Platforms:PSN, Xbox Live (Reviewed).
Release Date: Out Now!
Developer: 2XL Games
Publisher: Reverb Communications
Thanks to Reverb Communications for providing a copy of this game for review.
Since its creation Xbox Live Arcade has become home to a vast array of fantastic titles. Initially hailed as something of a joke, it has become a place where developers can take a few more risks and create some truly unique games to amuse and amaze us all. Despite this, though, Xbox Live Arcade is surprisingly devoid of racing games, offering up just a few to sate the thirst of petrolheads like myself. There’s no shortage of platformers, shooters and even puzzle games, but if you want wheel to wheel action then your selection is pretty limited. Worse, out of the few that actually exist only a couple are any good. But now Mr. McGrath has come along and plastered his name on a racing game priced at a lovely 800MSP, so the question is simple: is it worth your time? And the answer is nah, not really.
First and foremost, though, is just who the hell is Jeremy McGrath and what does his name being plastered on the virtual box of this game actually mean? Well, to answer your first question, Jeremy McGrath is one of the most popular American Motocross/Supercross champions in the history of the sport. Oddly enough, though, this isn’t actually a Motocross or Supercross game, instead it focuses on the lesser known fact that McGrath took part in quite a bit of four-wheeled offroad racing near the end of his career, which is why this game features Trophy Trucks and rally cars rather than bikes. But other than having his name on the game, Jeremy McGrath’s inclusion is pretty much pointless. He pops up during menus and loading bars to offer brief snippets of often irrelevant advice, such as telling you to use the handbrake to slide around corners despite the fact that almost no corners on any of the game’s tracks require anything more than a little bit of braking to get around, or to state that a great deal of throttle control will be required to emerge victorious, which is again a complete lie as McGrath’s Offroad requires all the subtle throttle control of a brick being thrown through a window. Other than his existence as an advice giver, McGrath is also present in the races. To be more precise, he is almost always at the front of the race. In fact the only times he wasn’t out in front is when the player is, or when I deliberately sent him flying into a rock or something because I was getting fed up of him always placing second behind me. In short then, as you would well expect, McGrath’s name is on this simply for marketing reasons, because without his name the game would have absolutely nothing to set itself apart with. Take him out of the equation and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the gameplay. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it would still have been nice to see him used more in the game, perhaps by trying to build a rivalry between him and the player.
But enough about Mr. McGrath, it’s time to move onto the game itself, and where better to start than with the career mode, which is where things start to go wrong for Offroad in a big way. The whole thing is made up of one continuous championship that spans five different types of vehicles: Sportsman Buggies, ProLite Trucks, Rally Cars, Trophy Trucks and Pro Buggies. The goal is, of course, nice and simple: score as many points in each race as you can so that you can finish the championship in the top position and proceed to rub McGrath’s face in your victory. Simples. Over the course of the championship there’s just two different race types to compete in: standard circuit races and flat-to-flag races. It’s a fairly standard career structure for a racing game, which would normally be fine, but the problems with it are many and varied: first and foremost is the simple fact that the career mode offers up just 23-races on six tracks, with each event lasting only a few minutes each. As a result of this I finished up the entire career mode in just 90-minutes, having repeated each track several damn times. It didn’t help that each class of vehicle only actually has one ride to choose from, so in essence there’s only five different vehicles to drive, although they do at least have quite a few different paintjobs to choose from.
I finished up my first run through the games career mode in 1st place having won each and every race along the way on the hardest difficulty available thanks to lifeless and unchallenging AI opponents. Even on the hardest setting your AI opponents, including McGrath himself, are a pretty dumb bunch who offer absolutely no challenge, both in terms of pure speed and in terms of wheel-to-wheel battles. Get alongside them and they don’t even seem to register your existence on track, simply allowing you to slide by them without a problem. Where’s my nail-biting battles where we under-cut each other to try to get the drive out of the corner? Where’s the intensity of braking at the very last second to try to dive up the inside? Well, it ain’t here, that’s for certain. This wouldn’t be so bad if they were at least straight-up fast on the track so that catching up with them tested your abilities, but they’re simply not. They often brake heavily for corners that they don’t need to and take slow lines through the bends, so you’ll just breeze past like they’re standing still. By time the race comes to an end you’ll likely be up to half-a-minute ahead of them on the track, which is unacceptable given that most races are just a lap or two long. Arguably the AI has been the greatest weakness of racing games as a whole, but McGrath’s are the poorest of the poor, offering about as much challenge as a snail on its deathbed, which is why I spent a considerable chunk of my on-track time using them as things to bounce off of in corners. Hey, I figured they might as well be useful for something, right?
Outside of the career mode you’ve also got the ingenious named Arcade mode which is where you can set up single races to compete in, should you feel like just jumping in and playing a round or two. In here you can choose from any of the six tracks, any of the five cars and any of the……two race types available. Let’s be honest here, there’s not really a whole host of things that you can tweak for each event, and as a result there ain’t a whole host of things I can talk about it: it’s an Arcade mode that lets you go race, what more do you want?
