Honey, I'm home
Smuggler's Run 2: Hostile Territory is the sequel to one of the PlayStation 2's outstanding launch titles. You would have been hard pressed to justify the original as a killer application though, and in Hostile Territory the excitement is only a bit more feverish, the graphics are only a touch improved, and the FMV and storyline elements are fairly uninspired. The improvements made since the original are hardly groundbreaking, and the game is still ostensibly the same. But since last year the PlayStation 2 has found its way into several million homes in Europe alone, and there are better games on the market, including Rockstar's magnum opus Grand Theft Auto III. The sum of the game's parts is thoroughly enjoyable, but it's still not a killer application. Once again players take control of an anonymous smuggler who is learning the ropes from a grizzled veteran, and are employed to collect packages, make drops and elude law enforcement in all sorts of conditions and all over the world. The general narrative is sustained through a collection of average-to-amusing cutscenes deliberately filmed in a grainy B-movie style, and focus on your smuggling band's financial interests and the jobs they take. At the beck and call of your principal, your group has to infuse itself into various situations both civil and military and escape scot-free. Your adventures take you through exotic locations including Vietnam and southern Russia (instead of the previously proposed Afghanistan, for obvious reasons).
Developer Angel Studios clearly had fun at the top of their agenda, so the game mixes realistic (and occasionally startling) physics with excellent visuals and simple objectives. Your job is usually to collect a package by running over it in your vehicle, then to beat the clock to the drop-off point where the package is usually surrendered. Depending on the difficulty of the level (and it's a reasonable learning curve), you may or may not then have to lose your police and army pursuers. And that's basically it! Sometimes your team consists of more than one smuggler, and you can pick the vehicles for your AI counterparts. Often the missions consist of multiple objectives with time allowances increased with each drop or pick-up, but Hostile Territory is very evenly paced - there have been scant few levels where I have run into a brick wall due to the difficulty - and thanks to the physics, the unique car handling and the persistent AI of the police and armed forces, the game can be extremely exciting. Situations often arise where you tear across the countryside with your package and chance a sneak peek through your rear-view only to recoil in horror at the enormous number of people on your tail, and how close they are. If you're not extremely careful with your drop-offs and the paths you pick through the foliage and other environmental hazards you can lose valuable time regaining control and composure amidst furious police interest, or come unstuck completely and wreck your car or get busted.
Feel the noise
Even when your cars are falling apart though they have an unrealistic smoothness to them, and rarely cease to function or put you in jeopardy until they are completely gone. These are design decisions made in the interests of gameplay though, and are perfectly reasonable. The fact that your door has flown off and that you are plainly visible fighting at the steering wheel while a police truck rams your legs is completely irrelevant in the context of the situation, which calls for panic-stricken manoeuvring as opposed to nit-picking! The locations in the game are beautifully sculpted out of the landscape, often dotted with trees and bushes, some of which are impregnable while others are just there for show. The bushy foliage doesn't act like a forest of lampposts to a speeding saloon, but does make it impossible to see more than two steps ahead. There are also nightvision-style missions, and the game makes good use of weather effects and day and night looks. The water effects and landscapes do leave a little to be desired, certainly compared to games like Gran Turismo 3, but you can literally see for miles, and all the while the game maintains a reasonable framerate. Apart from a few nosedives it's more than acceptable, although the game does not seem to feature a 60Hz mode, which worryingly seems to be Rockstar's de facto standard for European PS2 games. The game's soundtrack and sound effects on the other hand are somewhat anonymous. Compared once again to the incredible variety of tunes and sound effects in GTA3, it's annoying. The boppy techno beats are simply not my thing, and the lack of variety is appalling. A chum of mine tells me it's very good as techno / house / trance / whatever-the-hell-it-is goes, but it doesn't seem to fit the game terribly well. Smuggler's Run 2 really needed a furious soundtrack.
Not all peachy
When it comes to the gameplay though Hostile Territory suffers for one reason; the repetition. Not in the sense that we all played this a year ago, but the way that you come unstuck, listen to your stupid gravel-toned boss whinging through the radio speaker at your busted ass and then have to pick up the controls and try the exact same thing over again. There are only so many routes from A to B. Perhaps some of them won't take you through muddy fields where the car slides as though its on a sheet of ice, and perhaps the cops won't swerve away from that tree you skimmed, but ultimately it's just a slog once you know the score. You just want the next mission, the next cutscene .. something new. A new car maybe - the game is quite rewarding, with new vehicles added to the roster regularly and spruced up parts and weapons to help evade the cops, but the premise never changes. It's almost always a mission to pick-up and then drop-off something. Even the game's other modes, such as capture the flag and checkpoint races, become joyless after a while. The multiplayer element holds some charm, but relatively little. Playing Bomb Tag (hot potato on wheels) gets old very quickly, and when so much of the outcome relies on pot luck thanks to the huge array of environmental, physics and AI factors, is it really any wonder that things get boring? There is little or no skill involved, and after a while it all just becomes repetitive. That's where I am now, about 20 hours of gameplay later. Smuggler's Run 2: Hostile Territory is a good PlayStation 2 game, and in the present climate it makes a nice diversion. But with so many truly excellent games coming out on the PS2 now, and so many more in the immediate offing, does anybody have a spare £40-50 for a game that's merely good?