The Test Drive series has always been known as a pick-up-and-play driving franchise, and it was only a matter of time before Infogrames took the series off the paved highway and into the dirt. Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open was released for the PlayStation 2 earlier this year, and Infogrames wasted no time in porting it to the Xbox, and in many ways it shows. Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open is an adequate introduction to arcade racing on the Xbox, but its lack of gameplay depth, its punishing AI, and its conservative graphics keep it from attaining greatness.
For an arcade driving game, Off-Road Wide Open has a healthy number of gameplay modes, including an exclusive mode just for the Xbox version. The primary one-player selection is the career mode where you pick a truck and hit the circuit. There are 12 licensed vehicles to choose from at the outset, including an old-school Ford Bronco, a Chevy Blazer, a Hummer, a Ford F-150, a Dodge Durango, a Jeep CJ5, and several more. There's also a hidden garage full of exotic off-road machines, including a monster truck, a Humvee, and the Dodge T-Rex. As you complete each circuit of races with an overall placing of third or better, the next circuit or event is unlocked. Cash is awarded after placing in each race, and the money can then be used to upgrade your existing truck to three different levels or to buy an entirely new one. If you've completely blown a race, you can choose to retry it, but it will cost you money. As you progress farther into the game, fewer continues are made available per circuit.
Trucks are rated in climbing, top speed, acceleration, and handling. Choosing the right truck for the terrain in each circuit becomes essential in the later portions of the career mode. You can sell trucks for the same price you bought them, which facilitates the ability to swap vehicles at will. The trucks are fairly accurate where their ratings are concerned, but it's impossible to tweak any of their attributes. This can make things a bit frustrating at times due to the wide range of terrain present in each circuit, but it also increases the importance of prudently selecting your bogging machine.
The object of each race is to negotiate a series of gates, but how you get from one gate to the next is entirely up to you. Using shortcuts wisely is the key to succeeding at Wide Open, and it's good to see an off-road game that actually rewards you for exploration. But the gameplay is certainly not perfect. The computer AI is irritating and will go out of its way to knock you off the road--even at the expense of its own lap times. The rate at which new trucks are unlocked can also lag a bit behind the competition, so you're forced to master tracks using the game's simplistic play mechanics and endure random crashes without the advantage of customization. Thanks to plenty of near-vertical slopes scattered throughout the courses, a lot of time is spent in the air. To maintain speed after especially high drops, you can adjust your truck's orientation to the ground with the right analog stick. It's a simple system, but it adds some semblance of depth to an otherwise pure arcade experience. The truck physics are slightly exaggerated, but each mudder still reacts differently to the terrain. The quick-but-light Jeep is hard to keep under control when getting bounced around, but a heavier pickup truck will hug the knolls more tightly.
The stadium mode is exclusive to the Xbox version of Test Drive Off-Road and is one of the most exciting parts of the entire game. This mode takes place on motocross-styled indoor dirt tracks, and up to four players can bang it out at once. Using the brakes is rarely required in the career mode, but in the stadium mode you begin to appreciate the control a little more as you are forced to negotiate tighter turns. Other multiplayer modes include races on any of the unlocked tracks and a king-of-the-hill mode. Racing against the brutal computer AI in career mode may be a drag at times, but the multiplayer modes give the game some form of replay value.
From a graphical perspective, Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open is the definition of a quick and dirty port. The same issues that plagued the PS2 version are present in the Xbox version as well, only they're magnified when compared to other games on the console. The most obvious problem is with the level of detail. You can see textures drawing in about 50 virtual feet in front of you at all times. Trees, buildings, and other objects also have a tendency to magically appear right before your eyes. The truck models are adequate and include a fully animated polygonal driver, but they lack the minute details you'd expect in a driving game for the Xbox. Dirt will cover the sides of the trucks after they go through deep bogs, but they never endure any body damage no matter how bad the wreck. Pseudo environment mapping has been added to the surface of the trucks for the Xbox version to give them a nice sheen, but it's the only noticeable visual improvement.
Another sore spot is the tracks in the game. There are just three different environments to drive through with almost a dozen sprawling tracks located in each. The courses are extraordinarily long, and as the game's title suggests, they are wide open. But after the first few hours of play, all the tracks begin to look the same because of textures and objects that are constantly reused. While the graphics fail to deliver any sort of awe factor, the game's frame rate is the beneficiary. The game runs at a nice clip even when you're playing split-screen multiplayer. The only slowdown occurs when several trucks are onscreen at once kicking up mud particles. The most casual player will notice Wide Open's graphical problems, and it represents one of the most visually challenged games for the Xbox. The sense of speed is quite good thanks to its steady frame rates, but Xbox owners will immediately realize that it's not up to par with the console's other games.
After being spoiled by the excellent soundtracks in Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding, it's hard to appreciate Wide Open's 15-song track listing. Populated with the most recent songs from metal and punk pop groups like Metallica, Fear Factory, and Unloco, the soundtrack in Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open doesn't have much else to offer those who don't enjoy this style of music, save for a couple of token electronic tracks. The lack of a sound menu doesn't help to remedy the situation. The ability to rip your own soundtrack has also been omitted from the game. Engine sounds are an important part of any off-road game, but the Jeep in Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open sounds more like a golf cart than a 4-wheel drive. The sounds for the other trucks don't fare much better. Occasionally you'll hear an eagle cry or a coyote howl, but there's not much else in the way of ambient sound effects.
Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open is presently the best off-road game for the Xbox, but it's a dubious honor. Despite its rather humdrum graphics and sound, it manages to provide a thrilling experience for the first several hours. But its lack of gameplay depth and its overly aggressive computer AI seriously limit its long-term appeal. If you're desperate to hit the mud with your Xbox, can overlook uninspired visuals, and like your racing games to be simple, Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open is the best option.