Just by looking at the box, chances are that you'd probably confuse Larry Ragland 4x4 Challenge with similarly titled games such as 4x4 EVO 2 and Screamer 4x4, which are also currently available. The screenshots of Larry Ragland also convey a similarity between this game and other recent off-road driving games, such as 1nsane, Off-Road Redneck Racing, and Leadfoot. Unfortunately for 4x4 Challenge and Larry Ragland himself, the similarities pretty much end there, as 4x4 Challenge is little more than a 3D version of the arcade classic Ironman Ivan Stewart's Super Off-Road, without the fun.
Larry Ragland 4x4 Challenge carries the endorsement of Larry Ragland, five-time winner of the Baja 1000. But interestingly enough, 4x4 Challenge doesn't have any licensed vehicles or races, including the Baja 1000. Not even Ragland's trophy Chevy truck is represented in the game. Instead, the off-road trucks that are available are completely generic, and while the manual boasts of 15 different vehicles to choose from, in truth, there are only three vehicle shapes that use a combination of five different texture swaps to achieve that grand total figure of 15. The individual trucks do have five distinct attributes, such as weight, acceleration, and top speed, but in practice, the differences between each aren't very noticeable. Likewise, the game's eight different tracks are also generic supercross-style arena events that lack any distinguishing features beyond the occasional bump or dip.
The game can be played in arcade or championship modes in the single-player setting. The arcade mode is simply a collection of the game's eight tracks, which require you to place first after three laps to move on to the next. Once these eight races have been completed, you're crowned the champ of the arcade mode. If this description makes it sound like you'll be able to beat the arcade portion of 4x4 Challenge in about a half hour, that's because you can. But that's fine, because the championship mode in these types of games is usually akin to a robust career environment that involves everything from tuning up your vehicles and earning money to purchase performance parts to vying with other racers for various endorsement deals. Not so in 4x4 Challenge, however. Here, the championship mode is made up of three seasons (which essentially function like individual arcade modes) without any kind of financial component, upgrade ability, tuning utilities, or any other of the managerial aspects of typical racing games. The three seasons are made up of four, six, and eight individual races, respectively, and while the laps required to finished each of these events doubles to six after the arcade mode, you'll still be able to complete each of these seasons in about 20 minutes. The individual races work on a standard point-based system, and if you end up earning the most points at the end of each season, you'll be allowed to move on to the next set of races. Again, if this description makes it sound like you can beat the game's championship mode in about an hour, that's because you can.
Perhaps its poor selection of tracks and trucks and the absolutely anemic number of gameplay modes could have been overlooked if 4x4 Challenge had extraordinary control or physics--but it doesn't. Even with the trucks moving in speeds in excess of 100mph, the game conveys no real sense of speed, and the control feels mushy, leaving you feeling disconnected from the road. Oftentimes, the trucks will seem like they're hovering above the track instead of actually driving on it, but oddly enough, 4x4 Challenge seems better suited to be played from the third-person perspective rather than the first-person, because the latter has a subtle fish-eye effect that retards your depth perception and makes judging turns somewhat tricky.
There are a few good things to be said about Larry Ragland 4x4 Challenge. For instance, the game runs at a very smooth frame rate, although that comes at the cost of visual complexity. The track design is truly uninspired, and the low poly-count trucks feature tires that are so oversized that they look like balloons. Having said that, other aspects of the game's graphics are noteworthy, particularly the skybox and the subtle but noticeable environment mapping on the trucks themselves. This shine gradually disappears throughout each race and is replaced with a thin layer of dust. What's more, 4x4 Challenge does have damage modeling that's both aesthetic and functional. If you bump your truck against the walls along the track or into other vehicles, you'll gradually degrade the integrity of four different components: the axle, the engine, the front end, and the rear end. This is all represented via a color-coded indicator at the bottom of the screen and by several texture swaps on your truck's 3D model. Unfortunately, since there's no economy model in the game, your damage is repaired automatically and for free at the end of every race.
The sound in the game consists of all the trucks' engine noises, skidding effects, collision noises, and the occasional cheering of the crowd--and it's all forgettable. Likewise, the music in the game consists of generic country riffs and drum effects and, for the most part, sounds a heck of a lot like Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing." Larry Ragland 4x4 Challenge's meager multiplayer component is nothing more than a two-player split-screen mode and support for six players over a LAN. This game cannot be played over the Internet.
If you're still not convinced of Larry Ragland 4x4 Challenge's mediocrity, perhaps this will help: With the exception of 4x4 EVO 2, you can have all of this year's previously released off-road racing games for the PC for less than 4x4 Challenge's price tag of $29. The selection of similar yet superior games that are still widely available make 4x4 Challenge recommendable to practically no one.