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Off Road Challenge

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Reviewed by Scott McCall Off Road Challenge is a late '90s, three-dimensional update to the classic Super Off-Road game. Rather than building upon the highly successful formula of the original, the designers opted to make the game more akin to Cruis'n USA. The game supposedly even uses the same game engine as that game. The problem is that Off Road Challenge doesn't even come close to capturing the magic of the original. And even though the game only achieved mediocre success in the arcades, it has still managed to make its way to the Nintendo 64. Racing action in Off Road Challenge is very simple -- too simple, in fact. Instead of the original's 3/4 overhead perspective with laps, Off Road Challenge takes the Cruis'n USA route with a three-dimensional, forward-moving perspective with a one-lap dash to the finish line. There isn't any on-coming traffic, however, so it's a battle between you and seven other computer cars to get to the finish line first. That means there are eight trucks -- rated in speed, power, handling, and weight -- to choose from. (Press each of the C buttons to bring up the other four trucks on the Truck Select screen.) You must finish in the top four to move on in the Circuit mode. One of the problems is that the track design is boring. Most parts of the six initially available tracks are relatively straightforward with many up-down motions and very few bends that pose a problem. There are no real shortcuts to be found, and for a game called Off Road Challenge, you're slowed down by going off the beaten path. If you so happen to veer off the path, you'll find that boundaries will push you back toward the path without much loss in speed. On some levels, you'll also find that you can almost climb the mountains on the side off the road and get some air. Additionally, there are many things that can be run over, including trees, rocks, bushes, signs, and more. But some things cannot be driven through and will slow you down a lot. Along the way, through each of the tracks, are also many scripted events. At the start of the Vegas track, for instance, you'll see a UFO. For the first 30 seconds or so, you'll see U.S. fighter planes trying to shoot it down. Eventually it crashes, and it's scripted so someone will most likely hit it in mid-air as it goes down. Other events include a tractor crossing your path, a railroad crossing, TNT boxes lying on the ground, an old plane crash-landing, etc. Like the original, Off Road Challenge keeps the tradition of getting money from races to upgrade your truck. So if you come in first place, you get $100,000. If you come in second place, you get $80,000. If you come in third place, you get $60,000. If you come in fourth place, you get $40,000. Upgrading your truck is certainly one of the best features of the game. It costs $80,000 for Acceleration, which will give you a better start. It costs $20,000 for a pair of Shocks, which will let you go faster in rough terrain. It costs $60,000 for a single Nitro, which gives you a short speed burst. It costs $100,000 to increase your Top Speed. And it costs $40,000 to get a pair of Tires, which will make your truck handle better. Excluding Nitro, you can have up to 10 upgrades for each part. But you'll find out that you lose upgrades if you partake in some rough driving. For example, bouncing up and down and all around will make you lose Shocks and/or Tires. During each race, you'll find Bonus Items scattered mostly to the side of the tracks. There really isn't much right in the middle, nor is there much that far off the path. You can get extra Nitros, special Supernitros that last longer, an Anti-Crush Helmet to protect you from being run over by other trucks for a short time, and Cash. There are several problems with the way this works. First, the money icon can be hard to distinguish at high speeds and always nets you $40,000. In the original, the money slowly accumulated as someone picked each icon up. You can only take this money with you if you finish in the top four in the Circuit mode, but the other modes will let you take it regardless. Second, you always get two Nitros to start each race (why not let me earn them?), but it also costs a whopping $60,000 to buy an extra Nitro while it was only $10,000 in the original. These gameplay decisions take away much of the fun of the original. But here's the biggest flaw with Off Road Challenge: The gameplay is improperly balanced. The computer AI is very cheap and unforgiving right off the bat. You can turn the easier Arcade AI on and pick Very Easy, and you'll still have trouble finishing in the top four. In order to have a chance, you have