4x4 Evolution was released for the Dreamcast last year to positive reviews but disappointing sales. There doesn't seem to be enough Dreamcast-owning off-road fans to support such a title, so Gathering of Developers decided to give 4x4 Evolution another chance on the PlayStation 2. The biggest draw in the Dreamcast version of 4x4 Evolution is the ability to build a truck and then take it online for some competition. With no network play available in the PlayStation 2 version, will 4x4 Evolution provide enough motivation to trudge through the daunting single-player mode?
4x4 Evolution takes a unique approach to off-road racing. Most off-road games from the past feature arcade gameplay complete with turbo boosts and weapons. 4x4 Evolution makes its mark as a simulation by allowing you to purchase new parts to upgrade your vehicle. There are 70 licensed trucks in 4x4 Evolution from manufacturers like Dodge, Nissan, Lexus, and Ford, and you may upgrade your truck's appearance, chassis, engine, suspension, electronics, and drivetrain. The upgrades are expensive, and you often have to invest in several prerequisite parts before you can purchase a significant upgrade. For instance, in order to jump up to a new engine size, you must first install a high-capacity fuel pump, a new air filter, and a race exhaust. This ridiculous amount of customization is impressive, but it really only motivates you to save your money and buy new trucks altogether instead of piddling it away on parts.
The heart of 4x4 Evolution is its career mode. You begin your career with $30,000 to buy a truck and a few parts for upgrades. The cash will get you into trucks like a Chevy Blazer or a stripped-down Pathfinder, but little else. Once you've chosen your truck and a paint job, it's time to hit the dirt. The career mode is split into two parts: series and special events. In the series mode, you compete in a circuit of races, and a new series is unlocked after placing first overall. Special events are one-shot races that have specific requirements for the trucks such as engine size, horsepower, or make. Money is awarded to all competitors who cross the finish line. So, even if you place first in all the races, it's difficult to build up a large amount of money for new trucks and parts.
To truly enjoy the career mode, you'll need to put forth a lot of effort , but Terminal Reality has made sure to include gameplay modes for everyone. The quick race mode allows you to choose one of the better trucks in the game and take it for a spin on one of the game's 15 tracks. The time attack mode is handy for testing improvements in your truck while racing developer ghosts. The most disappointing mode is the multiplayer mode. While the Dreamcast version allows you to go online with your customized truck and race three other people, the PlayStation 2 version only allows split-screen multiplayer for two competitors. Considering that the major motivation to play the single-player mode in the Dreamcast version was to customize your truck so you could go online and duke it out with other players, the omission of this mode cuts into the motivation to play 4x4 Evolution on the PS2 considerably.
You may adjust the cut of your tires and the steering sensitivity before heading out to race. Setting your tires to the proper cut for the terrain is essential to taking the checkered flag. The tracks include several checkpoint gates that must be driven through, but how you get from one to the next is completely up to you. You can stay on the beaten path or head off-road in search of shortcuts. Even with all the variables going in your favor, 4x4 Evolution is a difficult game. Computer-controlled drivers almost always take the shortcuts, and one mistake means that you're going to finish in last place. This is understandable midway through the game, but this sort of difficulty is present from the second race forward. This wasn't such a big deal with the Dreamcast version of 4x4 Evolution, where getting whipped online motivated you to go back to the single-player game and improve your truck. But there is no such motivation in the PlayStation 2 version, and the game quickly becomes a frustrating cycle of repeating the same tracks over and over to obtain enough money for a new truck or parts. This is compounded further by the lack of Multitap support. Thankfully, you may save your truck to a memory card and take it to a friend's house for some head-to-head competition, but it's not enough to maintain long-term interest in the game.
The PlayStation 2's slight advantage in graphical delivery when compared with the Dreamcast is clearly illustrated in 4x4 Evolution. The trucks appear to be basically the same, but the terrain textures feature a superior clarity. It's now possible to tell the difference between loose soil and sand by appearance alone. Real-time shadows follow the trucks around and expand or shrink depending upon their distance from the ground. Particle effects are used constantly to depict mud being kicked up from the truck tires, and the draw-in distance is what you would expect from a next-generation game. A polygonal driver steers each truck, and during replays he can be seen yanking the wheel from one side to the other. Off-track events are rare save a plane or a blimp here and there, but some tracks have construction vehicles and traffic that will impede your progress. There is some clipping when going down particularly steep inclines, and some objects, like barrels, draw-in after it's too late to avoid them, but 4x4 Evolution for the PlayStation 2 is the best-looking version of the game yet.
The same generic electronica tracks have returned for the PlayStation 2 version of 4x4 Evolution, and there isn't much in the way of sound effects. There are basic engine sounds and the thud of the trucks crashing down to Earth after major jumps. One nice touch is the sound of mud being kicked up against trucks on your tail. It can often alert you to another driver attempting to make a pass.
Technically speaking, the PlayStation 2 version of 4x4 Evolution is a solid game. The graphics are sharp, the physics are accurate, and the amount of customization available is impressive. But the frustrating gameplay, relatively slow pacing, and anemic multiplayer mode make it hard to pick up and immediately enjoy. Those looking for the Gran Turismo of off-road racing will find a lot to like in 4x4 Evolution, but casual racing game fans should look elsewhere.