Codemasters’ DiRT, previously known as the Colin McRae Rally racing franchise, has had somewhat of a stranglehold on the rally-racing scene for the past half decade. Other publishers and franchises have given it a go, from Microsoft and Rallisport Challenge to Sony and Motorstorm to Sega and Rally Revo, but nobody’s succeeded in toppling Codemasters’ game. Even the fabled Gran Turismo has included off-road racing, but that series hasn’t exactly wowed rally fans and is still known more for its tuner aspects than anything else. But as THQ prepares to enter the rally genre with Baja, the company hopes its marriage of DiRT-style gameplay and Gran Turismo-style tuning will finally topple the powerhouse that Colin McRae built.
Baja is an ambitious racing game by any measure, but its combination of tuning and off-road racing is downright insane. The Xbox 360 game bleeds rally racing, with its six gameplay modes all drawn upon the real-world racing options. Circuit Race is the core career mode in which players navigate a series of classes and tracks with the goal of earning sponsors who can help fund their racing career. Rally is the nuts-and-bolts, Point-A-to-Point-B style of play, while Hill Climb gives would-be racers the chance to see just how high up a hill they can drive before their car stalls. In Open Class mode, players can race as any class of car, but the mode’s “staggered start” method means that the more horsepower a car or truck has, the farther back it has to start on the track, thus balancing the playing field, so to speak. In Baja mode, the races unfold as normal, with the notable addition of NPC traffic packing the streets, and Free Ride is the requisite go-anywhere-and-explore mode.
All of these modes are played on 100 tracks spread across 10 four-square-mile landscapes, each of which is completely “open world.” To the hardcore rally fans this game is being designed for (and by), Baja’s open world won’t really mean much, considering the players will all be focused on the race route. In Free Ride Mode this obviously changes, and just knowing that the environments don’t have invisible walls provides an extra level of intrigue, even if you’re not taking advantage of it. Another nice touch in Baja is that unlike many games that look off-road but are really just covered with normal-mapped textures, each environment is truly built with variable geometry, which means grooves and elevation changes actually have an impact on the way a vehicle handles.
Vehicle handling, and in fact every aspect of the vehicles themselves, is probably the most ambitious aspect of Baja, because it truly mimics Gran Turismo in a sense. Baja includes 40 vehicles total, with no fewer than 400 part upgrades throughout the game. As a result, nearly every aspect of a car can be customized and tweaked — and repaired.
In real-world rally racing, if a car is damaged, a helicopter assigned to that team drops off the necessary supplies, which the driver and co-pilot then use to make repairs “in the field.” Likewise, in Baja, players need simply to press the repair button to have a helicopter set up a drop point on the track, which players then drive toward and have repairs done in three to five seconds. Such repairs will definitely be necessary, too, because Baja is a simulation in the most detailed sense of the word. If players “bottom out” too often on hills and holes, their oil pan will take damage and need to be replaced before the oil pressure drops and the car overheats. If players hit too many divots or rocks at too high a speed, the shocks and/or suspension can blow out. If players take too many corners too fast, the tires will overheat, weaken and eventually be more apt to bursting.
The in-game HUD (heads-up display) echoes this intense simulation gameplay, as it shows not just speed and RPM, but water and oil pressure, tire health, the amount of brakes you have left, and the condition of the shocks and clutch. Fortunately for casual gamers, all of these damage options can be turned down based on the players’ desires, with three available options for “full simulation,” “cosmetic only” or “off completely.” After all, THQ is hoping to Baja will be the super-sim of rally racing, but it also recognizes the importance of reaching a broader audience.
One thing that will definitely help in this “reach everyone” objective is Baja’s graphics. Although some stages and cars look much better than others (remember, the game’s still in development), the experience of seeing the most-polished stages through the in-cockpit view can only be described as looking out at the best-looking racing environments we have ever seen. We had the good fortune of getting our hands on Baja on an Xbox 360 with a three-screen LCD setup, much like Microsoft’s E3 debut of Forza Motorsport.
After grabbing the Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel and looking “out the windows,” we tore off through the Baja desert crashing through underbrush and jumping over small cacti. Because of the panoramic setup and the incredible graphical quality of the stage, it sincerely felt at times as though we were looking out windows to see where to drive next. If the rest of Baja’s environments and races can achieve this same level of detail, even in the non-cockpit view modes, THQ could very well be sitting on the best-looking racing game of 2008.
Of course, the immersion was also helped by the surround-sound setup, which THQ has paid close attention to throughout development. Every vehicle dynamically mixes 48 sound samples at a time to re-create the sound of that given vehicle driving in that given scenario at that given weight load and in that current weather condition. I can’t vouch for how realistic the results are, but I can say without a doubt that the resulting engine noises are a fantastic break from the high-pitched, whining and popping rally noises gamers are so used to hearing from their rally-racing games.
All these factors add up to a game whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Everything in Baja has been done before, from the true-to-life rally modes and deep customization to the detailed graphics and complex audio, but few games have tried to incorporate it all at the same time. Couple this ambitious plan with 10-player online multiplayer and four-player split-screen modes, and THQ is taking the rally-racing bull by the horns. But THQ’s off to a great start so far, and if it can deliver an entire game that upholds the high-quality promise of the levels we recently played, DiRT and the Colin McRae series could finally have some series competition.
— Jonas Allen