Throughout all of these modes and races and such, you’ll be doing something usually associated with RPGs: earning XP so that you can level up! Practically everything you do in the game, from overtaking to powerslides and even smashing fences, earns you XP, which in turn earns you points that can be put into one of four different categories on each car to increase its performance. You can chuck points into top speed, acceleration, handling and braking to improve your ride. This is all a nice idea of paper to help add some much-needed depth to an otherwise very shallow game, but in reality it really doesn’t do much, primarily thanks to a major flaw that we’ve already covered: the AI. Alright, so you’re probably wondering how the AI can effect an RPG style system of experience. I’m glad you asked: the higher the difficulty setting of the game, , the more XP and points you earn, the better your car becomes and the easier it is to beat the already easy to beat AI in races. In short, to get any sense of challenge you ramp the difficulty up as high as it goes, but that just serves to give you lots of extra points to spend which makes it even less challenging. The result is that I actually found myself not placing any points in the cars so that I can try to get some sort of competitive racing out of the AI.
All these flaws would surely be forgiven, however, if the game delivered some stellar arcade handling, because good handling is the beating heart of any racer. Sure, others might argue that an attention to detail, as seen to Forza, or a detailed replication of the mechanics of the vehicles, is what makes a racing game, but pay no attention to those people: it’s the handling, boys and girls, that can make a racer great or a complete flop. Shame the handling in McGrath’s Offroad isn’t very good, then. It all starts out well enough when you throw a vehicle into a corner: they’ve got a pleasing sense of weight to them that’s married to a nice responsiveness, but as soon as you’re in the corner you realise that there’s absolutely no sensation of connection with the track, instead feeling more like you’re sort of floating along the top of the dirt rather than having to battle through it. Call me strange, but the big reason I love off-road racing is the feeling of the cars on the terrain itself: smooth tarmac tracks are all well and nice, but they never manage to deliver the same awesome sensation that battling through mud and dirt do, or flying along a bumpy straight, barely keeping your ride in check. McGrath’s Offroad captures none of these sensations, instead feeling sort of dull and lifeless which is the very last thing that a fast-paced off-road racer should be. Still, while it is rather bland the handling is at least passable and sort of enjoyable, or at least it is until you realise that every vehicle in the game feels exactly the same. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not expert, but surely a rally car doesn’t handle the same as a trophy truck? Well, In McGrath’s Offroad, they do, and it’s downright annoying. Driving one of the big trucks should require a completely different driving style than driving a rally car or even a buggy, injecting some much-needed feeling into the game, but instead they just feel pretty much the same to drive, taking away massively from the overall experience.
There’s not even anything to really tweak or play with, either. Before each race you can choose whether your ride will have slippy tires but a high top-end, grippy tires but a slower top end or a setting in between those, but that’s it. You can’t tweak suspension, play with the brake balance or anything like that. Nor can you choose manual transmission, either, which is a real pity as the game itself sometimes seems to get a bit confused as to when it should change gear coming out of corners and such.
The fact that the handling doesn’t manage to deliver on the excitement is also a real shame because the tracks, all six of them, are actually very well designed, offering some nice layouts to race around. In particular there’s some nice dipping corners that are a blast to drive through. It also helps that McGrath’s Offroad is a deceptively pretty game to look at. The factsheet that came with the review copy of this game stated that it aimed to deliver the looks of a full retail title, a claim that I instantly dismissed with a wave of my hand and a scoffing noise that sounded a bit like a cat with the flu, but to my surprise this is a quite good-looking Arcade title. Make no mistake, though, that despite what the fact-sheet boasts this is no full-retail looking title: it’s not going to be giving the DiRT series a run for its money, but there’s a nice level of detail to the environments and plenty of color to marvel at. Sadly the audio side doesn’t hold up so well. Aside from McGrath’s constant annoying voice-overs, which can thankfully be turned off, the game’s audio falls entirely inside the boundaries of, “It’ll Do Land”. The trucks, buggies and cars sound okay, the menu music is so generic that it didn’t even register in my brain for the first 30-minutes. Everything else is just sort of serviceable.
So what about the online? Surely racing against real people makes things far more interesting? Well, yes, it does, assuming you can actually find anyone to play with, that is. Practically all of my multiplayer testing was just spent staring at lobby screens waiting for people to join so we could get a race going. But hey, when people did join and we got some races going there was some decent fun to be had here. The handling still puts a dampener on things but with real opponents to play against the racing became far more interesting, although again there’s no really many options to customise races with.
As a self-confessed petrolhead and racing game lover, Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad left me feeling disapointed. It doesn’t do anything truly wrong, but this is about as flat and mundane as offroad racing gets. The handling is dull, the content is limited and the AI are about as stupid my beloved German Shepard. I know that sounds like a strange comparison, but he truly is a stupid dog. The overall package, then, offers some moments of fun, but really there’s nothing worth spending your money on, unless you see it at a reduced price or are truly desperate for a new racing title.
+ Looks pretty good.
+ Online races are fun.
– Every vehicle feels the same.
– Career mode is under 2-hours long.
– Handling is pretty mundane.
– Finding online games is almost impossible.
A surprisingly good-looking Arcade title.
McGrath is more annoying than anything else, the menu music is entirely generic and there’s no in-game music at all. Vehicle effects are okay.
There’s some mud. Drive through it!
The AI offers zero challenge and driving the actual vehicles feels pretty bland. Options and modes are also pretty thin on the ground.
Under 2-hours to complete career and zero online population don’t give this a good lifespan. Going back to perfect tracks might add another hour onto the playing time.
The Verdict: 5.5
At 800MSP this isn’t going to break the bank and there’s flashes of fun to be had, but in the end this is a dull racer that doesn’t capture any of the excitement of off-road racing.