on March 7, 2011
I do not know anything about the development history of this game. From playing it I get the distinct impression that it was initially a very ambitious game design that was ultimately hampered by budget and/or time. Let me explain.
This is a racing game with one very unusual feature - it takes place in a wide open world in which you can literally go anywhere you like. The distant mountains or canyons are not simply there as backdrops - if you can see it, you can drive to it. The world is not infinite, but it is extremely large. You can start at one end of the world, and it will take you hours to reach the other side. The world is also quite varied - sandy beaches, drowned cities, wide open meadows, tall grass, dense bush, forests, high desert, sand dunes, snowy mountains, raging forest fires, just about any kind of landscape type is represented somewhere here in the game, continuously changing from one region to another. The landscape is dotted with a wealth of details - crumbling farmhouses, abandoned industrial sites, road signs, barriers, guard rails etc.
Right out of the box you can drive anywhere you want in the world, but you can only race in areas that have been unlocked. To start with you only have one race area to contend with, but as you win races you earn points which eventually unlock other areas of the world.
The world itself is rendered very realistically, achieving an almost photo-realistic quality at times - at least it appears that way from the comfort of my couch in front of the TV set, playing the game on my PS3. As you drive around, the time of day and the weather continuously change from dazzling sunrises, clear days, cloudy days, full on thunderstorms, sunsets, foggy moonlight nights, and so on. During races you also encounter extreme weather events such as sandstorms and tornadoes. These seem to be largely scripted events, with scenes of massive destruction taking place just ahead of you on the road as you race.
The amount of effort it must have taken to create such a vast, detailed, and realistic canvas seems staggering to me. It almost begs to be in a different game. As I drove around I kept imagining this empty, ruined world being used in a much different game - one more suited to it's wide open nature. Perhaps a "Living Dead" game where you play a lone police officer in search of his wife and kids, rescuing people along the way in a haunted, zombie-infested world. Instead this fantastic world detail got used to make a racing game.
So, the game itself feels threadbare, and lacking polish. Yes, the physics feel right, with the different kinds of vehicles displaying different abilities in on-road and off-road acumen. But there is a polish lacking in the interface where you are constantly struggling to figure out what to do next. Each race has three levels - rookie, expert, and legend. But there is no visual indicator as to what level you've achieved in each race - you have to select and dive into each race to see what you've finished. On the list of areas there is no visual indication to show you which you have completed, and which still have races left in them to earn points. Instead you have to waste time selecting each area, and then looking inside the list of races to see if there are any points left to try for. The interface itself is clunky and poorly organized. Instead of being there to help propel the gamer along in his or her quest to open up more races, it stands as a barrier to game play.
As you race you earn fuel. You can also earn fuel by simply not racing and driving around in the wilderness bumping into fuel containers you will find scattered about. You can also earn fuel by engaging in various challenges you find. Fuel has nothing to do with your ability to drive. Your vehicle seems to always have a full tank. Instead, fuel gets you currency to purchase better and better vehicles as you progress through the game. These are essential for winning the races later on in the game. So a great deal of game time is going to be devoted to grubbing for fuel on long "off-line free mode" jaunts across the world.
This seems to be kind of dumb play mechanic. It results in the player constantly struggling against the constraints of the game world to progress, when the races themselves are hard enough. Well, some of them are. Some races are ridiculously easy, with the game visibly "pulling back" at the last minute to let you win. Others are infuriatingly difficult, with the game controlled vehicles that have been trailing comfortably behind you for the entire race suddenly whizzing past you in a burst of speed at the last second to steal the race. Some of the race circuits seem to have been designed by a sadist, with unfortunately placed abandoned trucks, pointy rocks, or long falls placed in exactly the spots where you are most likely to run into them - just around the bend, at the apex of a particularly tight curve, or the end of a long jump. It feels like a cheap trick every time you encounter one of these obstacles, especially in races where simply hitting the curves right and catching up to the game controlled vehicles is challenging enough.
More time spend in testing and getting tester feedback would likely have found these rough spots in the game, and the entire user experience would have benefited from some time spent on polish and refinement. But, alas, sometimes that just doesn't happen in the game development world, and a game will get released "as is" because publishing deadlines or budget demands it. Which is a shame because this could have been one of the greatest racing games ever devised. Instead, it is a gaming curiosity and fodder for the discount rack.
If you are at all interested in unusual game worlds, or want a game that truly places no limits at all on where the player can go, this is the game for you. You can drive from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top of Ranier Peak (both are present in the game) through all of the ecosystems and terrain in between with zero loading time - it is a beautiful continuous experience. You can also have some fun with an alright, but somewhat rough racing game (at least in the first 3/4 of the game). There is certainly very few other games like it in the world.