Baja Hands-On

THQ's latest off-road racing game has us spitting dust and loving it.

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Against your better judgment, your foot is planted on the gas pedal. The roar of the engine fills your head as you work to keep your truck pointing forward on a road that probably wasn't meant for anything on four wheels. You can see the hairpin turn ahead of you, bouncing in front of your vision like a basketball, and you know you should be thinking about hitting the brakes soon. Regardless, you keep your foot down, fighting against the camber and endless undulations of the road ahead of you. At the last possible instant, you take your foot off the pedal and slam the brakes, hoping a stray bump doesn't spin your car around completely or, worse, send you careening off the edge of the cliff to your left. Welcome to THQ's Baja.

Developed by 2XL Games (which includes former employees of Rainbow Studios, the folks behind THQ's MX vs. ATV off-road racing series), the game is a different take on the dirt-racing phenomenon that has been recently revitalized with the likes of MotorStorm and Dirt. Where Baja seems to differentiate itself is its focus: The game is dedicated to four-wheel off-road racing (no motorcycles or ATVs to be found here). However, the aspect that has us so excited about the game is the Baja itself, as in the Baja 1000. Based on the epic off-road race that takes place in Mexico's Baja California peninsula each fall, the Baja 1000 will find its home in video game form in Baja. You'll be able to take on not only miniature 250 kilometer versions of the race, but also the entire 300-mile-or-so race itself, a trip that, according to developers, can take more than three hours to complete depending on the car you're driving.

From Baja Bugs to trophy trucks, Baja will feature a huge variety of off-road vehicles to drive.
From Baja Bugs to trophy trucks, Baja will feature a huge variety of off-road vehicles to drive.

Make no mistake: Spending three hours on the torturous paths that make up the Baja circuits will be no picnic. At last night's THQ games event that served as Baja's introduction to the press, we got a chance to tackle a small portion of the long Baja point-to-point race in a specially designed racing cabinet, complete with three screens (powered by three Xbox 360s running the game), and a Microsoft racing wheel. What's immediately apparent is that this is a different world than the rhythm racing of the MX vs. ATV series. There are no carefully designed jumps that are meant to lead smoothly from one to the next; instead, the always-challenging roads are an endless struggle as you fight to maintain control on trails that simply don't want you to go very fast on them. The game's designers call this "reaction racing," and considering how quickly we were sawing the steering wheel back and forth when trying to keep our truck heading in the right direction, we can't really argue with that description.

Although the long Baja events seem to be the centerpiece of the game, there will be plenty of variety available. Other race types in the game include rally races (similar to the old Colin McRae games but without a codriver to help you with the course directions), circuit races, hill climbs, open class, and free run. Of this list, the hill climbs and open-class races seem like interesting twists to the standard racing fare. With hill climbs, the goal isn't just to finish first in the race but also to do as little damage to your ride as possible. For each bit of your car that is damaged, you'll be penalized time, which results in a race that will challenge your ability to drive quickly and smoothly on some of the most treacherous courses in the game.

Open-class races pit all of the various cars and trucks available in the game against each other on the same course. But because the vehicle list (which includes everything from Baja Bugs to open-wheel buggies and trophy trucks) features such a wide gulf in performance, open-class races will determine your starting position on the course by the class of car you're driving. For example, when driving a slower vehicle such as an unlimited VW, you might start well ahead of a trophy truck, with the ultimate aim that all cars will be fighting for the finish line at the same time as the race draws near its end.

Regardless of the events you compete in, though especially on the long Baja races, you'll want to be constantly mindful of the health of your car. Although the game does not have terminal damage (and you can't run out of gas along the way), you will inevitably suffer damage to your car as you speed down the bumps and hills that make up the courses in Baja. As your ride incurs damage, you'll notice things like the ride height sitting lower as your shocks are damaged, decreased performance from your brakes, and so on. You'll have stations along the way in which you can repair your ride, or you'll be able to call a helicopter aid to act as a mobile repair station at any point. Once you call in the aid, the copter will land ahead of you and you can pull in and repair your vehicle. Interestingly, you can also use the aid stations called in by your opponents, which will add an element of strategy when racing the Baja events (or any of the other events in the game) online against up to 10 other opponents. Do you take the time to repair your vehicle, or try to gain some time on your temporarily stalled opposition?

The hilly, dusty courses in Baja will be your greatest opponent.
The hilly, dusty courses in Baja will be your greatest opponent.

The long Baja races will be tests of endurance, but the developers at 2XL have taken that to heart with at least one feature that looks to lighten the load a bit. At any point in the race, you can hit a button and have the AI take over your car while you step out to take a break. You can then return to the game at your leisure and resume your driving duties. This will be the case for both offline and online races, and, though we didn't see it in action, it seems like a user-friendly option that will help you complete those long races. We do know that the area that will serve as the Baja course is huge--25 square miles or so--but we don't know how that variety will play out in the course design. Will we see the long, dusty stretches of road that are found in the real event, or will the game feature a series of exhausting switchbacks and hairpin turns? Ideally we'd like to see plenty of both, but we'll have to see how things turn out in the end.

Graphically, Baja is looking quite respectable, with a solid frame rate and decent-looking textures. The game isn't displaying the kind of texture quality that you might find in Dirt but, seeing as how the areas are so huge, that's perhaps understandable. You also don't see the same kind of ruts and grooves dug into the ground as found in Sega Rally Revo (though the vehicles do leave tracks in the dirt as they go), but considering that the nature of the courses are more intense than perhaps anything found in Revo, that's forgivable too. The developers are still working on the lighting and particle effects in the game, and we hope to see some significant improvements in those areas as we get closer to the game's summer release.

We frankly can't wait for Baja, a game whose scope and size looks to do for off-road racing what Test Drive Unlimited did for the asphalt scene. We'll be keeping a close eye on its development as we lead up to its release, which is coming around the dusty corner this August.

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