The balance between fun and realism must surely be the ultimate hurdle to cross when designing any type of motor racing game, and offroad racers are certainly no exception to this. There must be a significant emphasis on allowing players to ease themselves into the game, to get the feel of the vehicle and the landscape, and all the while still fulfill the needs of hardcore fans with authenticity.
I was hoping 4x4 Evo 2 would manage to get this balance just right, yet jumping in for a quick race dashed my hopes rather quickly. As my AI competitors pulled away in a cloud of dust I was left cautiously plodding around the track for fear of succumbing to physics more suited to the moon than an arid desert racetrack. This turns out to be the game's major flaw throughout, and no amount of customisation can relieve the frustration of having your truck fling itself all over the place, seemingly out of your control at anything approaching high speed.
Getting used to the vehicle's fetish for acrobatics does come gradually, but unfortunately a greater aspect of fun racing does not. The AI doesn't race competitively or particularly intelligently, instead attempting to barge their way to the front of the pack regardless of what might be directly in front of them, including other cars. This lends each race an unpleasantly aggressive feel, forcing you to pile on the acceleration and hurl yourself around the track, eventually falling foul to those physics as you reach the crest of a hill. This will of course mean that you miss a checkpoint, at which point you may as well restart the race.
You could of course argue that the bullish nature of the game is what 4x4 is all about, offering adrenaline fuelled, aggressive racing as opposed to the enormously high speeds and elegant road handling enjoyed by its genre-brethren. In fact, I would agree with you to an extent, but 4x4 Evo 2 just concentrates on the aggression and forgets to make it interesting, with each race basically boiling down to holding on to the accelerator, steering wildly and hoping for the best.
There are attempts to broaden the scope of what could be done with the game though, in the form of mission-based solo driving excursions. Somewhat reminiscent of Smuggler's Run on the PS2, the mission portion of 4x4 Evo 2 seems like a fantastic idea, wherein you perform freelance tasks in exchange for cash which you can then use to upgrade your trucks for use in the championship racing. Superb! Except .. it's not. Smuggler's Run was good at missions because that was what the game was about, in an offroad Grand Theft Auto kind of way. 4x4 Evo 2 isn't good at missions because they're so utterly dull and present little in the way of a challenge. Example? Locate the bones of a "Bythelakeosaurus" by the (cough) lake for $3,000. This consists of looking at your map, determining which direction the bones are in and driving there. Show me the money.
Everything bar the insane amount of customisation you can perform on your trucks smacks of half-heartedness. The graphics are quite pretty, with some nice truck reflections, trackside detail, particle effects and rolling landscapes as far as the eye can see, but this has little impact when the rest of the game just feels so completely underwhelming.
Sadly 4x4 Evo 2 falls short of offering an entertaining package, instead delivering wholeheartedly the ability to drive lots of vehicles, minutely fine-tuned to your particular tastes, across some bouncy tracks. The problem seems to lie in the fact that the game doesn't really know what it wants to be; are we playing an arcade racer or a sim here? The conflicting ideals of the game don't sit well together or complement one other, and we're left with a clumsy and ultimately disappointing title.