Apart from being yet another contender for the title of world's longest computer game name, Cabela's 4x4 Off-Road Adventure 2 is also the latest entry in the suddenly mushrooming subgenre of off-road racing. Designed by Hungary-based Clever's Software Development, the same team responsible for the unexpectedly likeable 2001 sleeper Screamer 4x4, Off-Road Adventure 2 is unlike virtually any previous driving game in that it does not force you to compete against other cars or a constantly ticking clock. Instead, it merely asks that you keep your vehicle in good working order long enough to complete all the assigned tasks, regardless of how long it takes you to do so. Suffice it to say that such an undertaking is far more difficult than it sounds. Though the game is plagued with one potentially serious technical issue and in many respects lives up to its budget-conscious $19.99 price, it is nevertheless one more pleasant offering from 2-year-old upstart Clever's.
Off-Road Adventure 2 is not designed for those who like their racing fast and in the company of other automobiles. In fact, you'll never, ever see another vehicle. Nor will the game allow you to race against another human. This is intricate, deliberate, and exploratory stuff, conducted in solo fashion through despicably craggy rural settings designed to ensure almost as much vertical movement as horizontal. As each event begins, you find yourself seated in your vehicle of choice, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There are no start lines, no finish lines, and no predetermined routes to follow. Your only task is to locate and acquire one or more of the "navigation buoys" Clever's has cleverly scattered across the countryside. How and when you get there is completely up to you.
The inherent difficulty is two-pronged. Firstly, the topography is so dangerous and so unwelcoming to an automobile of any description that you will inevitably and mistakenly drop off cliffs, drive into trees or other obstacles, become wedged inside deep gorges, and even damage your vehicle simply by driving too quickly over a particularly rough section of land. It cannot be stressed enough--Off-Road Adventure 2 features some of the most vicious terrain of any off-road game. Secondly, the trucks and SUVs at your disposal are eminently susceptible to abuse. Unlike some similar games, you can't just hurtle merrily over hill and dale and expect to emerge unscathed. In fact, if you don't behave as you would in a real breakable car, it won't take long at all for your once-pristine machine to absorb more bumps and bruises than it was designed to withstand. Soon, bumpers will begin to dent, tires will begin to wobble, engines will begin to smoke, and assorted other parts and pieces will begin to look very different than they did when you started.
All this has a detrimental and very authentic effect on performance. Crushed fenders may well rub against tires, thereby grinding that corner of the car to a halt and causing you to veer off in one direction or another. Bent axles will result in wobbly tires and severely hindered handling, and over-revved engines and transmissions will eventually deteriorate and perhaps even expire. Soon, you'll be hard-pressed to extract yourself from gullies or scale the grades you need to so that you can reach the next navigation buoy. And when you can no longer reach the navigation buoy, you'll be forced to start all over again. There are no magical power-ups or quick fixes to save you in this game.
However, there are ways around the ever-present potential for damage, and the most important are found before you even climb in the cockpit. Off-Road Adventure 2 offers a variety of two- and four-wheel drive vehicles, four of which are available from the outset. The other six are reserved for those who can eventually unlock them, and they seem to be made available just about the same time you really need their added capability and durability. Although none are licensed depictions of real-life vehicles, there is a good selection of six- and eight-cylinder trucks and SUVs, as well as a surprise or two should you advance far enough. Additionally, all can be adjusted in the game's garage to better adapt to the upcoming terrain. Clever's has constructed a unique vehicle setup screen, wherein you can fine-tune in six areas, ranging from suspension balance and stiffness to tire pressures and gear ratios, and then monitor the effect of those adjustments on the three key performance areas of torque, maximum speed, and 4x4 ability. This concept of a garage may not be in keeping with a true simulation, which the game otherwise strives to be, but it is nevertheless useful.
Back on the course, what little information you'll receive regarding your next assignment comes in one of three forms--an overhead topographical map, a compass, or a text-based distance display. Each is slightly more or less challenging than the other, and much of the general gameplay is based upon which is selected. In skill mode you'll have a map, in navigation mode you'll have a compass, in endurance mode you'll have a distance display, and so on. The latter modes--exploration, discovery, and freedom--are substantially trickier because you must maintain a functioning vehicle while locating six navigation buoys rather than the single buoy of earlier modes. Regardless, careful drivers should find they're able to finish off the easier first half of the game in just a couple of hours, and the entire thing in a couple of days. That is one of the great downfalls of the program, although Clever's has added some intrigue by providing random starting points and buoy locations.
The Off-Road Adventure 2 presentation is more appealing than that of a number of budget racing games but substantially less comprehensive than that of most upper-echelon titles. Certainly the stars of the show are the actual vehicles. Each truck and SUV is impressively detailed and features such visual amenities as source-sensitive lighting, real-time shadows, rotating tires, fully reactive suspension systems, varying degrees of damage and engine smoke, and fully deformable bodies. Parts will not separate in the event of a serious collision, windows do not allow you to see through to the interior, and the in-car perspectives are not accompanied with visible cockpits or steering wheels. Yet the game does sport numerous exterior views, several of which are quite necessary when maneuvering through tight locations. The gameplay audio is generally very strong, highlighted by a variety of wonderfully believable and usually very gutsy engine notes, several forms of mechanical pings and bangs, and enough environmental effects to convince you you're traveling over real terrain.
The quality of the scenery is more erratic. Although in some locations you're surrounded by trees or on the top of a precipice looking down into a glorious valley, you're more often enclosed in a swath of generic terrain textures. As for the game's many undulations, some are smooth and believable and others are distinctly geometric and rudimentary. And certainly the environments don't appear to be much different from anything seen in either of Clever's two previous off-road racers. Yet the gameworld is so impressively large, so completely drivable, and so prone to a variety of weather conditions that some of these indiscretions can be forgiven.
Unfortunately, Clever's has seemingly been unwilling or unable to rectify the analog control problems that plagued its first two games. Essentially, anyone who prefers to drive via the graduated analog axes of a joystick or a wheel and pedal system will experience at least some degree of difficulty. Some may even be forced to switch to the keyboard or the digital on/off axes of a gamepad. In the case of our Cyborg 3D stick, the game simply refused to recognize any of its axes. The news was slightly better for our MOMO Force wheel and pedal unit, where we were eventually able to trick the game into identifying its axes as analog by first selecting a gamepad as our control device, configuring the analog axes as digital axes, then deselecting the gamepad check box. In any case, such ridiculously inept analog support is completely unacceptable in this day and age.
Cabela's 4x4 Off-Road Adventure 2 is clearly not a perfect game. It is highly derivative of Clever's first two efforts and most definitely exhibits many of the traits of a budget title. Nevertheless, if you appreciate this style of driving and can handle its controller issues and lack of multiplayer support, you should find enough entertainment value to justify its very palatable price.