Down and Dirty
Offroad racing games vary hugely in their stance and influences. Games like Monster Truck Madness look to the American monster truck passion for their inspiration, whilst 4x4 Evolution is more focused on how much damage you can do on uneven terrain with a Land Cruiser, yet both fall under the same generic umbrella. In deference to MTM, it has its fans, but on the whole, the best way to impress your clientele is to give them jaw-dropping graphics from every angle, and that means throwing them off cliffs, into the ocean and over precipices until their knuckles ache from wrenching the vehicle back and forth. And that's just what Terminal Reality have done with 4x4 Evolution. It's offroad action at its slickest, giving you one objective, to get through checkpoints, and telling you and your computer controlled opponents to do this in any way you see fit. Thanks to the vivacity that TRI have injected into the locations and the differing characteristics of the cars, finding the most efficient way to get to your objective can be quite difficult, but the rewards are great thanks to the World Rankings system, which allows you to put yourself up against the world's finest by uploading your lap times and high scores.
The 3D engine Terminal Reality have developed was originally intended for the Dreamcast, but with the PC now being given equal status we're getting a vastly souped up interpretation, with highly detailed, rolling polygonal landscapes and about 5,000 polygons per vehicle. Everything is modelled realistically, right down to the driver's heads turning left and right to follow the roadside action. The lighting is very impressive also, and utterly dynamic, following everything you do. If you knock over a barrel sitting on the roadside, the shadows screw up and contort to reflect its changing position, and even so the framerate remains constant. The overall quality of presentation, and of graphical execution is consistent. Real care has been afforded to every little detail, and if you've ever seen one of the plethora of racers in real life, you would be hard-pressed to spot any imperfections in the replication. The multitude of camera angles explored by the post-race flyby creates a spectacular visual event, one well worth watching through once per track. It may even help you usurp paths through the ruckus that you hadn't considered previously. As if the graphical excellence wasn't enough, aurally things are suitably noisy also. The engines roar and the grit that flies up from under your tyres scrabbles with onomatopoeic authenticity. The audio/visual experience is second only to real-life.
In the cockpit
So we know that 4x4 looks great and sound fabulous, but just how does it play? The answer is wonderfully. After a quick and eventless installation process, I immediately jumped into the fray by way of the Quick Race mode and drove around an oilfield-style track offering with huge pilons all over the place and oil drums to circumnavigate. Unlike other racers the checkpoints take the form of converted scenery, so in this case I was trying to steer between painted rocks, and although these can be a little difficult to order numerically in your mind at times, there's a little green arrow in the centre of the screen shows you the way to your next 'point, so you don't lose out as a result. Also on offer are Training, One-off Racing, Time Challenge and Career Modes, which allow you to race for money in order to upgrade your vehicle in between racers (or just buy a new vehicle entirely). Between the various modes you will explore all 16 tracks, but hidden away on the CD is also a track editor, which enables you to create your own and extend the life of the game further than its sell-by date. I forsee these tracks becoming quite popular on the Internet, and that can't help but increase the popularity and longevity of the game even further.
One of the things Terminal Reality were really striving for when they were developing 4x4 was realism, and although the steering on the vehicles is a touch heavy, it is an otherwise idyllic elucidation of the offroad sport, with a perfectly fitting physics engine and more than 50 licensed brands and makes for the various cars, including those from Nissan, Toyota and others. Unfortunately this comes at a price, since the car manufacturers don't like having their vehicles destroyed, so most of the contracts will read that TRI have full rights to use the cars, but they may not crash them, because the cars don't crash. Regardless of how realistic an impression of the medium that is, it does mean that if you throw your Land Cruiser into a wall the side-panelling won't just shear off as you would expect. However, this is probably a good thing considering the hoops you are expected to throw the cars through on a track to track basis. It was either this or limping home in a roll cage on stilts I should think. Another thing to hold against TRI is the computer AI. For a game which focuses on cutthroat offroad racing, your opposition is somewhat lacking. You can literally fall a few checkpoints behind due to a dodgy shortcut and recover yourself. I had hoped to be cursing with frustration over the insurmountable opposition, but apparently it was not to be. In one instance, I fell into the water, ran into a tree and missed two checkpoints and was forced to backtrack, yet still managed to come second.
As I've hinted at all along, 4x4 Evolution takes hold of the offroad genre and gives it a frontrunner, something to aspire to. Some people are bound to still have issues with it, but at the end of the day it has jaw-dropping graphics, gripping gameplay and if it weren't for the stodgy AI and lack of damage skins on vehicles, the game would be untouchable. As it is it's the best of what's available.