As the brains behind the Smuggler's Run series, Angel Studios are back on familiar territory with Off-Road Wide Open, a 4x4 racing game which takes you from Hawaii to Yosemite. And although the game was originally released in the USA as part of the Test Drive franchise, we'll try not to hold that against it - Wide Open might not be perfect, but it's a far cry from the horrors of TD overdrive.
The centerpiece of the game is the career mode, where you make your way through several seasons worth of championships to earn prize money which can then be spent on buying new cars for your collection and (once you've progressed far enough to unlock them) upgraded versions of your existing vehicles. Everything from over-the-top American trucks and souped-up humvees to flimsy looking jeeps are available, but when push comes to shove (as it often will) it doesn't seem to matter how big your chosen vehicle is - a jeep can spin you around just as easily as a monster truck if you clash too heavily, and the resulting swerve can leave you at the back of the field, or over the edge of a cliff and completely out of contention. This can prove frustrating, but luckily the game is entertaining enough to keep you coming back most of the time. What's more, vehicles occasionally seem to defy gravity, with insane jumps that stretch credibility to breaking point, your car drifting through the air for what seems like an eternity before landing without a dent a hundred feet below. You can even adjust the orientation of your vehicle in mid-air with some deft manipulation of the right analogue stick, ensuring you land with all four wheels pointing in the same direction.
Courses are (as the title suggests) big and open, including some "scramble races", where you're given ten checkpoints to tag in any order you please. Even the linear and circuit tracks often give you multiple routes and shortcuts, and you're basically free to go where you want; if you're driving a good climber, for example, you might be able to scramble up the side of a hill faster than you can drive around it. You'll need to take every advantage you can find, as competition is fierce, and although the AI does seem to slow down slightly if you fall too far behind, it's nowhere near as blatant as in TD overdrive and merely acts to maximise the close quarters racing rather than turning the chace into a series of pointless stop-start spurts. You'll still have to work for your points, and some events can be almost impossibly difficult - the first time I raced on one track, nobody reached the finish line before the time limit was reached, leaving us all going away empty-handed.
Wide Open might not be the most innovative racing game ever made, or the best looking, but it is fairly amusing for the most part. The career mode gets a bit tough after the first couple of seasons, and you may find yourself racing the same tracks several times before getting the championship win you need to progress, but if you get tired of this grind you can always take a break in the Free Roam mode, where you can drive around the game's various settings and explore courses to your heart's content without any time limits, checkpoints or rival drivers to worry about. There are even a few stadium circuits to give you a change of scenery, although these are less satisfying. The result is a fairly comprehensive package which might not win any awards for originality - certainly not when compared to Angel Studios' regular output - but does make a nice change from the Xbox's plethora of circuit and street racing games. UK Release Date - now available