Since taking over development duties for Sony's ATV Offroad Fury series, Climax has transformed it from a standard off-road racer to one of the better, if underappreciated, racing franchises out there. With ATV Offroad Fury 4, Sony and Climax have delivered the best game in the series so far.
Variety and challenge are the keys to ATV4's fun, and the game doesn't skimp on either. When it comes to race modes, you'll be hard pressed to find a PlayStation 2 racing game with more things to do than ATV4. In single-player mode, there's a standard quick-race mode, which lets you hop in a single race across any of the events available in the game. That list of events includes supercross, rallycross, national, circuit, point-to-point, sponsor, and freestyle events. The game also includes a classic mode, which is essentially a multirace series that is based on the above list of event types. The training mode teaches you some basic maneuvers for the four different vehicle types available in the game.
And then there's the story mode. Undoubtedly the centerpiece of the single-player experience in ATV4, the story mode lets you create a male or female racer and take him or her through an epic and moving tale about one lone dirt racer's search for redemption in a world that no longer seems to care. OK, just kidding. More accurately, it's a hackneyed storyline that is told through a series of amateurish cutscenes featuring painful voice-acting and worse dialogue. Even more to the point, the story mode in ATV4 makes the plot of Pro Race Driver look like Citizen Kane. Thank goodness the actual racing events that frame these cutscenes are so much fun.
The story mode has you competing in events all over the globe. And at each stop on your world tour, you'll be required to beat a number of race events before moving on with the storyline. Thankfully, the game doesn't require you to finish every race event, which means you can usually ignore the often-frustrating freestyle events. After you have finished the requisite number of events to move on, you're taken to a final three-stage, point-to-point race. And it's during these events that the game shines brightest.
Unlike the traditional looped-circuit tracks in supercross or rallycross events, point-to-point races are exactly what they purport to be: extended sprints from one point to the next. Far from giving you one lane to race down, however, the developers at Climax have created tracks in point-to-point races that are absolutely wide open, where you can choose from multiple snaking, intertwining trails. To add to that, point-to-point races also feature all four vehicle types found in the game--dune buggies, trophy trucks, ATV quad racers, and MX bikes--all racing side by side. Because different vehicles have different strengths and weaknesses, the multiple tracks in point-to-point races are color coded to help you choose the ideal path to the finish line. A smaller, lighter vehicle will feel at home on the "red" track, which takes advantage of the light-class vehicle's cornering ability, while the "green" track is flatter, wider, and more suited to a heavy-class vehicle. Therefore, you are in no way forced to stick to one track out there. You'll crisscross between both tracks on your way to the finish line.
Whether riding through the multistage, point-to-point races or taking part in the nationals races, it's the track design--particularly in the outdoor courses--that makes ATV4 so much fun. With tricky curves, varied terrain, and thrilling elevation changes, the track design in ATV4 just gets it right. One moment you're navigating a tricky sequence of jumps, and the next you're diagonally barreling down the side of a cliff. By contrast, the indoor tracks are on the whole not as exciting, as they are usually slower and more technical by design.
Zipping around the different tracks in the game is fun thanks to a bouncy, speedy driving model, an emphasis is put on huge-air jumps and, occasionally, bone-snapping crashes. As in previous ATV games, you'll get the most air by preloading your jumps--quickly flicking back and then pushing forward with the right analog stick--before you hit the air. There are times when preloading works to your advantage and times when it won't work. Half of the challenge in tackling a new course for the first time is in deciding when you want to take a jump at full power or when you want to lay off.
The artificially intelligent opponents you race against in ATV4 are more "artificial" than "intelligent," and they rarely make an attempt to avoid you. In addition, you'll usually come out on the short end of any collision with an opponent. One twist to the game's AI is the introduction of rival racers, which are denoted on track with a "rival" icon above their heads. If you hit a rival racer, the icon will gradually go from white to red, indicating that racer's level of aggression toward you. While the system is interesting, it doesn't play a big role in the gameplay. This is especially true on the wide-open courses, where it's very easy to stay clear of your opponents.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in ATV4's gameplay lies in the freestyle events, which comprise a number of different objectives, from riding through various rings strewn throughout a course to attaining a point total by using a standard stunts-for-points trick system. Although the button-combination trick system is shallow, it certainly works as intended. What does seem out of whack is the balance of the trick points you earn. In an ATV or MX bike, you can earn points only by pulling off a series of more elaborate stunts. However, when driving a dune buggy or trophy truck, you will be inundated with points simply for jumping or sliding through a turn. The heavy-class vehicles aren't eligible for the freestyle events, but nonetheless, it's disheartening to struggle for points in one class, only to earn them for doing practically nothing in another. In our experience, it wasn't long before we gave up on the points-based freestyle events altogether.
The vehicle upgrade system in ATV4 is bigger and better than ever before. You earn credits for races you compete in and can use that cash for cosmetic- and performance-enhancing upgrades to any of the vehicles in your garage. Simple things, such as tire upgrades, are the first place to start. But once the money starts to roll in, you'll want to apply it toward new engine upgrades, improved brakes and clutches, and more advanced suspension, among others. Although the changes in vehicle performance aren't always drastic, the easiest way to see your upgrades in action is after you make a huge jump over a yawning chasm that you just couldn't nail before you made the upgrades.
If you've had enough with the single-player game, you can always switch over to the multiplayer modes. This is by far the most extensive online experience yet seen in the series, with support for up to eight players across a variety of race events. These include races, freestyle events, and minigames, such as hockey, basketball, bowling, and treasure hunt. There are also online championships, where you can run a series of races in such event types as supercross, circuit, and even point-to-point races. You can even race on unique courses that are created with the game's easy-to-use track creator or exchange bulletin-board messages with others in the game's online community. The races themselves are generally lag-free and typically more exciting than battling it out with the predictable AI-controlled opponents.
While the PS2's visuals are getting a bit old, there's plenty to enjoy in ATV4. The tracks themselves are varied, both in design and in background visuals. Some of the open tracks, particularly the point-to-point tracks, have a nice sense of "wilderness" to them. The tracks have little repetition in the background environments, as well as enough foliage and sideline action to keep things interesting. Even the indoor stadium courses a have lot of graphical details to appreciate, such as the popping flash bulbs in the crowd as you speed by it. The vehicles also look good. Not only do the vehicles kick up a lot of grime and mud when turning laps, but by the end of a race, both rider and ride are covered with dirt.
All four vehicle types found in the game have different engine sounds, from the deep grumble of the trucks to the whining hornet's buzz of the MX bikes. It's the most noticeable aspect of an otherwise respectable, if not remarkable, sound package. The soundtrack, which is noticeably missing the Bootsy Collins funkified ATV rap from the previous game, is fine for those who like uninspiring scream-rock that is mixed with a healthy dose of hip-hop. As an aside: Would it have killed them to include a George Strait song or two? After all, this is a dirt-racing game.
ATV Offroad Fury 4 is a great game that will keep any fan of off-road racing or high-speed games busy for a good long stretch. If this is the last ATV Offroad Fury game for the PS2, the series certainly went out in style, and we look forward to seeing what Climax has in store for us on the PlayStation 3.