Review - we take a look at one of the most highly anticipated racers yet for the PS2, from the creators of Midtown Madness
On the road to nowhere
Smuggling is a very naughty pursuit, but one that I can certainly empathise with considering the number of imported DVDs I get through. The average disc costs me anywhere from $15-30, but with import duty and other Customs taxes on top it costs a few pounds more than it would buying locally. Still, it is unlawful, and like all good things unlawful it has now inspired an original and startlingly playable computer game, in this case "Smuggler's Run", the debut PlayStation 2 game from publisher Take 2. Angel Studios are the creative geniuses responsible, and yes, they are the same group who did Midtown Madness. But unlike their other PS2 game "Midnight Club", Smuggler's Run shares little in common with their classic PC title, preferring instead to take a simple objective and shape some entertaining adversity to put in the way of it. Rather like "Grand Theft Auto", in fact. The basic premise is that you (and potentially your friend, thanks to the multiplayer) are a smuggler, a rather dastardly one at that, and your mission is to locate and redistribute contraband, avoiding wherever possible the reprisals of the local constabulary. When you get a new objective you are usually just tootling around in a buggy on country roads, but as soon as you get word of the contraband's location you know where to head, and this frequently involves diving offroad. But it's once you have picked up the delivery that the race really begins - you swipe the goods and almost immediately the police are onto you, and after a while the CIA, National Guard and just about everybody else will join them.
The skill it takes to evade some of the cops on your tail is rather akin to that which Doom fans will remember was required on the Ultra Violence and Nightmare settings of that game at times. The cops initially will set up roadblocks and the like on the highways, where passage is a lot quicker. Soon they will wise up to your offroad capabilities though and head into the countryside on your tail. They batter and bruise the back of your vehicle trying to keep up, and in true "Driver" style it's possible to engineer some hilarious pile-ups by moving swiftly and in the right circles. Your destination (and the final destination of the contraband) is found located somewhere murky on the other side of the map, which is made up or either Forest, Desert or Snowy terrain. The 3D engine has been crafted sublimely, allowing you to travel literally as far as the eye can see in any direction, and while the draw distance is phenomenal, the frame rate barely suffers a jot. Players are expected to cover an awful lot of ground, heading through rivers, border patrols, and even small towns at about 100mph, whilst trying to stay upright. Of course, this is a bit of a difficulty in itself, because as in real life the bouncy suspension of your buggy when connected to high speeds and bumpy offroad locations means you spend a lot of time on a random combination of wheels twisting and turning in ways which they frankly shouldn't. The controls make all of this incredibly intuitive though, with simple analog or D-Pad steering and acceleration, and alongside regular brakes a sort of handbrake that allows for sharp turns, which adds a much-needed edge to the non-stop action. While you can flip your car and all sorts of other things, it's still possible to right yourself easily using a combination of these controls. And in a tight situation, it's important to get moving again as quickly as possible.
Playing The Field
The structure of the game is simple; you have three key modes of play, the Smuggler's Run itself (a campaign of missions where you play against the computer), Turf Wars, which itself contains three types of smuggling-based racing modes for one or two players, and Joyriding, which allows you to race around the three terrains doing pretty much whatever you like. Smuggler's Run, the campaign, takes in the region of seven to ten hours to finish for the average gamer, and gives you several objectives per map, with variations on the theme of retrieving a package and delivering it - doing it against the clock, playing a sort of Capture the Flag against a team of enemies (basically it's the same as normal, except with rival smugglers vying for your jobs), and also off-road races and fairly normal time-based races. Distinguishing between the various types isn't terribly important in the thick of things, but the slightly different objectives add to the fun and help sustain interest. Turf Wars, on the other hand, includes several different types of game, and this is where the multiplayer stuff comes in. You can either play against a friend, or with one; both options provide countless hours of fun. There are several vehicles running and incredibly large maps to race around on. The Capture the Flag style mode in this section is probably the most entertaining though, and along with a few friends I have spent the last couple of nights bashing through it.
Out And About
The buggy is the most popular vehicle, but it isn't alone by any means. You can also take on the guise of a little SUV, which has improved strength but less acceleration, a Trophy Truck, which has more acceleration than the SUV but less power, a Rally Car, which is incredibly nippy, a Massive Truck, and even a Hummer, or "Military vehicle"! The Hummer is certainly my preferred method of transport… Sadly, although the vehicle models and skinning is quite impressive, visually the game is only adequate. The lack of VRAM in the system doesn't help with such enormous environments, and the repetition of textures becomes quite startling at times. In its favour, cars have nice damage skins (you will never have known so much rubbish could be ejected from one single car) and the animals and other organic areas of the game can all be propelled into the air when hit correctly. This isn't Carmageddon, but it's nice to see Angel Studios not fleeing to the other extreme as they have done in the two Midtown Madness games, and this time actually letting you hit some damned people. The soundtrack is a bit peculiar at times, using techno and electronica as opposed to heavy guitar riffs and rock music as I had expected it to. Misplaced, I felt. Slap on something silly and pacey by Bon Jovi and it will fill the gap just fine. [You're fired -Music Editor]. Hey! It was just an example! Incidentally, while the sound effects are quite fitting, the voice acting is dire, so opting for your own tunes and muting the volume on the TV is probably the way it will go.
Smuggler's Run is a pretty impressive outing for Angel Studios, and a darned playable game for as long as it lasts. Sadly I doubt you will still be playing it in a week or two, which is a shame if not unusual for launch titles. Still, by the time you are done with this Midnight Club should be upon us, and that looks different enough to prove a worthy successor.