Baja: Edge of Control from 2XL Games is an ambitious off-road racer that, while not necessarily better than games that have come before it, does enough things well and introduces enough new features to make it a good addition to the genre. Loosely based on the annual Baja 1000 race that takes place in Mexico, Edge of Control not only features rally courses that are much longer than those in other games, but also courses that are so rugged and treacherous that even driving in a straight line can be challenging. Many of the races are endurance tests for both you and your car, and the damage and repair management system adds a unique strategic element to longer events. The quality of the visuals varies according to which console you're playing on. The Xbox 360 version looks good and runs smoothly, the PlayStation 3 game does not.
From the outset, you can choose to take part in races, rallies, and hill-climb events in a few of Baja's nine barren environments. These are great if you're anxious to sample trophy trucks and other top-end vehicles early on, but Edge of Control's main course is its Career mode, which you'll have to spend a good amount of time with if you want to unlock the remaining locales, as well as additional vehicles. What's unfortunate about the bare-bones Career mode is that it forces you to start in the lowest of the game's eight vehicle classes, which would be fine, except that Baja Bugs not only lack the horsepower of larger classes, but also the suspension, the grip, the brakes, the cooling systems, and everything else that you might expect from a vehicle purpose-built for racing through the desert. The result is that the game's slower vehicles are often the most difficult to handle and to get across the finish line without sustaining significant damage. Unfortunately, you have to slog through these events before you're permitted (or can afford) to race in more powerful classes.
If you don't opt to turn it off, which you shouldn't, vehicle damage is almost inevitable in the majority of Edge of Control's events. This is especially true of hill-climb events, which not only challenge you to scale some spectacularly steep inclines but also to come back down again. The cosmetic damage to vehicles tends to be over-the-top rather than realistic, so you can expect body panels to fall off before they have a chance to get misshapen. Losing panels won't affect your vehicle's performance, but if you're playing in Career mode and have managed to attract a sponsor, it will only pay you for the logos that make it across the finish line.
Collisions with other cars or obstacles will cause parts to fall off of your vehicle, but this damage is purely cosmetic. Interestingly, the kind of damage that will adversely affect your vehicle's performance is generally a result of your driving style rather than of any kind of error or incident. For example, when racing toward a huge ramp, it's conceivable that by preloading your suspension and getting some major airtime, you might be able to leapfrog vehicles in front of you to gain a place or two. Landing a jump like that is unlikely to do your suspension any good, though, and even if you don't end up with a wobbly wheel, there's a chance that you'll damage your oil pan. Another avoidable though very common problem with the vehicles in Baja is overheating, which causes a significant loss of power as your radiator packs up and starts throwing a trail of smoke in your wake. If you ease off the gas when the onscreen temperature gauge moves toward the red, you can prevent or at least postpone this problem, though in a race situation deliberately slowing down often feels counterintuitive. Figuring out exactly how hard you can push your vehicle without breaking it can be a lot of fun. It's frustrating to lose a race on the last corner because you pushed too hard, but it's very rewarding to win a race when your opponents' vehicles are falling apart.
One of the tips that appears during Edge of Control's occasionally lengthy load times would have you believe that letting up on the gas is something that you'll want to do almost every time you approach a corner. You're supposed to use the hand brake to turn and then, as you slide around the corner, hold in the clutch to get your revs up so that when you release it upon exiting the corner, you get a welcome boost of speed. It works, and it's really satisfying when you get it right, but it's rarely necessary because most of the sharp corners are set into huge banks that do a lot of the turning for you. This makes the nuanced controls entertaining for expert racers, even though the courses are still accessible to novices.
When your vehicle is in need of some mechanic love, your options will vary according to the type of event in which you're competing. Circuit races incorporate repair stops into their designs where, by stopping for just a few seconds, you can get repairs carried out without losing too much time. During rally events, repairs come courtesy of a helicopter that can be seen flying overhead at all times. When you need to stop, you simply hit a button to radio the helicopter and, provided its crew isn't already busy assisting someone else or eating ice cream (it happens), it will land somewhere ahead of you so that you can stop alongside it to get the same service you'd get at a regular repair stop. Furthermore, if your vehicle gets a flat tire and is carrying a spare (most start a race with one or two, but they fall off), you can stop at any point during a race to change it by hitting the repair button.
