IGN Review of BAJA: Edge of Control
For fans of real-world off-road racing, the Baja 1000 is legendary for being one of the most brutal and dramatic endurance motorsports events in the world. Every year, racers descend on Baja California to put trophy trucks, VW bugs, buggies and bikes through a grueling thousand-mile race full of bumps, hills, jumps and bruises.
With its multiple vehicle classes, numerous side-events and largely unexplored potential, publisher THQ and developer 2XL Games saw the Baja series as fertile ground for translation to the videogame world, and the two teamed up to turn that experience into a game geared heavily toward the hardcore set.
The developers at 2XL are no strangers to the world of off-road racing games, and some of them came directly from Rainbow Studios, makers of the MX vs. ATV series. But instead of sticking to quads and dirt bikes, 2XL went big for its first project, taking on the vast environments of the Baja and the complex machines that run its races. The resulting game, Baja: Edge of Control, is an ambitious effort with some solid components. However, there are some issues under the hood that prevent Baja from stepping into the winner's circle.
One of Baja's most striking features is its collection of vast racing environments. There more than 1,000 miles of rugged country to tear through in Baja, and each collection of tracks has been carefully sculpted to provide the most maddeningly bumpy terrain imaginable. From the lonely red dirt of Canyon de Chelly to the sand and sun of Cabo San Lucas, Baja keeps it real from the beginning and never lets up.
At the beginning of Baja, you're restricted to the Baja Bug class, one of eight vehicle classes available throughout the game. As you bank wins in the lower classes, you'll gain experience points, which will allow you to enter the more prestigious classes, such as Class 1 Unlimited and Trophy Truck. Provided, of course, that you have the money (earned from wins and sponsorships) to buy yourself the right vehicles. A lowly VW Unlimited can be had for as little as 40,000 credits, while the top-of-the-line trophy trucks can easily set you back a half million.
But getting to that elite level takes a painfully long time, and the early hours of Baja: Edge of Control are taken up instead by one of the steepest learning curves you're likely to find in a console racing game. The Baja development team took great pains to imbue the vehicles in the game with the most realistic suspension and tire physics possible, and it's safe to say they succeeded in that goal. Wheels grip when they should and slip when they can't. Front ends take dips hard, and uneven surfaces wreak havoc on steering. Land a jump wrong and you're likely to bottom out and destroy your oil pan, deflate a tire or find yourself tumbling end over end into the vastness of the Mexican desert.
It's a technological achievement, but it can also be frustrating as hell, especially when you're flailing about in the first stages of the game in a lowly VW bug. If you're used to arcade-like controls in your off-road racing games, prepare to be surprised with Baja. Standard off-road controls, including clutching and pre-loading, are here, but the sim-like physics and handling on these vehicles make staying on the track a tricky endeavor. By the time I finally racked up podium finishes in the four multi-race league events in the Baja Bug class, I was altogether frustrated with Baja: Edge of Control and didn't relish the thought of clawing my way through seven more classes.
Part of that frustration came from the steep learning curve (made worse by a poorly implemented tutorial system), and part can be attributed to the maniacal artificial intelligence imbued into every computer driver in Baja, a problem that's especially apparent in the earliest stages of the game. Even with the A.I. difficulty pulled down to its lowest capacity, I found the leading computer opponents to be virtually flawless in most races. Although some A.I. drivers do take jumps wrong and crash, it's nearly impossible to force them off the road in most races, while their ability to knock you off the track seems almost godlike at times.
This can be especially demoralizing in one of the Baja endurance races, which serve as one of Edge of Control's unique draws. Hundreds of miles in length, they can take 1-3 hours to complete. Enduring the same reddish brown environments for 90 minutes, only to be knocked off a cliff by an A.I. driver, is enough to make you hurl your controller at the nearest pet (sorry, Fluffy).
Tough A.I. can be a virtue in a simulation-oriented racing game, and nobody wants an easy race. But the computer drivers in Baja are made more difficult by the game's frustrating vehicle collision detection system. Simply brush up alongside another vehicle in Baja: Edge of Control, and you can expect to get hung up with them almost every time. Extracting yourself from an invisible tangle with another vehicle requires that you release the throttle, something that you can be sure the A.I. driver will never do.
Despite the difficult handling, A.I. troubles and hang-up problems, Baja: Edge of Control has a lot to offer, especially once you move past the too-long purgatory of the Baja Bug class. Once into VW Unlimited VW, 4X4, Open Wheel and beyond, the vehicles become easier to handle and races can be won more quickly, partly because that's where the learning curve straightens out and partly because the vehicles are more sophisticated. And if you don't like the way a particular truck feels, you can toy with it to your heart's content in the tuning menus.
There are seven areas to which you can apply purchased upgrades to your vehicle – thigs like quick-flow exhausts for more horsepower and beefed up shocks for more suspension travel. But you can also pop the hood and tune your ride's innards for free. Springs, shocks, brakes, transmission and gearing can all be modified to your liking. If you know what you're doing, playing around with these tweaks could give you the edge over Super A.I. If you don't, you'll probably never touch it.
Once you have the hang of controlling your vehicle over jumps and bumps, and once you've bought, upgraded and modified your truck of choice, there's nothing left to do but race. There are five race types: circuit (multiple laps where the first one over the finish line wins), rally (a point-to-point class-based race based on time to finish), hill climb (a sprint to the top of a steep hill and down again), open class (where vehicles of different classes are handicapped) and Baja (an endurance race of 250, 500 or 1,000 miles). These different race types are fun and exotic at first, but they grow old quickly, especially because, despite the wide collection of different maps, each area looks pretty much the same – rocky, sandy and desolate.
Graphically, Baja: Edge of Control was a bit of a shock when we saw it running on PS3. The game looked so much worse than its 360 counterpart that we checked to see if we had recieved a PS2 build by mistake. True story. The anti-aliasing looked practically non-existent; the cars' were pixellated and fuzzy; and the framerate was jerky and all over the map. More than anything else in the game, the way Baja: Edge of Control looks on PS3 seriously interfered with our ability to enjoy the game.
Once you begin racking up sponsorships, your car suddenly jumps from a solid-colored pixellated mass to a stickered billboard, which adds a lot to the look of your vehicle during each race. But sponsors don't even begin courting you until you've won a dozen or so races, so be prepared to look at a gray slab of VW for a good chunk of time first.
If you get bored, frustrated or just need a break from the career mode, there's also a Race mode that lets you try any vehicle type in any race on any unlocked track. It's a nice feature that helps break up the monotony a bit. There's also a Free Ride mode that lets you head off the beaten path on any map and explore each area. In a way, it's the most fun mode in the game because it lets you test the limits of each ride without the A.I. breathing down your jumpsuit.
There's also a full multiplayer mode that features all race types and modes. We tested several multiplayer tracks and race types and found that they all performed about as well as the single-player races. Very little lag showed up in our races, and what graphical details there are in Baja kept up relatively well. Up to 10 players can compete online, and Baja also supports system-link, and four-player split-screen play.
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