Smuggler's Run puts you in the shoes of an aspiring smuggler who must move contraband across the border while avoiding rival gangs, rough terrain, and the fuzz. All of this translates into more vehicular mayhem than a Blues Brothers marathon, as the basic rule is drive fast and furious, and most of all, don't get caught.
The game sports five modes of play. The primary mode is the smuggler's mission mode, where a semblance of a plot guides you through a series of missions that collectively represent objectives from all the other game modes. The crooks and smugglers mode pits you against a whole slew of other smugglers in an every-man-for-himself competition to deliver the loot to the checkpoint. The loot grab mode puts you in one of two rival gangs of smugglers who are working to deliver the most contraband to their particular drop-off. In both of these modes you can steal the contraband from the carrier by smashing into his vehicle, which makes for fast-paced action. The checkpoint race mode eliminates the contraband altogether and simply has you racing opponents through a series of checkpoints, and the joyriding mode eliminates all the distractions and lets you take a leisurely drive through any of the game's three massive maps.
The smuggler's mission mode is where most of the single-player game takes place. In it you assume the role of a rookie smuggler who has to prove himself and take his smuggling operation to the top of the underworld ranks. The fairly weak plotline is explained and your mission objectives are spelled out for you in a quick narrative before each mission. The missions themselves range from the basic smuggling operation that involves moving the contraband from point A to point B, to customized versions of the checkpoint race and the loot grab modes, to completely original objectives like destroying a series of radar towers.
In most of the game modes, the main enemy is the clock, and the secondary enemies are the legions of police out to stop you. Most of the game takes place off the street, and the terrain is appropriately rugged. Your vehicle will take damage not only from collisions with other vehicles and objects but also from bouncing over particularly rough terrain. When your damage meter runs out, your engine stalls, and if a police vehicle touches you while you're stalled, you'll be placed under arrest. If no police are around, you might manage to restart your engine after a few moments and be on your way. However, since this game has an insane amount of unremitting police vehicles after you at any given moment, actually recovering from a stalled engine is pretty rare. The AI controlling the police is absolutely relentless - the cop will you chase you everywhere. Most of the time the police cars are significantly faster than yours, forcing you to check your real-time map frequently so you can use the terrain to your advantage. Because the police vehicles are so much faster, they often launch over hills and slopes and catch some tremendous air that more often than not results in a spectacular car crash. The secret behind Smuggler's Run is correctly judging the terrain. While the game does let you slightly correct your pitch while in midair, if you want to be a better player, you will not only have to pick the best route through each level, but you will also have to carefully navigate the game's many hills and dips. A large arrow points you in the general direction of your particular mission objective, but it serves as little more than a general indicator of the basic direction you want to go and doesn't take into account obstacles like gigantic mountains or huge lakes.
While the gameplay is pretty solid and the mission objectives are clear, there isn't enough spice between missions because of the lack of a clear-cut plot. After you play through half of the levels in the smuggler's mission mode, the game gets pretty repetitive, and there's not enough variance between levels to really make any of the missions stand out too well. Additionally, the smuggler's mission mode doesn't use enough of the checkpoint race or loot grab scenarios to really mix up the action, and since you play through each of the game's three terrains in a linear series of missions, you spend most of your time simply running contraband through the same map over and over. Though the game has several types of contraband that vary from mission to mission, the lack of cutscenes or even a concise story keeps you from getting too excited about running your cargo. While there's plenty of fun to be had from the game's multiplayer versions of the crooks and smugglers and loot grab modes, a little more emphasis on storytelling would have done wonders for Smuggler's Run.
The game itself looks really good. The terrain is large and detailed, and pop-up and fog are nowhere to be found. Each of the three maps is static and huge - the missions take place in small sections of the map, but you're never limited in where you can roam. Each of the individual maps has a great amount of detail, and nice effects like tire marks, wildlife, train tracks, and actual hiking trails really add to the realism of the game. Each of the vehicles, though generic and nonlicensed, looks appropriate and has body parts that can be damaged and actually fall off your vehicle. Some of the detail on the cars is superb - each of the game's vehicles features actual shock column physics, and each tire reacts accordingly to the terrain beneath it. Even the torque of your motor is taken into consideration. With the exception of the unrealistic ability to change your pitch while in midair, the game features pretty accurate and extremely impressive physics.
The game features a half techno, half pseudo-lounge soundtrack. The music is very well done, and it really adds to the overall experience. An unnamed female who works for your smuggling operation acts as your narrator and chimes in with fairly unhelpful and often sexually suggestive quips while you're driving. Other characters in the environment vocally interact with you - police beg you to stop your vehicle, hikers plead for their lives as you mow them down, and rival gangs insult you when you steal their contraband. All of the voice work is really well done, and the characters sound just like you would expect them to. Sound effects like engine noises and clunks as you bottom out over hills are very good and help complete the excellent audio package.
Smuggler's Run is an excellent game with a very cool premise and solid gameplay to back it up. Though the game gets a little dry and repetitive after a while, the limitless opportunities found in the multiplayer modes and the insane vehicular stunts that make up a good portion of the game's action make it a worthy addition to any driving fan's game library.