You don't have to spend any time or money repairing your vehicles between races in Edge of Control, but there are plenty of opportunities for you to upgrade or replace them. Vehicle upgrades come in a number of different flavors, including engine, power train, tires, brakes, suspension, weight/aero, and cooling/plumbing. You don't need to know anything about the inner workings of modern automobiles to figure out that throwing money at any part of your vehicle makes it better in the game. Complex explanations of what every new part does are available, but the only thing you need to look at is the performance gauge that fills up as you highlight more expensive options. On the other hand, if you're someone who knows what "2.5-inch dual-rate springs on coil-over shock with remote reservoir" means, you can go into the tuning menus to tinker with your vehicle's brake bias, gear ratios, spring lengths, and other settings to get your ride just the way you like it.
Given the level of detail that's available in the garage between races, it's baffling that you're afforded no information whatsoever when buying a vehicle. These purpose-built off-road racers don't come cheap, but when you're considering your next purchase in Edge of Control, the only information you're afforded about each vehicle is its name, price, and the colors in which it's available. There certainly appear to be some performance differences among the vehicles in any given class, but figuring them out comes down to you, plus a whole lot of trial and error.
Regardless of your uneducated vehicle choice, there's no denying that the driving in Edge of Control is satisfying. Vehicle handling makes intelligent compromises between realism and gameplay. Bumps in the road that can potentially throw you off course are far more common than in other off-road racers, for example, but anytime you fly off a big jump, you're afforded some control in midair so that you can try for something that resembles a comfortable landing. Course designs are impressive for the most part, though there's some inconsistency in how you are permitted to cut corners; at times, you'll get away with skipping quite lengthy sections of track, but at other times, you'll be penalized and reset to an earlier part of the course for something relatively minor.
AI drivers are also an inconsistent feature in Edge of Control. For the most part, they drive realistically, aggressively (even on the easier of the two difficulty modes), and believably (that is, they make errors)--they'll even cut corners when they can get away with it. They'll often appear to slow down if they get too far ahead of you, though. At times, when racing alongside you, they'll also seem blissfully unaware of your existence and stubbornly try to go for their preferred racing line--even if getting to it means having to go through you.
Like most racing games, Edge of Control is more fun when played with human opposition. There's split-screen support for up to four players and online support for a starting grid of 10. All of the aforementioned race types that appear in the Career mode are supported, as well as a Free Ride mode that you can use to explore the game's massive environments and Baja events, which are rallies on courses so long that they can take from one to three hours to complete. Smartly, when playing online, you have the option to hit a button and have the AI take over for you temporarily, so calls of nature, ringing phones, or screaming kids don't necessarily have to mean the end of your race. The last two might even offer some welcome relief from the constant droning of engines that you hear during a race--there's nothing wrong with them, it's just that there's very little else going on where audio is concerned. The mellow Mexican music played on menu screens and the like isn't horrible, but you'll hear so much of it on a relentless loop that it inevitably becomes grating after a while.
Baja: Edge of Control for the Xbox 360 isn't a great-looking game, and on the PlayStation 3, it isn't even a remotely good-looking one. The environments lack detail on both consoles, but they look fine while you're racing through them at speed. The problem is that while the vehicles, trackside objects, and even the horizon look relatively crisp on the 360, those on the PS3 have edges so jagged that you'll question whether or not the game is even running at the right resolution. The frame rate on the PS3 also isn't nearly as smooth as it is on the 360, though it's rarely so bad that's it's detrimental to gameplay.
If you can get over the steep learning curve, the Xbox 360 version of Baja: Edge of Control is an off-road racer that's definitely worth a look. The PS3 version is less easy to recommend because while the gameplay is intact, you should not have to tolerate, much less pay for, the combination of an inconsistent frame rate and horrible visuals.