to pick up nearly every Nitro and you have to drive pretty much flawlessly. If you hit something, you have no chance of finishing first. At least in the "Just Play" mode with its single races, you can keep the extra money you find on the track even if you didn't finish in the top four. That's not the case with the Circuit mode. Multi-player action, which was a big part of the original, is also tremendously lacking. First of all, only two players can play, not four. And as you probably predicted, there is no racing with the computer. That means just you and a friend go one-on-one. You get $100,000 for finishing first and $80,000 for finishing second. You also get to keep extra money you pick up. So there is no real incentive for finishing first. The only real goal is to play for hours and hours to upgrade your truck as much as you can. But, of course, you'll probably lose a Shock or Tire or two each race, which means it'll take even longer to upgrade completely. You will find, interestingly enough, that the game moves faster and controls much better if you start to pile on the upgrades. Also of note about the two-player mode is how it's technically a pile of dung. I'm not usually one to complain about frame rates, but even I could tell that the two-player mode is unbelievably choppy and probably runs at about 15 fps. It's not necessarily that slow, but the choppiness will strain your eyes. You'll also notice that the music is conspicuously missing. The control in Off Road Challenge might considered another problematic part of the game. The first time you play, it has a completely different feel from anything you've probably played recently, which is good and bad. I suppose it was done to emulate how it would feel steering on the dirt, but it provides for a "fishtail" kind of feeling without the power-sliding of other games. All of the trucks feel different, and you can tweak the sensitivity in the options, too. The controller configuration, which can be customized and saved to your liking, consists of accelerate, brake, and nitro, along with some secondary control functions such as gear up, gear down, camera, and radio. Also, Rumble Pak support isn't as good as you might think and is not worth the pain of hot swapping Paks. There is a small selection of options, too. You can adjust the volume of the music and sound FX (the music gets drowned out), you can choose from four sky types (random, blue, dusk, or stormy), you can turn the trophy girls on or off (why would you turn the lovely ladies off?), you can turn the "arcade AI" on or off (when off the AI is new and more intelligent), you can change the AI strength (from very easy to very hard), and you can switch between MPH and KPH. When it comes to the graphics, I've already discussed about how terrible Off Road Challenge looks in the two-player mode. The one-player mode is a little bit better, but it certainly isn't up to the standards set by other racing games on the system. Basically, it looks like Cruis'n USA, except there are a few more polygons this time around. You'll still find plenty of two-dimensional, flat bitmaps to run over, and you'll also see plenty of pop-up in the distance. The sense of speed and going over jumps isn't compromised, but there is still a certain choppiness to the mode. The graphics also have a grainy 32-bit look to them. The sound is essentially as bad -- and it's 100% mono. The hard-rockin' music comes out very tiny, especially once the sound effects are thrown into the mix. It's hard for me to believe that the 8-megabit, Super NES version of Super Off-Road had much, much better music than the 64-megabit, N64 version of Off Road Challenge. Speaking of which, the sound effects of the trucks (engine, jumping and landing, etc.) are pretty good, but the other sounds are muffled. There is some voice in the game from the trophy girls such as "Choose a truck." or "Let's race again." or "I like it fast." Off Road Challenge is a game that should have stayed in the arcades. The N64 version is not necessarily a bad port, as it's basically a carbon copy of the arcade. And it's certainly not the worse game on the N64. A few other stinkers such as Mace: The Dark Age, NBA In the Zone '98, F1 Pole Position 64, MK Mythologies: Sub-Zero, and FIFA Soccer 64 are more painful to play than this game. But the only group who will get any enjoyment out of it is Cruis'n USA fans. Even they will quickly lose interest, though. You may want to rent the game once to check it out, but don't even think about paying the full price of admission, let alone a reduced price.

Graphics: 2.9 out of 5 Sound: 2.5 out of 5 Control: 3.1 out of 5 Gameplay: 2.7 out of 5 Lastability: 2.2 out of 5 Overall: 2.6 out of 5

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