The next generation of consoles brings with them the hope that Infogrames' Test Drive series of games will be able to turn over a new leaf. The series got off to a rousing start with Test Drive Le Mans for the Sega Dreamcast and its enhanced port Le Mans 24 Hours for the Sony PlayStation 2. Now, one of the Test Drive mainstays, the Off-Road series, has followed suit with Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open for the PS2. The game sports realistic physics, a variety of gameplay options, and true to its namesake, massive, wide-open environments. Angel Studios' driving game engine has been put to good use in the game, and although not quite as free roaming as its other PS2 game, Smuggler's Run, Off-Road Wide Open adeptly captures the feeling of driving through undulating off-road terrain.
The gameplay in Test-Drive Off Road Wide Open is a little more structured than that of Smuggler's Run. The game features three different types of races: scramble, blitz, and circuit. The circuit races, as the name suggests, include multiple laps and is relatively more confined to roads and dirt tracks. As with all the races in the game, they are based on checkpoints. The blitz races are a mad dash to the finish line, as you find your way from one checkpoint to the next in single-lap races. Finally, the scramble races are the most free form. Here, you must capture a preset number of flags, while crisscrossing back and forth through the game's large environments. In all of these races, the game remains generally quite competitive, and the AI drivers won't hesitate to push you off the side of a hill or try to spin you out. Perhaps it's a bit too easy to spin out in the game, as even a tap on your real bumper or wheel will have you struggling to regain control of your car.
The early stages of any race can get quite crowded, and shortcuts--of which there are many--must be used frequently if you are to be successful. It is also a challenge to keep the trucks level on the game's unforgiving terrain because of the game's impressive physics engine. The bigger and heavier trucks--such as the Hummer, for example--are more forgiving, as they tend to maintain their grip on the terrain. However, smaller vehicles, such as the Jeep Wrangler, although faster, require a lot of posturing to keep them level. Each of the vehicles is rated in such categories as speed, climbing, and acceleration, and the appropriate trucks must be selected for individual races.
Two areas where Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open does fall short is in its car customization options and the general setup of the career mode. In terms of customization, there aren't really any options to speak of. The game lets you upgrade your car in four basic increments, going from stock to pro to modified, and finally, to ultimate. There are absolutely no options to tweak the engine, braking, or suspension. The ability to tweak a suspension, in particular, is doubly useful in off-road driving games. Limited vehicle customization options aside, the game's career mode leaves much to be desired. The career mode progresses through a variety of seasons, but because there are only three primary environments in the game--Moab, Yosemite National Park, and Hawaii--the races can start to feel repetitive by the fourth or fifth season. Additionally, the game lets you sell your car for its original sticker price, so there really aren't any money management issues in the game. You can buy a car, race it for a season, sell it back for the same price, and buy a new, higher level car with your season's earnings.
Visually, although the game is comparable to Smuggler's Run, its environments are a little more cluttered and varied. Massive mountains in the Moab desert and the pristine waters of the ocean in Hawaii border sizeable environments muddled by forests, villages, rock formations, and a wide variety of objects, both organic and man-made. The trucks themselves are generously detailed, but they don't begin to approach the level of visual realism seen in other racing games on the PS2. And although 90 percent of the time the game runs at a solid 60 fps, there are moments of slowdown when all of the vehicles are on the screen at once.
The game's soundtrack features an eclectic array of bands, including Metallica, Fear Factory, and Digital Assassins. Although the guitar-heavy music may not be suitable for some, it does match the off-road racing action and generally fits the game quite well. The same can't be said for the sound effects, in particular the engine sounds. Many of the vehicles in the game have big-block power engines, but most of them exude a wimpy whine when revved. A Dodge Ram V-8 shouldn't sound like a small family sedan, but that's exactly how it sounds in the game.
Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open certainly leaves room for improvement. The general setup of the career mode needs tweaking, the car customization options could use some serious additions, and the sound effects need work. Still, the game is yet another step in the right direction for Infogrames' Test Drive series. Featuring excellent vehicle physics, impressive graphics, and huge, free-roaming environments, Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open is definitely worth a look for fans of racing games and fans of big-block trucks.