Join five-time Baja 1000 overall champ "Lightning" Larry Ragland for this virtual off-road romp. Players can choose from several 4X4 vehicles to race through different wilderness areas that test skill and endurance. Competitive artificial intelligence challenges virtual drivers. Instant replays and multiple camera angles enhance presentation.
Developers of racing sims have a tough task. On one hand, they don't necessarily have to deal with the volumes of statistics and research to build a military simulation or the complexities of other sports sims like football where there are 22 humans on the field at once, potentially executing a massive number of play combinations. But on the other, they have to find that right blend of physics, track design, licensing, and visual appeal to separate them from the competition -- and there's a lot of competition. Although it runs well, Larry Ragland's 4x4 Challenge is simply too far behind the rest of the pack to be considered a contender.
The game's packaging claims there are customizable cars to race on multiple tracks. That's not entirely true. There are three different body styles of pickup truck or sport-utility vehicle, each with a different paint job and slight performance variations. There are multiple tracks, but there's also a sameness about them. Each track hails from a different location in the United States, but this geographical association doesn't make any sense. The Houston track, for example, should be in the Astrodome, but instead it's an open-air track and in the distance are mountains where there should be swamps.
The vehicles also feel the same despite their slight performance differences. Trucks handle differently than the SUVs, but driving tactics are the same regardless of the vehicle you choose. There's also the curious lack of any licensed vehicles, despite the presence of Ragland's name on the game.
A biggest bummer is the game's lack of replay value. There are two play modes: arcade and championship. Players driving in arcade mode must win races to unlock progressive tracks. The championship mode instead has players earn points during a series of races, and if their point total is high enough they can enter a new championship round. Console players might enjoy locked tracks, but PC players generally prefer to get their money's worth without having a gimmick masquerade as gameplay. One of the game's weaknesses is also a strength. The game's AI isn't terribly challenging, so an average player should be able to wrangle their way into enough tracks for an afternoon of play.
Beyond that the game offers little. The multiplayer support extends only to a LAN. Contrast this with 4x4 EVO, which made it almost effortless to play online against other PC, Apple, and Dreamcast gamers.
In fairness, 4x4 Challenge isn't hopeless. The kids visiting my house during the review, aged between 2 and 5 years, loved the game. The physics model is so forgiving that it's like not having a physics model at all, and the vehicles happily bounce through the tracks' curves and ramps. Even though damage appears on the cars, with smashed fenders and smoking engines, it only minimally affects a vehicle's performance. 4x4 Challenge's graphics are colorful enough and performance on a mid-range PC good enough that it's a fine diversion for the casual crowd.
People who downloaded Larry Ragland's 4x4 Challenge have also downloaded:
Leadfoot: Stadium Off Road Racing, Le Mans 24 Hours, Master Rallye, Le Mans 24 Hours (a.k.a. Test Drive Le Mans), 4x4 EVO 2, L. A. Rush, Live for Speed, 4x4 Evolution (a.k.a. 4x4 EVO)
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