Sierra's SODA Off-Road Racing is one of those games which looks great until you load it up and realize why it was on special at the computer store. The graphics are excellent and the features are wide-ranging and impressive. The sound is adequate. The gameplay, however, is horrendous; controlling your truck is such an excruciatingly difficult task that it's nearly impossible to finish a race, let alone win one.
While this is supposed to be off-road racing and the vehicles shouldn't handle the way they do in Sierra's NASCAR Racing game, the spinning out every time you steer the slightest to the left or right is just maddening. It takes a delicate touch just to get going and reach a decent speed, but any amount of swerving in one direction, no matter how minute, will cause a spin-out and leave you struggling to get going again.
And that's a shame, because there's a lot here to offer racing fans. You've got nice graphics with several different views to choose from, ranging from inside the truck to high outside it. You've got three different vehicles to pick from (including a buggy), as well as six paint jobs. Three environments are offered, with four tracks in each one. You can also build your own track, which is a realy nice feature.
There's also career play as well as the chance to look at your truck's specifications and tweak them to your liking, if you're that into cars and trucks, so obviously Sierra wanted to offer as complete a package as they could. So why couldn't they offer decent handling?
Graphics: Excellent. Very well done.
Sound: Good. Not as authentic as I would have liked, but it's okay. The voice which tells you how far behind you are is helpful; it's fun to discover that you're four minutes behind the next-to-last truck as you spin around helplessly.
Enjoyment: One of the most frustrating games I've ever played. And I did stick with it to make sure it wasn't just me. I couldn't get the hang of this thing.
Replay Value: Practically none.
It's seconds before the marshal slowly, as if on purpose, raises his flag and then; Engines roar, mud flies in all directions, and large 4-wheel drive trucks try to overtake you as they get left in your dust.. Sounds easy right? It's not! It takes great concentration just to reach the third checkpoint, at which point a killer corner is likely to leave you in 5th place. But you brake quickly, your tires find a grip with the dirt on the track, and you accelerate hard, finally leaving your opponents behind you..
Actually it's not quite like that. This is not Grand Prix, Monster Truck Madness or even Big Red Racing where you can take a breath during the straightaways and get your concentration in order before the next turn. Here, in the mud, dirt, sand and gravel (completely off road) it's very unstable. You'll use every ounce of driving skill, letting your hands and body becoming a part of your racer; holding the wheel with all your strength but gently using the accelerator at the same time. It almost seems impossible at first, and being there is no easy level, your first races will be a constant battle to catch up as your opponents disappear ahead of you, and by lap 4 are right on your tail again.
The game comes in two resolution modes, 320x240 and 640x480. Even though the game goes faster in the lower resolution, its a much better racing experience to play it in full screen mode. Sadly, graphics is not a strong point in this game (somewhere between very bad and very good) but they do look OK.
Sound effects offer no surprises here. The roar of the engines offer no realism, and definitely sound like a computer simulated truck. After the latest Ferrari engine sounds of other games, a real racing simulator fan will find these to be lacking. Taken on its on, Soda Off-Road Racing might pass for an OK racing simulation, but there are too many flaws for it to be truly great. The background music, although ok for its time, is definitely out of date. The games biggest flop in its use of sound effects is its "radio communication". It took me forever to try to figure out what my race team (who are these people?) were trying to tell me. At times, it seemed I could interpret this strange radio voice differently when it was supposedly saying the same things. Perhaps the designers felt that only racers with an excellent understanding of English would play this game. Unfortunately, it was hard at times to understand what was being said.
The best part of the game is the SODA Track Designer. Many race simulator fans enjoy designing their own tracks; not because they can't win at the provided tracks, but once you feel "at home" with your own design, you can drive faster. SODA Track Designer is one of the best track designers I've ever used; The best part being its easy! You create the straightaways, and the turns, place objects and cameras and it's ready in a few seconds. You're ready to go out and drive your creation and you want to bring your opponents in for another race. Well, "not so fast" says the game. First you've got to, what Off-Road Racing calls, "learn" this track before you can race there with other cars. This "learn" mode seems to last like school.. forever! I have to admit, I would rather race around on my own tracks alone than put up with the almost 1/2 hour it takes to teach the computer the tracks I design.
However, if you're enjoying the game, time isn't really that important in this game. If you wait the time for your track to be fully "learned", then you'll be used to driving it yourself. It isn't always that easy, and it does take all your concentration kept on both your car and your track, but you can find it in the end worthwhile as you beat your lap records by minutes(!) and actually can leave your opponents "in your dust".
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