Video Game Rentals Delivered

Baja: Edge of Control

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2009-03-11 08:24:24

Baja: Edge of Control - Rank C

Developer: 2XL Games
Publisher: THQ
Date: 9/22/08

Also available for PlayStation 3

The title sequence for Baja: Edge of Control is filmed footage of the Baja 1000 race. It looks wicked cool, but this sort of presentation is often an inauspicious sign. There's a reason marketing departments prefer to employ pre-rendered cinematics to represent their products; they belie the questionable worth of the game itself. That illusory quality is emblematic of Baja: it's ambitious and conceptually exciting, but bankrupt in actual execution.

The visuals are a tremendous letdown from the opening footage. They look like high resolution original Xbox graphics. The level of detail is low, the tread-marked roads look like scraped Play-Doh, and pools of water resemble viscous strips of mercury. The Xbox 360 version is passable, since these shortcomings are less noticeable at high speeds. The PlayStation 3 version is visually unforgivable, offending the eye with abundant aliasing jaggies and an unstable frame rate. This aesthetic disappointment is further exacerbated by the endless leagues of mind-numbingly uniform Baja desert. Weirdly, inconsequential and distracting details like falcons, gophers, or the roller coaster in the screenshot above were animated into the game, presumably for flavor. I remember thinking, "They wasted development resources on that, when everything else looks so dated?"

The racing concept itself sounds immensely promising. It's not the methodical asphalt carving of Forza or Gran Turismo, or even the slippery gravel spitting of DiRT. Baja is about hardcore offroad racing. The action is reactive; instead of planning your next smooth racing line, you're constantly fighting to recover from the crazy trajectories of the massive bumps in the (and I use this word loosely) road. Even driving in a straight line can demand a continuous commitment to correcting your vehicle's path, resulting in a vigorous experience that continuously engages your attention.

Unfortunately, Baja engages your attention straight down the shitter of frustration. The subtitle "Edge of Control" is right on the money. The game's controls are extremely fussy. They speak a foreign language from any physics I'm accustomed to. On the one hand, they're floaty and loose in the dialect of an arcade racer. You can even change direction while in midair. But they also operate within the conjugation of a devastatingly unforgiving framework. One small error in an otherwise perfect race can result in an overwhelming loss. I'm even okay with that. I'm fully appreciative of the obsessive masochism necessary to master unfamiliar techniques. The problem is that mistakes feel random! There's nothing worse than losing a race two hours into it, and not even knowing why. Baja's terrible tactile feedback is the primary culprit. The controller only rumbles when landing a jump or hitting a bump. You are never given a sense of how well your vehicle is gripping the earth, forcing you to make uneducated guesses. It's like a blind man trying to read unraised Braille.

Baja also promises an intriguing combination of tactics and strategy. It incorporates a few technical driving skills, albeit simplified. You can preload your suspension, causing it to spring harder off the lip of a jump. This can leap you ahead of the competition, but this short term gain needs to be weighed against the long term damage that the landing will inflict on your shocks and struts, oil pan, or other automotive components. Another technique is to hold the clutch through turns (I assume this is a simplified method of heel and toe downshifting) to keep your engine revved, allowing you to explode out of turns. The drawback is that continually redlining your engine leads to overheating. Aggression needs to be balanced on the fly against the potential for damage. Even if the damage is purely cosmetic, losing a body panel with your sponsor's decals results in losing the sponsorship money. Repairs are available; you can limp to the pit stop in a circuit race, or call for a helicopter during a rally run. Don't depend on it though. The helicopter crew might be helping another racer, or even taking a break to eat ice cream (seriously). On one occasion, it crash landed right on top of me. Fuck you helicopter. Balancing these risk/reward gambles makes for riveting action, except for the aforementioned frustration of the controls. Wrecking for no discernible reason is controller hurling motivation. Furthermore, it's way too easy to get caught up on another racer. Among racing aficionados, you might hear the phrase, "Rubbing is racing." Well, in Baja, if you so much as brush up against another car, you can find yourself stuck to it like Velcro until a crash releases you. And then the helicopter crew mocks you while eating ice cream.

Baja offers a multitude of quick races, but the meat of the game is the career mode. It almost feels as if the developer deliberately made it inaccessible, in order to make the player's frustration as intense as possible. You're forced to start in the VW Beetle circuit. These entry level vehicles exhibit terrible acceleration, braking, turning, and jumping. You know, eliminating everything that could have made the twitchy controls less punishing. Progression through the game actually makes it easier. Baja features the usual panoply of simulation upgrades, from engine parts to tires and weight reduction. You can also tweak everything from gear ratios to spring loads. Completing the initial VW class is a relief, as you finally have access to vehicles that handle better than soapbox carts. Oddly, you can't see the stats on potential purchases. I had to run on the assumption that the more expensive vehicles were superior. Also, Baja does not feature motorcycles. Por que? Bikes have historically dominated the Baja 1000.

The online functionality is probably Baja's best feature. Up to ten players can join in on a race. You are also given the option of ceding control to an A.I. driver, which is of particular importance during a multi-hour rally race, in case you need to empty your bladder or if you're reminded by your wife that this is the fifth time she's asked you to take out the garbage.

Baja: Edge of Control is 2XL's debut product. This company is staffed by game developers who jumped ship from Rainbow Studios, where they put out the decent ATV Offroad Fury series. They are capable of good work, and Baja is built on promising ideas. I cannot recommend Edge of Control, but I do remain cautiously optimistic about potential follow-ups. I would very much like to play a version of this game that actually works.

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