The bargain-priced game. So often the neglected title on the game wall at your local retailer, and more often than not with good reason. Games that sell-through at discounts on their first run usually mean little development time, even less testing, and normally live up to the age-old reminder that you get exactly what you pay for. Thus, it's an unexpected pleasure to find one that's a treat to play and worth every penny of the bargain-bin price.
Screamer 4X4 is such a game. Despite the fast-paced title, the designers understand the deliberate pace required to truly control and race high-powered off-road vehicles over rough, slanted terrain. It may well be one of the slowest racing games ever released, but the design is intentional and not at all detrimental to the overall quality of gameplay.
Instead of focusing on how quickly you can get from one point to the next, Screamer 4X4 demands skill in making the trip. As the driver, you must determine the best way around or over obstacles like rock and dirt mounds to get to your destination intact. The art of off-road driving is at the core of the game -- a combination of delicate dangerous maneuvers requiring a love of the sport.
Vehicle handling aspects are well designed. Balance, helped by a great four-corner suspension model that realistically rocks back and forth over the treacherous terrain, gives you a hands-on feel. Torque and the necessity to drop gears to acquire more when needed provides a sensation of power. The excellent physics offer a constant battle between gravity and the power of your 4X4, and body English isn't out of the question as you try to become one with your machine.
Getting down a hill is even tougher than getting up. Simply letting gravity take its course won't do, since it has a tendency to bring you down as hard and fast as possible with little regard to obstacles. Almost any act in the game is a struggle, but satisfaction wins out over frustration throughout. Driving these virtual machines is tough because it feels so real, and you don't feel cheated when you flip end over end or fail to reach the top. You simply try again with a different strategy.
Gamers looking for human competition may be disappointed. By and large, Screamer 4X4 is a single-player affair with a limited and hard-to-use multiplayer component. Gameplay realistically stresses the battle between you and terrain, not other vehicles, and though it may not appeal to everyone, it's true to real off-road rally racing.
Unfortunately, controls are a mind-boggling hassle -- getting most analog sticks and wheels to work is difficult, an aspect surprisingly underdeveloped by the designers. The digital control is actually very accurate, but gamers using analog sticks will need to check, recheck and tweak setups to fine tune steering and such. This drawback is unnecessary and should have been fixed prior to release.
Screamer 4X4 is unlike many off-road racing titles, with few options but enormous depth in terms of the engines and physics. Only hardcore drivers with a real love of off-road racing will get everything it has to offer, but the game has a little something for all the weekend warriors.
Graphics: Truck models are beautifully rendered and nearly perfect down to the last detail. Especially impressive are the headlight effects, some of the best in the entire racing genre. Beyond the vehicles, though, everything else looks bland, and adds to the already bleak feeling of being alone in your vehicle. The terrain models are decent but have little texture and are repetitive.
Sound: While the sound effects and music are limited, engine noises are distinct and accurate, giving you a sense of place as you race over the terrain. Sadly, the co-driver has an annoying voice, is almost always wrong, and won't shut up.
Enjoyment: Serious off-road racers will be hard pressed to find a better game for the money. Physics, handling and off-road elements combine for an exciting and demanding challenge.
Replay Value: Multiplayer options are not well developed, but plenty of gameplay is available for gamers who crave realistic off-road racing.
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