Screamer 4x4 may well be the slowest racing game ever to drive across a PC screen. It is also quite likely one of the most technical. Unlike fellow off-road affairs such as GodGames' 4x4 Evolution and Codemasters' 1nsane, Screamer 4x4 realistically and convincingly conveys the inherent difficulty posed when a 4x4 vehicle attempts to negotiate primitive, untamed terrain. It is an unforgiving and sometimes treacherously authentic game that minimizes the importance of top speed and accentuates such real world concepts as torque, grip, gravity and four-point suspension. Unfortunately, those who prefer the analog control of a joystick or wheel to the digital control of a keyboard or gamepad may have to jump a few hurdles and endure several painful setup teething pains before they can enjoy Screamer 4x4.
While it may not appeal to fans of high-octane arcade action, those who prefer studied driving and brutally realistic physics will certainly appreciate the intricate, subtle behavioral details that Hungary-based designer Clever's Development has instituted into this game, one of the pleasant racing surprises of 2001. Screamer 4x4 drops you behind the wheel of one of 10 real-world four-wheel drive vehicles and asks you to navigate all by your lonesome over a series of checkpoint-dotted courses distinguished primarily by their wildly rugged topography. However, the key to eventual success isn't necessarily in coaxing the most power from your under-the-hood horses--instead, it is in learning how to keep your jeep or truck moving smoothly in the desired direction and on all four tires. As you'll soon see, that's not an easy task.
The first thing you'll want to do is choose your transportation. The game offers a variety of four-wheel-drive vehicles, including staples from the Jeep Cherokee, Mitsubishi Montero, and Toyota Land Cruiser to the bulky Mercedes Unimog and colossal Hungarian-designed Raba. Most are unfortunately locked away at first, and some--like the ponderous Raba--are surely included only for their entertainment value. Nevertheless, of the two that are initially available, the Jeep CJ7 proves far more nimble than the Land Rover Defender.
When you first hit the track, you'll undoubtedly be struck by just how slowly you seem to be moving. This is in stark contrast with many similar games that clearly accentuate the speed of their vehicles to artificially heighten the thrill factor. Another important element is the developer's aversion to flat, even chunks of landscape. Unlike its name would seem to indicate, Screamer 4x4 compels you to spend a good deal of your time either carefully scaling improbably steep inclines or climbing over hazardous rocks. This forces you to judiciously use your transmission by gearing down to some absurdly low gear that simply isn't capable of propelling your vehicle faster than 4 or 5 miles per hour or activating your rock-crawling transfer case when your normal gearing just can't produce enough low-level torque to keep the tires clawing forward. In the case of the latter, forward momentum may at times seem imperceptible. And if the hill finally does win, you'll search about for alternate, more graduated slopes to help make the summit ascent a bit less foreboding.
Driving downhill may be just as difficult. Gravity plays a huge role in Screamer 4x4, pulling you down toward the center of the earth much quicker than you had probably intended. As a result, you may end up missing gates, crashing into gates, or, if the grade is extremely steep and lengthy, gathering unintended momentum and bouncing uncontrollably over maddeningly uneven terrain until you have either spun to a stop in a swirl of dust or have been catapulted end over end and landed on your roof. Yet even if you do pull off such a disastrous stunt, you'll realize your vehicle has just behaved as it would in real life. Many off-road games can reproduce a crash scenario, yet few can do it so believably. Screamer 4x4's suspension modeling is fully reactive at each of the vehicle's four corners, compressing realistically at the appropriate spot when you've landed off-center and bouncing you back and forth and forward and backward when you're traversing a particularly rough section. This is just an example of the game's awesome physics model and one more reason that Screamer 4x4 trucks are so incredibly authentic.
They look the part too. Whether you're in the cockpit with its fully realized dashboard, active steering wheel, and instrument panel or perched in a chase perspective to get a better look at the upcoming landscape and gates, Screamer 4x4 automobiles are beautifully detailed. Each features a variety of customizable color schemes, a host of racing-oriented sponsor decals, and a full set of translucent windows for a good look at the animated driver who works furiously in coordination with your own actions. From the exterior viewpoints, you can watch the suspension bounce and rebound back into place and the tires wobble after too much abuse. Real-time shadows shift position underneath the car, thick black smoke billows forth from beaten engines, and tires cut grooves into the permeable soil. Bushes, foliage, and even trackside spectators flatten nicely under your wheels, although the latter will get you tossed from the race. Sadly, everything from bodywork to spectators remains in pristine condition no matter how many hits they've taken.
Yet the game's most remarkable visual achievement may well be its glorious depiction of shimmering headlights. Whether viewed head-on from the replay booth or from a first-person or chase perspective while racing, they're arguably the prettiest in the business. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the Screamer 4x4 scenery. Although its six environments are filled with plenty of vegetation and more ups and downs than a roller coaster, the ground textures simply do not offer enough variety, and the various zones are not particularly unique. You'll rarely get the impression that you've moved from distinct geographic region to another.
One thing is certain--only those who truly appreciate the art of the solo drive need apply. The game offers no less than five modes of single-player competition, each of which is conducted purely against the clock or the posted time of your peers. Although you will have the repetitive and often flat-out wrong patter of your codriver and the game's excellent engine and road noise effects to keep you company, you'll generally feel on your own. And if you do opt for the five variants of multiplayer racing (including king of the hill and off-road rally), you'd better know the IP addresses of your competitors or be connected to a LAN, or you'll once again be racing alone.
Annoying codrivers aside, Screamer 4x4's most potentially serious problem lies in its erratic controller support. In simple terms, the game seems to have trouble recognizing analog axes. We tried a variety of controllers during testing, including such elaborate contraptions as Logitech's MOMO Force and basic controllers such as Microsoft's SideWinder Gamepad and a standard keyboard. In every case where acceleration and braking were handled by a digital device, such as the directional pad of a gamepad, the buttons of a joystick, or the keys of a keyboard, the game's virtual cars functioned as expected. Yet when we attempted to steer, accelerate, and brake with an analog control, the results were quite different.
Although the specific nature of the problem varied from controller to controller, we were often compelled to go above and beyond the norm just to get the car to turn, accelerate, and stop as it should. In the case of the MOMO, we referred to the readme file and soon discovered the game correctly recognizes only those pedals that are configured on separate axes. Unfortunately, no solution was offered for those pedal systems that don't support separate axis acceleration and braking. Nor was there clarification for our Saitek Cyborg USB joystick, although we did eventually get it working by configuring it as a Saitek wheel. In all fairness, we were usually able to rectify the various situations through a few clever tweaks. Yet the game never should have been released in this state. At the very least, Screamer 4x4 publisher Virgin Interactive should have supplied proper documentation to make the whole procedure less agonizing for those with potentially conflicting controllers.
Such a major oversight can hardly be forgiven, yet Screamer 4x4 is otherwise simply too intriguing to ignore completely. If you're the type of driver who feels comfortable with digital acceleration and braking, there's no question that Virgin's latest off-road racer has a lot to offer. And even if you're not, chances are you'll somehow find a satisfactory controller solution. As part of Virgin's new $20 budget lineup, Screamer 4x4 is a surprisingly authentic and involving motorized journey into the wilderness.