Things start off great when you begin installing Harley-Davidson: Race Across America - you hear the roar of a hog revving up followed by the low chug-a-lug rumble of a massive Harley engine idling as the files are copied to your system. And you'd better relish those moments if you buy this game, because they're among the only authentic ones you'll experience in this latest addition to WizardWorks' ongoing line of Wal-Mart Wonders. It's not that there's an inherent problem with arcade racing games such as this. The problem with Race Across America is that its uninspired arcade-style biking action doesn't come close to doing justice to the big-name license that will surely coax a lot of people into buying it.
Race Across America lets you hop on one of six Harleys - Dyna Low Rider, Fat Boy, Softail Custom, Sportster 1200 Custom, Road King Classic, and a customized 1956 KHK you can only access after placing high enough in competition - and put 'em through their paces on rally routes in seven states. You can choose to race against three computer opponents in any of the states in practice mode, which is a good way to learn each route. But the only real challenge is in tour mode where you race through three states on the way to the annual biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Where you place at the end of each of the three routes determines how much money you'll have to buy tires, carbs, mufflers, and an improved ignition for your ride.
Race Across America plays fast and smooth, but what really matters is whether it generates any genuine thrills. Unfortunately, whatever thrills it generates are few and far between. You'll suspect this problem even when you start choosing bikes and race routes. I can't think of any reason why static menu screens shouldn't be crisp and clear, but instead, Race Across America gives you blurry images of the venues and bikes that are similar to what you'd see after knocking back a six-pack or two of your favorite cold beverage. Add in menu buttons that only cycle one way - miss your bike and you go through all the others to get back to it - and you can see this game didn't spend a whole lot of time in QA. Once you hit the road, you'll be shocked to learn there isn't even a pause button - it could be a nod to real life, in which bikers often have to wait to put off that restroom stop, but my guess is it's just another sloppy oversight.
In an effort to make things more interesting, Canopy Games made gas stops a critical part of gameplay - actually the most critical part. The result is that after just a minute or two of racing, it's time to pull over and fill up the tank again, so you wind up spending as much or even more time scoping the horizon for Uncle Billy's Gas Mart as you do focusing on bent-for-hell racing. What makes this even more disappointing is that absolutely nothing has been done to breathe any life into these pit stops: You just sit by the side of the road and watch the fuel gauge climb to full in a matter of seconds. I was really hoping for some off-road excitement in a biker bar or even hanging around a hick town. Instead, all I got was a lousy tank of gas.
Of course, it might be a little unrealistic to expect anything more than racing in a budget game, but the racing here is dull, uninspired, and frustrating on the higher difficulty settings. Hey, I realize that Harley-Davidson would never give the go-ahead to show one of its fancy bikes smashed and crumpled after hitting a semi head-on, and naturally there's no way it would even dream of including injuries to riders. Still, we should at least get to see some spectacular flips or bikes hurtling off cliffside roads and smashing through billboards whenever mishaps occur. Hit a car head-on in Race Across America, and you simply come to a stop as your bike wobbles to one side. About the most excitement you can expect is doing a donut as you try to get back on the road.
Touch the side of the road and it's like you've driven into the La Brea tar pits - your speed drops from 120mph to 30 as you struggle to get that massive hog back on the asphalt. Applying the brakes for more than a split second has the same effect, so it takes a little practice to get used to staying on course at a reasonable speed. I've got no problem with that, provided the computer opponents labor under the same restrictions. But they don't seem to have to deal with the same issues unless you play on the low difficulty setting. On medium and high, they regularly zigzag off and onto the road and seldom lose speed, and they merely shrug off collisions, whereas for you, crashing often means winding up at the back of the pack for good. Even if you win and get to Sturgis, the only reward is - you guessed it - another race. This race is in and around the town that's world-famous for the thousands of bikers who show up each year, but these masses are nowhere to be found. I guess Canopy had enough trouble making a game with four bikers, much less one with thousands.
Race Across America supports multiplayer gaming over LAN, modem, serial connections, and the Internet, and the multiplayer setup menu also sports options to connect to HEAT and Mplayer. Between multiplayer support, a low price tag, the enviable Harley-Davidson license, and one of the coolest box designs ever, Race Across America will probably be another moneymaker for WizardWorks. And there are probably some gamers out there who'll find enough action here to make this a real bargain. I'm just not one of them.