In comparison with the teeming sports-racing genre, the world of off-road racing has been relatively untouched by videogamedom. Test Drive Offroad 3 is an attempt by Infogrames to stake prime real estate in this largely uncharted territory. In theory, with the title's 27 licensed vehicles, and eleven reality-snatched courses, it seems like a totally legitimate effort. In reality, though, the game suffers from too many issues for it to warrant anything more than a passing glance; the physics model used is extremely spastic, there isn't enough distinction among the terrain types, and, sadly, the vehicles don't really handle too differently from each other.
Included in the mix of licensed vehicles is, most notably, the Hummer, as well as perennial off-road favorites such as Ford's F-150, Subaru's Outback, Land Rovers, Jeeps, and many, many others. The sheer size of the selection is quite impressive; the vehicle selection screen almost feels like Christmas, at first glance. Unfortunately, though, what could have been the title's most significant strength turns out to be its most glaring weakness - despite the base number of vehicles available for selection, there isn't much distinction between the way they all handle. Besides their acceleration rates and other miniscule performance details, all the vehicles behave more or less identically, making your choice of vehicle matter for little more than onscreen representation. This is remedied, in part, when the customization aspects of the game come into effect, but never to a satisfactory extent.
The eleven tracks are fairly large and expansive, but in terms of actual variations among terrain types, the game leaves much to be desired. The track design is solid, and although there are a number of ways to go about each one, there is never a question as to what or where the goal is. There will always be a "smart, easy" path and a "dumb, hard, but often shorter" path. Choosing which of these paths to take is where the art of Test Drive Offroad 3 comes into play; depending on how you've set up your vehicle, it may handle better than the competition when it comes to harsh inclines, or, if you've favored hasty acceleration to shocks and tires, then smooth, featureless paths might be the way to go. Races are centered on checkpoints - you must reach each checkpoint under a set amount of time to prevent from being disqualified.
Throughout the course of the game, you'll encounter white snowy courses, sandy desert courses, wet muddy courses, and dry rocky courses, among many others. Aside from the types of obstacles that naturally occur in each terrain type, the actual vehicles handle more or less identical within each. There is a token disadvantage incurred when using tires not ideal for a certain terrain, but, aside from that small itch, your snow-tired Jeep will handle identically on a green savannah as it would on a sticky mire. Equip it with the right tires, and away you go.
. The game has an overall muddy quality to it that tends to cleverly disguise the shoddy resolutions and grainy textures. The color scheme of the more earthy levels accentuate the off-road aesthetic, adding a glossy layer of mud to what otherwise would have been a boring, clean, and featureless environment. Infogrames really skimped on environmental effects, though; not once do you see water splash as your tires hit a puddle, nor does your shiny hood ever get a decent mud-spangling. This, believe it or not, would have added heaps of flavor to the game. What you're left with, consequently, is a bunch of squeaky-clean machines romping around the most filthy of environments.
As with Test Drive 6, Infogrames has gone with a pop soundtrack, as seems to be the convention with racing games these days. The soundtrack includes licks from Eve 6, Girls Against Boys, and Incubus, among others. The tracks range from ambient nonsense to poppy kid-punk, none of which truly suit the off-road tone. Lynyrd Skynyrd would have been more appropriate.
If you're hankering for an off-road title for your PlayStation this season, then this might just be your only choice. Otherwise, discerning racers should steer clear of this obstacle; better incarnations of this game will someday appear. This genre has yet to work out its kinks. Leave it be for now, and check back in a few.