Review by BloodGod65

"Off-Road Boredom"

Several years ago, I was introduced to off-road racing through DiRT. Since then I've been on the lookout for any game that might scratch my newfound itch to drive like a madman through the great outdoors. Now that Baja: Edge of Control has been released, it would seem the time has come for some more off-road fun. But alas, Baja is not all it could have been - it's not even a fraction of what it could have been.

Given that Baja arrived with almost no publicity, it might be useful to clarify just what it is before going any further. In a nutshell, Baja is an off-road racer that qualifies as a simulation by the narrowest of margins. The game gives the player a large stable of rides to choose from, plenty of environments to zoom around in and the goal of moving up from the bottom tier of trashy rides to high-end, race-tuned, off-road vehicles. On paper, it sounds like a solid – though unremarkable - concept. Unfortunately, the concept breaks down because of the game's sloppy execution.

Starting where players will spend most of their time, the career mode is painfully boring. I've never been one to get too worked up about career structure if the real racing is up to snuff (which it isn't, but I'll get to that soon enough), but this is one of the most lifeless setups in any racer I've seen in recent memory. The career is broken up into different leagues based on vehicle class. In each league, there are a number of tournaments and races to complete, allowing players to rack up money all the while. The problem is that none of it comes with any sense of achievement. To make matters worse, the entire career mode fails to elicit even the slightest feeling of interest. Slogging through bland menu after bland menu, staring at pointless information just doesn't cut it for me. And given the number of menus you're required to go through just to get to a single race… well, it becomes tiresome in a hurry.

After getting past the menus and on to the racing, things improve – albeit only marginally. The types of events range from cool to aggravating; in addition to the tried and true circuit races, there are rally races, hill climbs, open class challenges and the granddaddy of them all, the Baja race. Rally races are point-to-point sprints, but with all the inherent dangers of off-road racing (falling off a cliff, hitting a boulder, and so on). Hill climbs are like circuit races, but with a big mountain right in the middle of the course, which you'll have to successfully fight up before getting anywhere. Open-class challenges are races that pit you against every other kind of vehicle in the game, and then try (unsuccessfully) to even the odds by staggering the starting position. Baja races are the same as rally races, but much, much longer, so you have to take special care of your vehicle in order to finish (although emergency repair is there via helicopter, if you need it).

The vehicle physics are where the game really falls apart. I don't doubt that off-road vehicles aren't the most agile things in the world, but this is just pathetic. Most of the vehicles are clumsy things that plow drunkenly through the tracks. Any attempt at control is usually met with an outcome completely different from the intended effect. Trying to smoothly steer into a corner either results in overshooting it, because the controls don't respond well to minor adjustments, or a complete loss of control after pressing too hard on the analog stick. The terrible physics are further exacerbated because the vehicle physics are unrealistically floaty and weightless.

The high-end vehicles don't seem to have as many of these problems, but buying a new vehicle is an aggravation in and of itself. It is quite obvious that vehicles have varying performance, but the game gives you no statistics or numbers by which to judge which is the best. Therefore, it basically comes down to price and what paintjob you like most.

During races your vehicle of choice will be abused in a variety of ways, and the damage comes in quite a few flavors (most of it the performance damaging variety). Among the things that require attention are the shocks, tires, brakes, clutch, oil pressure, water temperature and of course, the bodywork. Damaging these parts has obvious effects, but the most important thing is the water temperature. Keeping the accelerator in the floor will quickly overheat the car, causing performance to be drastically reduced. The extensive damage helps the game step into simulation territory, and I do like the whole idea. Regrettably, it just doesn't really make sense ninety-nine percent of the time. Allow me to elaborate – These are purpose built racing machines, tuned specifically for tearing through the unforgiving Mexican environment. Why then, does my car overheat after a two minute race? Why are my shocks useless after three laps? The few occasions the damage does matter are during the Baja races, and then it feels right, as you're forced to constantly strategize to keep your car operating at peak performance while staying ahead of the pack.

Like the rest of the game, the technical aspects of Baja are incredibly hit and miss. The cars are very detailed, and a lot of the underlying components of the cars are visible and recognizable. It is also fun to watch all the stuff that flies off them when the racing gets rough. Unfortunately, this is the only good thing about the graphics. From there it becomes one of the ugliest games I've ever seen on the 360.

While there is a wide variety of environments to race in, it hardly makes any difference given that they're all hideous. They're bland, have awful texture work and the foliage looks like cardboard cut-outs. Most damning of all, there is a weird blurry look to everything, almost as if the developer tried to hide the inadequacy of the graphics by obscuring them. Overall, you might find yourself wondering if the graphics engine was even finished before the ship date, and I wouldn't be stretching the truth if I said there were games on the Xbox that looked better than this.

One other thing to note is that the game possesses incredibly shoddy hit detection. On more than one occasion, when rubbing up against someone, I witnessed my wheels actually disappear into the other car. When a competitor rammed my car from behind, I even saw the front half of their car merge with mine.

Audio fares somewhat better. The soundtrack consists of a small selection of tracks, all rock. No complaints there, as it sets the mood for some off-road thrashing but the song list could have been larger. Even so, it's unlikely anyone will be hearing much of it anyway, given that the sounds of racing engines drown everything else out. The sounds seem appropriate to the cars they come from and give the feeling you've got the power to take on whatever the game throws at you. Even when you don't.

Despite of the many criticisms I've leveled at this game, I don't doubt some will come to love it. I won't deny it does deliver a large helping of off-road racing, but the many odd problems mar the experience to the point where it feels like a chore to play it. With that said, I think this could be the start of a good franchise if only the developer can iron out the problems and deliver big-time for a second entry.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 12/04/08, Updated 07/06/10

Game Release: Baja: Edge of Control (US, 09/22/08)

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