsement ends with the title. The game features no discernable degree of authentic relation to the sport (I so totally want to use the "word" officiality here) in any of its tracks, cars, or play mechanics. In all fairness, some of the scant eight courses included in the title could be real, or at least modeled after real-life counterparts without my knowledge (because I'm perhaps not the off road aficionado I could be), but the fact that they're touted as being "professionally designed" and not representative of actual courses gives blatant indication to their invalidity.
But boy howdy, I can handle me some fictitious tracks regardless of whose name sells them, provided, of course, design and development are in check. The races of Sega Rally, Rally Cross, and the rest of my aforementioned representatives of upper echelons of the genre bore little to no resemblance to actual places, other than the Egypt laps incorporating sand and the "mountain" course having trees. But these games needed no real-life counterparts from which to draw inspiration (damn, need to use that "word" officiality again). They all rested squarely on merit worthy laurels of design, balance, and variety. But on the other hand, I guess all that unpredictability and variety could lead to an upset stomach... Not so for 4x4 Challenge, this baby is attributed with uncanny consistency! Who needs different kinds of courses and such when you can have eight tracks, all encased by impenetrable, insurmountable barriers, and all featuring glorious dirt?
"Hey dude, want to make a racing game?"
"We can have all kinds of awesome environments and stuff, it's going to be great."
To hell with that, just make 'em all the same and slap Larry Ragland's name up there, it'll be easier.
The best part? All courses come with introductory photographs of the locales they supposedly take place in. Oh, the leading picture may make it appear as if you'll get to tear up through New Orleans, but it'll be just another dirt track that looks almost identical to the one before it. The only difference may be in slight color change and turn placement, but at least the average sound effects and horrid compilations of hick-rock will keep your mind from turning into Jell-O (only by enraging it, but anything works).
Properly designed and integrated with solid racing gameplay, even aesthetically drab tracks can hold value. Sorry. Ragland's play mechanics are about as tiresome as its course design.
Physics applied to the various vehicles are fun and bouncy. Skidding around corners may be somewhat effortless (often times only requiring miniscule alleviation of the velocitator and rare depression of the deccele-ratrix). The trucks don't ever seem to flip and can ram and slam with little disruption. The only instances when you may find actual trouble are when you get inexplicably caught on walls and jar to uncomfortable halt. The game otherwise drives loose, breezy, and easy.
Your vehicles can sustain damage, when you crash you ruffle hoods and crack windows, but aside from causing a bit of smoke to billow forth and giving your ride a bit of unwanted character, damage has no appreciable effect on the races. The game claims to hamper vehicle performance in various areas as damage increases depending, and even has nifty little indicator to prove it, but I noticed no change. In fact, I still easily won the bulk of my races, damage and all. The indicator situated at the bottom left of the screen clearly and quickly identifies which portions of your vehicle have acquired a few bumps and to what degree. But again, who cares? The cars never get completely destroyed, and there is no recognizably applied effect.
Just including damage modeling, even to the small degree that it's present, however, is noteworthy and respectable in this day when remiss developers still neglect to implement it.
I take two aspects of solace in the title, 1) you'll be able to find it in a month for as cheap as the dirt it rides on, and 2) it was made by six people. You do have to respect that, but then you also have to respect that Independence War was also made by only six people and low and behold it was good (really good).
Boring, repetitive and aggravatingly underwhelming. The few positive aspects of the game are drowned out by eye socket rattling repetition that makes you slink down into your chair and sigh at the monitor whilst gently weeping. It has no glaring faults (aside from the atrocious sampling of music), but is just a slapped together exercise in unadulterated monotony that hardly scratches the surface of potential. So many facets of play that other titles incorporate as standards are confoundingly left unimplemented here.
Poor Larry Ragland, and thus ends his high profile endorsement career.
-- Ivan Sulic
Want to share your opinions with the world?
Talk about it on the IGNPC message boards, or
send some mail to IGNPC about this story.