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Test Drive Off-road Wide Open (PS2) Review

Background Info

Screens (6)
As of late the Test Drive franchise has been hitting on all cylinders. After years of mediocrity, the series came to life with the release of Test Drive Le Mans on the Sega Dreamcast. Test Drive V-Rally was yet another excellent driving game from the Infogrames publishing house. While the release of Le Mans on the PS2 got mixed reviews, it was nonetheless an above average racer. Now, with the release of Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open, Infogrames hopes to continue their string of worthy racing games.

Developed by Angel Studios, the same house that brought PS2 owners Smugglers Run and Midnight Club, Off-Road borrows much from their other titles. Owners of either or both titles will instantly recognize many of the same aspects of those games in Test Drive. The terrains, covering three locales, have their heritage in Smugglers Run while some of the racing aspects lean towards Midnight Club. But no matter how you slice it up, this off-road racing game, which features over a dozen actual, licensed vehicles, features some decent play.

Presentation/Graphics : 70
Two things slapped me in the face the moment I started the game up. The first was the blandness of the textures being used in the game. While the vehicles have a good amount of detail (items such as racks, logos, and trim are accurate), the surrounding environment is dull. Looking no better than an above average N64 title or something just short of what the Dreamcast is capable of, this Test Drive game certainly doesn't show off the graphical power of the PS2 in terms of texturing. Many of the environments feature mountains and hills in boring earthtones. The textures hardly convince you that you're looking at real terrain; they remind me more of something like Rogue Squadron or Star Wars Episode 1 Racer on the N64.

Equally appalling is the amount of pop-up in the game. While Smugglers Run offered nearly infinite horizons, features pop-up consistently in this title. Perhaps with 7 AI cars to keep track of the game's engine just can't keep pace graphically. However, despite the pop-up, the game rolls along at a high and consistent frame rate most of the time.

One nice aspect of the graphical engine is the implementation of moveable features. For example, in the desert climates you'll find tumbleweeds doing what they do best - tumbling. As the wind blows the balls of weed roll across the desert floor convincingly. Should you collide with one, it flies off your bumper and continues to roll. In other areas, items such as boulders come crashing down from the mountain sides or logs come rolling down a path. In all cases the graphical presentation is done magnificently.

Presentation/Audio : 50
An area that could definitely use some work is the audio portion of the game. First, my personal bias enters with the sound track, which is comprised of 14 songs from artists such as Metallica, Fear Factory, and the Digital Assasins. Sorry, I just don't get much into heavy metal and hard rock. It was tolerable for the first day of racing, but as I progressed through the game and wanted to concentrate more on the driving, I ditched the music.

Once the music dies down you are left with below average sounds for the vehicles. It's hard to distinguish between vehicles based on sound alone, as each truck has a generic sounding whine. And unfortunately the whines of the engine cover a majority of the power band of the engines. Fans of manual shifting will be left without significant audio clues when to shift. The change in pitch as you rev the engine is minimal and forces you to look at the speedometer to see if you are still accelerating. Needless to say, the audio portion of the game is not the strongest aspect.

Interface : 60
Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open is not a feature rich game. Once you start the game up the main menu limits you to the single race mode, the career mode, a free roam mode, a high score list, and of course a list of options. The options include audio settings, controller mappings, and memory card access. The single race mode allows you to race on any unlocked track (you unlock additional tracks by completing a set of tracks at a particular locale) at any of the three locations in the game (Moab, Utah; Yosemite; and Big Island, Hawaii). Each locale has a mix of race types, which include Blitz (go point A to point B), Circuit (laps), and Scramble (go through gates in any order you want) races. The career mode is simply an extension of the single race mode; you venture through seasons consisting of the various race types.

Gameplay : 80
The heart of the game is the career mode. Here you race over 5 seasons and 35 races. You start your career with some cash in hand and earn more money by placing well in races. In addition, each season consists of multi-race competitions, and points are awarded based on your finishing position. The goal is to be in first place at the end of each series, and doing so clears that portion of the season. Then, when you've placed first in all series for a season, additional vehicle classes are opened. The bonuses are essentially faster, better handling trucks.

The racing seems to take much of its heritage from Midnight Club. In the Blitz and Circuit races, an arrow guides you to the next gate, and as each gate is passed the arrow is updated. And like in both Smugglers Run and Midnight Club, you'll find plenty of shortcuts. The Smugglers Run aspect comes into play in that the environments are hilly. With two types of vehicles at your disposal (a power type for going uphill or speed for fast flat land performance), you can choose to stay on the road or bypass the chosen path. The Scramble mode throws a ton of gates on the locale and your mission is to get through each gate first.

To provide some competition, 7 AI trucks serve as your opponents. The AI is similar to that in Midnight Club, meaning that two or three are pretty crafty and the rest are just there as filler material. You'll find that the AI opponents take different paths for each type of race, and if you follow the wrong group you may lose valuable time. To make your life more miserable, the vehicles often tap the rear portion of your truck, sending you spinning. Some of the AI cars are as mean as those in Vanishing Point on the PSX and Dreamcast. They are downright nasty and will cause you to spin at the worst possible moment. Fortunately each race allows a couple of restarts (the only penalty is cash taken from your account). Unfortunately, turnabout does not appear to be fair play. You can have the biggest truck in the game and be sent spinning by a small Jeep. Yet often you simply can't do the same to another vehicle.

Equally frustrating is the way some of the vehicles react to bumps in the road. If you don't hit a jump squarely your vehicle will rotate. To counter the rotation, the game allows you to try to correct your orientation in mid-air with the R1 button and left analog stick. For the most part you can effectively get out of tricky situations with this solution. But other aspects of the game will cause some consternation. Each environment has its fair share of objects such as bushes or small trees that can be driven through. But there are other objects that will bring your truck to a dead spot. Some of the drab texture effects make it difficult to tell from a distance which objects are indeed obstacles. Still, the racing is fun, though I crave for more diverse game modes.

Replay Value : 60
Despite some inherent problems in all areas, the game is fun. However, after you get through the five seasons, there is little incentive to keep playing. Contrast this with Angel Studio's other racer, Midnight Club. Even though I finished that game's career mode long ago, I still enjoy the single race capture-the-flag events. With only 3 types of races in Test Drive Off-Road (and really there are only 2 unique varieties), there is little to grab the gamers' attention spans.

Overall : 68
The foundation of Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open is there; the game just needs more depth and some graphics befitting the PS2. The AI, while annoying at times, does offer challenging racing. But the limited number of race modes and rudimentary career mode limit the replay value of the game. So while the game is fun, its fun is limited.

By: James Smith 10/24/01

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