Fire up Harley-Davidson: Wheels of Freedom, and you'll get to hear the classic biker anthem Born to Be Wild - but it's not performed by Steppenwolf or even by a first-rate cover band. Instead, it's a thin, soulless affair that'll make you think of near beer instead of Colt 45 and rice burners instead of Sportsters. The good news is that Wheels of Freedom is better than its awful version of Born to be Wild - but, unfortunately, not by much.
Five bikes are available in the game - Softail Deuce, Fat Boy, Dyna Wide Glide, Sportster Custom, and the Night Train - but despite the claims on the box, you won't get a chance to soup 'em up: All you can do is change the paint job, and you can't do even that with the Night Train. You also get to choose a character to put on the bike, dudes with nicks such as "Tiny," "Wooly," and "Cueball"; and mamas named "Sasha," "Spitfire," and "Daisy." The only difference is the way they look and the stuff they say when they have a wreck or bounce off a wall or obstacle - you'll like it when Tiny says in an Elvis voice, "I'm all right, mama," and the way all the bikers give a thumbs-up after wrecks or when passing by bitmapped 2D spectators.
Unfortunately, those are some of the only things to like about Wheels of Freedom. It's bad enough that the single-player game is so short. There are only 12 races spread across four rally locations (of course the finale takes place in Sturgis, South Dakota). It might be called Wheels of Freedom, but instead of letting you head off track to scout out the surrounding areas or even take off on simple touring rides, all you can do is practice or compete in events on courses that are hemmed in by walls both visible and invisible.
Each Rally consists of three races in which you face up to seven other bikers. The open road challenge is a standard timed race (you can set the number of laps at two or four), which takes place over a course that's marked out only by a rotating arrow at the bottom of the screen - you should take some practice laps to get used to the obstacles and quick switchbacks, especially when you reach Sturgis. There's a bit of bumpin' and pushin' between bikes, especially in tight spots like tunnels, but Wheels of Freedom isn't Road Rash: About the most threatening thing you'll see is Sasha or Daisy stick her arm out and taunt you as she goes by.
The other two events, poker run and checkpoint rally, work pretty much the same way - you have to hit a series of checkpoints in the right order - but in poker run, you get a card for each checkpoint, and at the end of the race, it's time for a little video poker to see if you can improve your finish. The idea of jumping from second to first, thanks to the luck of the cards, sounds sweet after a close race - but it's not as appealing when you see your first-place trophy handed to Cueball because he got lucky on the draw.
Still, the racing's sort of fun for a couple of hours, and in an improvement upon last year's Harley Davidson: Race Across America, you at least get to see your rider tossed around like a rag doll and the bike soar skyward or ram into a wall when you crash. It's easier to control the hogs with a keyboard than with a digital stick or gamepad, and once you get the hang of the nitro boost - which seems like a jet-plane afterburner at first - you can hit some natural and man-made ramps for some spectacular jumps. But once you've finished the limited number of runs, all that's left is the multiplayer mode - but every time we tried to join or host a game, there just weren't too many Harley fans around on GameSpy Arcade. But at least the option exists, and if you should hook up with someone, the action can provide a brief lapse of mindless fun.
As much as the box copy talks about hitting the open road on a wild ride of adventure, Wheels of Freedom simply doesn't do a good job of mimicking the biker experience. Sure, Harleys are a huge part of the American biker mystique, but undying allegiance to unfettered freedom and a don't-give-a-damn-what-you-think attitude are just as important. Riding a Fat Boy around a track or through checkpoints is OK, but after a while, you start to feel as though you might as well be riding any old bike and be having just as much fun. If you could just get off that damn motorcycle and see stuff in Sturgis - even if only to listen to a band or take a virtual tour of this motorcycle mecca - it would have gone a long way toward making the game more interesting.
Maybe that's too much to expect. What's certain is that if you're looking for high-performance motorcycle racing on the PC, you'll tap this one out in very short order.