Screamer 4x4 is a peculiar beast. It arrives at a time when four wheel drive games are more regular than service stations on the M1, and with next to no fanfare surrounding it. Moreover, it boasts superb handling and to coin a phrase from that fox in the Citroen advert, impeccable road-manners, as well as a varied race structure and on the whole just about everything a good 4WD simulation could possibly require. For starters it isn't a race in the classic sense. Screamer is more like orienteering for cars - which I am led to believe is fairly indicative of the real thing. You are given a tough, gritty off-road vehicle, pointed in the direction of the first checkpoint and told to navigate your way to the end of the road. To progress to the next stage, you have to get yourself into the top three. Unfortunately for you, this is damnably difficult. Not content with dropping you off in the great unknown, the terrain is like a bad day at the crash clinic. Twists, turns, bumps, rivers, ponds, cliffs, bushes, trees… it's as if nature has taken up picketing against off-road sports and wants to shove the sign down your throat. Racing across uneven ground at high speeds isn't always the answer, and that is, in a way, Screamer's attraction, it actually forces you to act as if you are in a 4WD car.
License to Thrill
Visually Screamer 4x4 is very sharp. The terrain is fairly remarkable, with gorgeous angled landscapes, and there's none of the affected unreality of other 4WD games; each vehicle is very realistically portrayed, with some cracking textures. And of course so they should be, with licenses for the Jeep Cherokee, Jeep C17, Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender, Toyota Land Cruiser and more. The game features some 60 courses to sling these monsters around, with plenty of variation in the type of landscape. Weather affects too, can pay dividends. If it's raining and you're doing 90mph through a mud slick, you're as good as dead anyway. The physics in 4x4 are as close to reality as you are likely to get, and having driven briefly in a 4WD I can testify to that. You had better keep your eye on the road and your speedometer in reasonable bounds or it'll be curtains. And you can't rely on your co-pilot to aid you that much either. Beyond "This bit's tricky" and a few other choice one-liners he doesn't offer much to punctuate your insanity. In terms of audio, 4x4 gives as good as it gets. The gritty sound effects might as well have been scientifically sampled from the rear mudguard of a Wrangler, with some eerie creaks and vicious roars. You don't half wonder whether fans of this "sport" know what they are letting themselves in for…
Gaming on your own or in packs, there are Tutorial, Free Drive, Championship, Trophy and Pathfinder Championship Modes to contend with. The first two are fairly obvious and concern your getting used to the game, while the three competitive modes thrust you out onto the course and tell you where to go, so to speak. This style of play does take time to get accustomed to, but ultimately it proves varied and entertaining enough to keep you going for quite some time. Learning to choose the right gear for the right situation, as well as gear ratios, and trying to control your vehicle's momentum as you ease it over peaks and along ridges provides some of the most determined gameplay I have seen in any racer for quite a while - playing 4x4 is an intensely satisfying experience. Thankfully, multiple players needn't sit, awestruck and leaning over one another's shoulders. The options for more than one gamer are instantly accessible and darned fun.
There are five modes of competitive action on offer, including the obvious circuit racing Off-Road Rally style, as well as Catch Up, which is what it sounds like, First to Point, King of the Hill and Destruction. The latter is the 4WD equivalent of a derby, with grinding metal and misshapen cars battering one another for survival. Playing with friends, the game was enough to keep us going for some hours, with its multiple play modes, and even then, we still wanted to try a bit of hot-seating in the single player game. If you are limited to playing on your own, Screamer is brilliant, but if you can handle 1-4 players on a LAN or via the Internet, you're cooking with gas. At the end of the day though, Screamer 4x4 does enter an already packed arena, and despite its charm, in multiplayer terms it does come unstuck, to 1nsane from Codemasters. The Codies' game is brimming with options, and puts even 4x4 to shame in this respect. Might be one to consider before you part with your readies.
For a game to win me over in the 4WD category these days it has to do something pretty special, and it can safely be said that yes, Screamer 4x4 does. Through its precise handling and varied course structure, it pulls you in and keeps you going. The multiplayer modes are a welcome bonus. This is probably the best 4WD game yet.