Road Trip Adventure is a refreshingly laidback RPG
Vroom with a view.
First things first: unplug that Logitech G27 or Thrustmaster T500RS. Road Trip Adventure is not the sort of driving game that requires a force feedback steering wheel to truly appreciate its subtleties. The most appropriate peripherals are a travel rug, a Scotch egg and a few pouches of Capri-Sun - it's an open-world racing game concerned primarily with easygoing exploration, presenting you with a sizeable, brightly coloured land mass to pootle around looking for picnic spots. Parking up to admire the view? Highly recommended. Popping into a photobooth for a personalised postcard snap? Sounds like fun. Claiming the treasure at the end of an underground maze? I can dig it.
Compared to the current crowded market of sleek racing sims, Road Trip Adventure feels like a particularly crunching gear change, as if someone took Burnout Paradise and re-rendered it with Super Mario 64 assets, or sliced the point-to-point time attack out of OutRun and rolling-pinned whatever was left into a sprawling RPG. Three years before Pixar's Cars was released, here was a world inhabited entirely by sentient vehicles. The characters you meet may not have Lightning McQueen's weird windscreen eyes but the slightly cartoonish versions of recognisable real-world models - a Mercedes SL, a Renault 5, a vintage Mini, all apparently based on the chunky Choro-Q line of Japanese toy cars - have bags of personality.
If I'd taken a second to glance at the garish box art in 2003, when Road Trip Adventure was first released for PlayStation 2, I would probably have dismissed it without a second thought - too cluttered, too cute, too kiddie. As it stands, I'm still not entirely sure how I found myself pouring hours into it in late 2014. There are two possible explanations. One, I'd overdosed on gritty, complicated big budget titles crammed with so many particle effects I'd forgotten what a beautiful blue videogame sky looked like. (Essentially, I needed a change of scene, like a soot-clogged Victorian recuperating in the Alps.) Two, and perhaps even more significantly, it was possible to pick up Road Trip Adventure from PSN for roughly the same price as a packet of Penguin biscuits. The only thing better than a holiday is a bargain holiday.
So I dove into this particular road trip like it was a Costa del Sol swimming pool, and embraced its inherently rambling, unhurried nature. The overarching plot concerns the President (embodied as a Lincoln Town Car, naturally) deciding he's done with being in charge and announcing that he'll hand over his title to whoever can beat him in a race. That's the endgame: souping yourself up so you can whizz past the Prez. But in the first instance, you're encouraged to just drive around to get a feel for the world, nudging your bonnet into people's homes, chatting to them and taking on low-stakes errands to raise some dough and fill out the stamps in your achievements scrapbook. The map is uncluttered by quest markers, though roadsigns direct you to the next hub, each separated by surprisingly long scenic drives that later become stages in an optional world rally championship.
There are more traditional races to enter in each town but in the first instance your car handles like a poorly-packed wardrobe on rusty castors. Earn enough cash and you can start buying upgraded parts, with a dedicated workshop in every hub to install better components or swap out your exterior body shell. Once the underwater propellers are introduced, fitted on the rear of your vehicle like a four-spot rally headlight bar in reverse, you'll probably do what I did and immediately try and recreate the white Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me. (Other game-changing custom parts include a jetski modification that allows you to drive on water and a rocket booster for insane acceleration.)
With the questing and racing action clustered around the hubs, there's a lot of open and seemingly empty country to explore, from the deserts surrounding the Las Vegas-esque Sandopolis to the fresh powder of White Mountain. Crucially, you can putter about at your own pace or warp immediately to any hub you've already visited, allowing you to expand or contract the gaming experience like an accordion, depending on how much time you have to spare. It puts the pacing directly in the hands of the player. Weirdly, I found having such close control made me more inclined to loaf about, poking around underwater or along cliff edges safe in the knowledge I could zap straight back to wherever I needed to be if required.
To claim the right to race the President, you need to qualify for various driving licences by winning races, then succeed in a more involved championship after recruiting (and upgrading) two other cars to be part of your racing team. The races are more Mario Kart than Forza, with increasingly elaborate environmental hazards and a bustling pack of 20 drivers, but generally get more exciting as you improve the capabilities of your car and team.
Meanwhile, a wealth of minigames try and distract you from seeking office, from vehicular curling to three-a-side football, ski-jumping to drag-racing. You can also literally pimp your ride by accepting taxi-top advertisements from local businesses, resulting in your three-person racing team motoring round the wider gameworld looking like a Papa John's delivery fleet. There's always another thing to do, another coin to collect, another eccentric conversation to unlock, another photobooth to find. The scrapbook that tracks your game progress has room for 100 stamps, and filling those pages is addictive.
Road Trip Adventure should have been the perfect holiday but in the end, I sort of ruined it. There's a casino in Sandopolis where you play as the ball, driving into a spinning roulette wheel made up of gigantic numbered parking slots. I convinced myself that accelerating as soon as the wheel started meant that it would always end up on red, instantly doubling my maximum 10,000 credit bet. With a few wobbles along the way, I managed to amass a small fortune, enough to upgrade my parts at an unnaturally rapid rate. I'd been presented with a laidback playground and approached it like F1, a place where money routinely overtakes fun.
This one weird trick didn't capsize the game - other key upgrades are tied to completing tasks rather than spending money. But after Road Trip Adventure handed me the car keys to the kingdom, it felt like I'd committed a spiritual betrayal by forcing unnecessary acceleration into a world that was determinedly not fast and not furious. Thankfully, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. Even though I've now got a monster engine with monster truck wheels, there's still lots to do on the long road ahead of me.