There comes a time when inside knowledge beyond what one knows is required. Not without modesty, I knew one of these times had come when I first started 4X4 EVO 2 and found myself trying to decide between, after digging through the Alaskan wilderness, a $64,000 dollar 14" suspension lift, a $22,500 Port & Polished Head, or $250 mud flaps. Faced with a detailed and expansive variety (with some limits that I'll go into later) of car makes and manufacturers, there was little doubt that I needed the advise of some serious 4X4ers. I packed up my Xbox, grabbed a case of Pepsi, and gave a few friends a call. In less than an hour, I found myself taking notes as Evo 2 was crawled over by some true truck enthusiasts. The result left me with mixed impressions. Armed with a list of comments and hours of personal game play under my belt, I went to work compiling all that I had learned.
Originally, 4X4 Evo 2 was going into the records as a four star game, pretty dang good, accompanied with an explanation of why it wasn't better. As the hourglass trickled to the last, though, and the pale horse carried its final judgment, I find myself reducing my rating to a three stars, with explanations instead on why it isn't a four. In short, Evo 2 has enough innovation, detail, and humor in its off roading aspects to make it an interesting and entertaining game, but cuts itself short by limiting its off-road missions in favor of racing -- a genre in which it is not a strong contender. Between its two styles of game play, it offers a limited but engaging off-road experience that will have enthusiasts at the edge of their seats, and a relatively uninspiring racing experience that will more than likely wear thin after only a short period of time. And they needed to add a Dixie horn.
4X4 Evo 2 is like many other racing games, save one noticeable difference: a love of trucks. Tailored for the tastes of people who truly enjoy the power and freedom of a vehicle that can take you anywhere, Evo 2 is half a racing game, and half a toy box of trucks and truck parts for the enthusiast to tear around the countryside with. With this in mind, Evo 2 is divided into two categories: missions and racing. After purchasing your car from a rather extensive list of actual car makes and manufacturers (with the odd exclusion of Ford, arguably one of the most predominant makers of high-powered 4X4 trucks, a fact that bothered my advisors no end), and equipping it with an even more extensive list of auto parts, you embark upon a career in these two styles of play.
Aside from the mentioned under representation of Ford (meaning none), the missions are the original reason I was considering a score of four stars. Soaked in a rich sense of ironic humor, you are assigned tasks as a freelance wilderness traveler, tracking down plane wreckages in Alaska, or runaway rafts (apparently bears eat them and swell up like marshmallows). You are then paid some amount upon completion, which you use to purchase bigger and better parts for your truck. Though locating where on your topographical map you are supposed to be to complete your mission is sometimes hard (the maps can be very difficult to use), the missions are an aspect of the game that will thrill those who get a kick out of installing the biggest and best parts in their vehicle, and then using them to climb bigger and better hills. The physics are a little tweaked, true, so that you find yourself not always rolling when you should, but the changes are such that the average player will enjoy it more, allowing for a quick in and out gaming experience while still allowing for more in-depth play.
Considering how much effort went into creating the variety and effects of the various truck makes and parts, it is surprising that more detail didn't go into the actual gaming world. Graphically, for example, the game has both plusses and minuses. While at times the graphic effects are truly something, such as the way that the actual surroundings are reflected from the hood of the car, at other times the graphics are flat and without life. Trees that should stop you dead in your tracks are sometimes passed through like air, towns are lifeless and empty, full of buildings but no people or parked cars. Due to the contract restrictions brought about by using actual car models, the game shows no damage to the vehicles as you slam into trees and roll down hills. With the exception of a few wooden posts that fall down as you run them over, little of the driving environment is damaged by your vehicle's passage. Trees show no signs of scrapes or bruises, and fences that should be easily destroyable react to an impact like super reinforced steel walls, all the while leaving your truck looking like it was just driven from the seller's lot. Two of the three views available are almost worthless most of the time, especially under heavy foliage. It is almost as if the elements are in place, but not fully flushed out in such a way that would have made this game truly spectacular. While I don't judge games on graphics alone, these limitations reach into the design of the game, and are part of what brings the rating down. The ability to destroy things is part of the fun of games such as this, and the lack of these details simply limited the depth of the game.
