Off-road racing game previewed
Just about everything I have been given pertaining to 4x4 Evolution highlights the fact that it is still in Alpha and is not finished. The packaging of the game is quite specific about this, the installer reiterates it, and the opening screen of the game explains in clear detail what the minimum specifications are, how they are not finalised, and how the heads-up-display, user interface, and entire game in general is not finished.
But to be honest, Terminal Reality haven't much to be concerned about - 4x4 Evolution, even in its unfinished state, is a stonking game, one of the best I have played all year.
Although the options available to me were limited, the level of detail and the potential was apparent. In the demo version I was shown there were three tracks and about ten vehicles available. The three tracks were each set upon a different landscape - a junkyard, an airbase and a mountain range. All of them featured bumpy terrain and a variety of obstacles such as cranes, up-turned camper vans, and even other vehicles going about their business.
In the full version we are promised no less than 16 large courses to race across, and although there is an informal route the emphasis is on outwitting your opponents by diving off-road and finding an alternative approach. There are a set number of checkpoints for each course, but the order in which you complete them is entirely up to you.
While I was only privy to a Quick Race mode for testing the cars, tracks and landscapes, the full version will also include Training, One-off Racing, Time Challenges and a Career Mode, which allows you to race for money to upgrade your vehicle between races, or just to buy a new vehicle entirely.
And if more than 16 unique and enterprising tracks aren't enough for you, the full version will also include a course editor, so you can extend the life of the game further.
Start Your Engines
The 3D engine that Take2Games are boasting about was originally coded for the Dreamcast, but has since been ported over to the PC. Its beautiful rolling polygonal landscapes will push PCs to the limit, but there still wasn't much slow-down evident even in this early alpha version.
Vehicles will also be highly detailed, featuring around 5000 polygons each. Everything has been modelled and refined, right down to the drivers' heads turning in the cockpit to follow the action. The sun beams down from the sky, casting shadows on the ground from your racer and the surroundings in real time. If you knock over a clump of barrels, the shadows adjust to reflect this.
The level of detail is consistent, not just on your own car but also on your opponents' vehicles and the scenery, and real care has been taken not to let up in the quality.
The proceedings can be viewed from various camera angles, and I often found myself adopting the view of in-front and above, unusable in driving terms, just to peer down on my Land Cruiser and admire its intricate replication. If you don't want to waste valuable race time, it is often fun to throw your vehicle around, over barriers and into the air off of ramps, and then admire yourself in your own time with the Replay mode at the end of the race.
I Am Invincible!
There's a lot of fun to be had in 4x4 Evolution, but that has more to do with the fact that the sport itself is fun, since Terminal Reality stress that the game will strive for realism above all else.
The driving experience will be complemented by extreme weather conditions, time of day factor, and other more colourful and unpredictable factors such as oncoming traffic and wildlife, the point being to emulate the erratic nature of the sport, and to make the tracks seem alive.
Unpredictability is useful in creating a realistic image of 4x4 racing, although the most important thing is probably the authenticity of the vehicles. Famous names like Toyota and Nissan have officially licensed more than fifty of their brands and makes to take part.
The downside here is that, while you can throw a Land Cruiser into a 90 degree turn at 60mph, you can't shed the side panelling as you attempt to bond with a wall, since the last thing car manufacturers want is for people to play games in which you destroy their wares. This is rather disappointing, but thankfully the action is pacey and colourful enough to make up for it.
Wheels Around The World
My only complaint in the sound department so far is that there isn't a Monster Truck Madness style "Yeeehaw!" button. Apart from that, it's all fairly standard fare though. No soundtrack is in place just yet either, but there is some funky techno music to help hasten you through the menus.
Which brings us back to the point that a lot of the game simply isn't quite finished yet, although while poking hopefully around the menu system, I did discover that the game's "World Rankings" system is active in a basic alpha form. When you hit the World Rankings button in the main menu, the game tries to contact its website for the latest data. Should your connection be live, you can view and query the database of high scores and lap times stored by Terminal Reality.
This is great, because you can actually compare your times to other players' over the Internet. Should you set a time for one of the tracks that you think is simply unbeatable, you might well find that submitting your data gets your name in at the top of the leaderboard - ingenious.
Obviously a lot of thought and care is going into the making of the game, and when it appears on the Dreamcast and PC this Autumn it should certainly make a significant splash. While it bears repeating that the game is still a few months away, all of the signs already point to a great success.