One of the simplest joys of racing games is that they let you get away with things you can't do in real life. Assuming you're not a race car driver or the latest guest star on World's Scariest Police Chases, driving mainly means dutifully obeying signs and driving within the lines. If you'd like more adventure than just merging onto a busy highway or dodging stray shopping carts at the grocery store, 4x4 EVO 2 may be what you're looking for. Here's a racing game that not only ignores speed limits, but often also ignores roads. Like its predecessor, 4x4 Evolution, 4x4 EVO 2 puts you behind the wheel of real-world trucks and SUVs and lets you barrel over dirt roads and across the open countryside. Deviating from the racecourses isn't just possible, but actively encouraged. If you can put up with some frustrating inconsistencies and technical problems, 4x4 EVO 2 offers some thrilling off-road racing.
4x4 EVO 2 features a healthy selection of game modes and a greater emphasis on the single-player experience than its predecessor. First, there's time attack mode, where you try to set record laps. Then, there's the obligatory quick race, which lets you jump right into the action without any fuss (other than awkward, ugly menus). You can choose from 30 courses, and you can race at midday or dusk and drive under clear conditions or various levels of fog and rain. After each race, you can watch replays with a VCR-style control panel. Surprisingly, there aren't any difficulty levels or options, and the default settings might be pretty tough for racing novices.
You can race between one and 20 laps against up to seven computer-controlled opponents or compete online via a somewhat convoluted and buggy server browser. 4x4 Evolution's ability to let you race against those with console versions of the game is gone in the sequel. The manual touts a two-player versus mode, though this was inaccessible, despite having the required two controllers installed. If you play against the computer, prepare for both excitement and frustration. Your AI opponents race hard but seem to think this is a game of bumper cars--they drive with reckless abandon and constantly knock you into boulders or off the road. Leaving the road by your own devices, on the other hand, can be useful, since taking shortcuts is encouraged.
To find those shortcuts, you can play in the free roam mode, where there's no pressure and no competition. You just drive to your heart's content, enjoying the scenery or smashing into it as you see fit. As with the quick race mode, free roam lets you choose any course, the time of day, and the weather conditions. As Rainbow Studios' Motocross Madness 2 proved so well, the ability to just ride around and follow your every whim can be at least as enjoyable as structured competition. Of course, you can't do death-defying, acrobatic stunts in a 4x4 EVO 2, so once the novelty of the environments wears off, the free roam mode can get pretty dull in a hurry.
The quick race, time attack, and free roam modes let you choose vehicles from three classes, beginning with stock vehicles and progressing to ones heavily modified for off-road racing. All three classes feature real-world trucks and SUVs from GMC, Mitsubishi, Chevrolet, Lexus, Toyota, Dodge, Jeep, Nissan, and Infiniti. The game boasts 120 models in all, including variants of the Dodge Durango, Mitsubishi Montero, Nissan Xterra, Toyota Tacoma, and other well-known models. In practical game terms, many of the different models perform quite similarly, so while the game technically has 120 vehicles, in practice it feels like far fewer.
If you don't like the standard vehicles, you're free to use vehicles you've bought and modified in the game's career mode. Fleshed out from the original 4x4 EVO, the career mode in 4x4 EVO 2 starts you out with $30,000 with which to purchase the vehicle of your choice. With money that you win in various racing series, you can purchase new vehicles, as well as licensed parts from Goodridge, K&N, IPF, Rancho, and others. These range from high-performance air filters and snorkels for river fording to things as mundane (and useless in game terms) as a sun visor. As you win more series and build a reputation, you'll get to try out for racing teams. If you're accepted by one, you can unlock more parts and vehicles.
New to the EVO series is the ability to undertake special missions in career mode. To earn cash, you can search the desert for a mysterious Spanish mission church, deliver relief supplies to a remote Alaskan village cut off by an earthquake, and perform other FedEx or needle-in-a-haystack tasks. The goals themselves are boring, and the lame map/compass is of little use. Get ready to drive in circles. The environments are huge, though, helping to really capture the feel of off-roading in remote, beautiful areas.