Had the missions been designed to support Evo 2 unto themselves, containing a full featured and lengthy game style with a more detailed career mode and more numerous creative mission designs, 4x4 Evo 2 may have scored better. Unfortunately, after only a few hours of play, we found ourselves finishing the very last mission, and (grumbling about how much that sucked) turned to the less spectacular, and disappointingly, more predominate aspect of the game: the racing. Almost immediately Evo 2 started to disappoint. In a nutshell, there was nothing new. The detail of car choices and car parts are the same as the missions. In fact the two playing styles are merely different selections under the career menu, but other than that Evo 2 does not offer a particularly exciting entry to the racing genre.
My first complaint becomes obvious almost immediately. With a few exceptions, the trucks purchased stock in the game lack guts. Your career as a truck racer begins with thirty thousand dollars in the account, which you use to purchase your vehicle, parts, and nifty racing suit (I assume). Your job is to win races in order to make money in order to upgrade your truck in order to win races. You'd think, therefore, that your beginning car would be competitive in at least the very basic of races. Not necessarily true. A fact of life is that your vehicle will almost always be underpowered compared to the other racers, possibly because the game operates on some sort of sliding scale; the faster you go, the faster they go. Our first time through the game, we tricked out a 2000 Dodge Ram with several hundred thousand dollars worth of parts, making money through missions before leaping into the racing arena. You'd think that a tricked out truck, worth far more than the stock vehicles available, would be competitive on the first circuit races. Not so. It took us two more tries before we were able upgrade a truck enough to out-power the other racers, and that took a lot of money, and a monster truck with tires the size of a human being.
That aside, even were you able to win the races at the beginning, the purses are too small to make a difference. At $10,000 a competition (much less than that per race), you have to race a lot before you can afford even your first major upgrade, easily a $40,000 proposition. (On the upside, once you do acquire a truck that can get the job done, there is little difficulty variation with the later races, so once you start winning, you can win often.)
Considering the above problem, one must wonder how you're supposed to progress. The missions would be an option, were the upgrade paths not different. While off-roading for money, you spend your hard earned cash on parts suited for more missions, not high-speed track racing. In the end, your very expensive off-road vehicle often won't cut it side by side another racer. Also, the AI is limited, and you'll sometimes find yourself in fourth place merely because two of your competitors missed checkpoints and didn't have the brains to go back for them.
The racing experience itself is also nothing new. Besides the fact that you're on a dirt path instead of an asphalt road, there is little to separate Evo 2 from many other available racing games with jumps. The player passes through a series of checkpoints in order to race. Since these checkpoints are relatively close together, and all along the beaten path, it forces all of the players onto the same roads. The shortcuts that are available more often than not merely get you lost, making it essential to know the tracks you are racing before they're raced. Who cares that you have a 4x4 when you're staying on the trail all of the time?
What makes me sad is how unique a game 4x4 Evo 2 could have been with a little more originality in the actual game play. What if a series of races were constructed to take advantage of the off-road aspect of the game? Instead of using preset paths, why couldn't there be a setting that allows players to race each other to a given point over outback terrain? Evo's claim to fame is its detailed reconstruction of the off-road experience, but it limits itself by forcing that off-road style onto a pre-constructed track. Were there nothing more to the game than the racing, 4x4 Evo 2 would probably receive no more than two and a half stars, maybe three. Combined with the joy that comes from the limited but relatively unique experience provided by the missions, Evo 2 qualifies for a three star rating. The game will appeal to those people who know their trucks and their truck parts. Best described as a toy box for tinkerers, Evo 2 should be looked at if you're trying to find a game for climbing hills, and only partially for racing trucks. If you're looking for a racing game, rent it and decide for yourself. If you want a 4x4ing game, the technical detail here makes it definitely worth a look.
It still makes me wonder, though, where Ford disappeared to...