There's certainly a lot to see in all of 4x4 EVO 2's game modes. The imaginative and diverse courses will have you navigating narrow bridges high in the Tibetan Himalayas, tearing through a secret military airbase in the desert, and racing through an abandoned Buddhist temple complex in Thailand, karma be damned. The game's gorgeous graphics do a great job of immersing you in each scene, displaying lush colors and fine attention to detail. The tracks are brought to life with incidental scenery like fighter jets soaring over the airbase or trains rumbling through industrial areas. The trucks themselves are ultradetailed.
These slick graphics come at a price, though. Unless you crank down the resolution, detail settings, and/or color depth (in particular), you might notice severe frame rate drops even on a fairly high-end system. Needless to say, sputtering visuals can make accurate racing extremely difficult. Occasional clipping anomalies, like when trucks come in contact, can also make seeing where you're going very hard. For that matter, you'll also notice the absence of a rearview mirror in the first-person view mode, as well as the inability to look to your sides. To look backward, you'll need to glance over your virtual shoulder by hitting a key or button. Of course, looking backward is hardly the safest way to race.
4x4 EVO 2's audio has its faults, too. The soundtrack falls prey to the music malady suffered by so many racing games these days: acute techno disorder. Monotonous, disposable electronic beats hammer away at you from the moment you start up the game. Some of the tunes are just forgettable, while some are so in-your-face bad that you'll be blissfully thankful you can mute the music. The sound effects fare much better. The engines sound convincingly throaty, and the sounds of jouncing suspension and slipping tires draw you into the action.
The physics in 4x4 EVO 2 are relaxed from reality, making a compromise between an arcade racer and a realistic sim, with the emphasis on the former. You'll get a great sense of speed as you hurtle down hills in the fog, with your truck rocking every which way as you bang over the rough terrain. Unfortunately, the game's physics are beset with frustrating oddities that can really detract from your enjoyment of the game. Trucks seem to stick to each other as if they had giant Velcro sheets glued to their sides. If you barely touch another truck, you'll slow dramatically. This is a major problem, given the AI drivers' tendency to bang into you all the time.
Worse, you can smash through small trees with no consequences, but a chain-link fence or little rock can stop you cold when you slam into it at 100mph. While some objects magically bring you to an instant halt, you can literally bounce off a parked plane on an airstrip. When you're roaring around a track and trying to dodge vicious competitors, it can be extremely hard to guess in an instant what that upcoming something-or-other in the road might do to you. Can you drive over it with no consequences, or will it knock you out of first place?
Equally odd, you simply can't damage the trucks in this game. Do whatever you want to them, and they still seem to drive fine and look as if they just came off the showroom floor. In fairness, the licensing auto manufacturers surely don't want to see their precious beauties all mangled in what amounts to an advertising deal with the game developer and publisher. Still, driving off a mountain or landing on top of a truck after leaping off a sand dune should at least put a dent in your vehicle.
4x4 EVO 2 supports force feedback out of the box, unlike its predecessor, which required a patch to enable it. The force feedback setup options only allow you to change the raw force and spring strength, so if you want to fine-tune the feedback, you'll need to exit the program and handle it through your controller software. Either way, the force feedback effects are strong but only give you a generic sense of riding over rough terrain instead of a better read on any subtle forces acting on your truck.
4x4 EVO 2 offers a few simplified tuning options, though not enough to make a true gearhead happy. This simplification has its advantages, though. Unlike the hard-core racing sims that require you to tweak numerous settings to control over- or understeer, 4x4 EVO 2 features a single handling slider that lets you easily select more of either one. No matter how you tweak your truck, though, this is not a subtle game--you can pretty much mash the accelerator to the floor most of the race, and that will serve you well enough.
If it weren't for all 4x4 EVO 2's inconsistencies and little problems, it would be a great racing game. As it stands, it still manages to be a pretty good one. The environments are diverse and beautiful, and the races give you a real sense of throwing caution to the wind and driving like a merry madman. The career mode offers plenty of goodies to purchase with your winnings, though it's questionable how much you'll notice whatever difference they make as you launch over hills and rumble across rocks. Either way, if you want wild off-road racing, 4x4 EVO 2 usually delivers, warts and all.