Review: Baja: Edge of Control (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Baja: Edge of Control
Genre: Racing
Developer: 2XL Games
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: 09/22/08

The Baja 1000 is quite possibly one of the deadliest races out there, which is also one of the best reasons to watch the race. The Baja 1000 is sort of a misleading name for the race since over time it’s stood for both miles and kilometers, and yet almost none of the races have been 1000 miles. Many HAVE been very close to that number, but most are around 700 miles long. The race takes place throughout the Baja California penninsula area and includes both on and off road driving. The drivers have to endure the elements, other drivers, natural obstructions, and even spectators sabotaging areas just because they want to see entertaining crashes.

Sounds like a perfect fit for a video game, doesn’t it? Read on.

When it comes to racing games there’s always a design decision between whether the game takes on a more simulation style or a style that’s friendly for people who want to play a racing game but don’t want to worry about racing lines, g-force, or how much damage has been done to the tires. One thing needs to be made absolutely clear and that’s Baja: Edge of Control is NOT an easy to pick up arcade style racing game. At the same time, there are a lot of questionable design decisions that keep it from being a simulation of one of the world’s most dangerous races. Before we get to the gameplay of the game let’s go over the presentation.

Graphically, Baja: Edge of Control is a mixed bag. If you boot Baja up after playing other off road games, or pretty much any racing game out on the market currently, the first thing you’ll notice is the fact that it doesn’t look very good. Part of the problem is that racing games have reached near photo-realistic levels of detail and look fantastic, DiRT, PURE, GRID, Forza, Project Gotham Racing, etc all look fantastic, while Baja looks sort of like a smoothed out high definition game from the last generation. At least that was the first impression I received when starting my first race. However it’s really the details and creativity to the desert environments that keep the graphics in Baja from being in eyesore.

For one thing, the environments are huge and aren’t merely limited to the track you are playing on. All of the environments stretch out for miles and the draw distance is incredible. You’ll be able to see desolate landscapes that seem to go on forever, which really helps set the tone for the game. In addition to that, there are an amazing amount of things going on at once. You’ll be able to see the sky reflecting off of the vehicle, and they found a way to keep the backgrounds busy. In one of the beginning career races, you will be able see a roller coaster in the background and if you keep watching you’ll be able to see a small cart going around the track. The terrain deforms as the vehicles drive over it, creating tire tracks, and deeper tracks in mud. If you drive from desert to pavement, you’ll leave a track of sand for a little bit. As the cars receive damage, panels will fall off the car revealing the frame. All of this remains at a framerate that is as smooth as silk no matter how fast you’re driving or how many cars are on the screen at once.

Of course with the good there also happens to be a lot of bad. The panels fall off of cars to show damage, but really that’s the only damage that you get to see. The frame of the car will not bend even if you flip your vehicles several times. Considering how much detail is put into damage models in other games, and how Baja racing is expected to cause damage to a vehicle, something as simple as panels just falling off of the car doesn’t really seem to really have the impact that this game should have for when you find yourself flying off of a mountain at high speeds.

The backgrounds of the game look busy, and yet there seems to be a minimal amount of attention spent to things like shrubs and trees that litter the background all over the place. Some of the shrubs and grass have such flat textures that they look like they’re in 2D. There are times when the course will take you on a highway against oncoming traffic, and the cars on those roads are regular cars like trucks and vans. All of these look like crap. A van on these roads looks like a red square block with little animation. I understand that the majority of the attention was spent on the vehicles that would actually be in the race(s), but it just seems tacky when you are stopped in your race progress by a vehicle that looks like it just drove straight out of an N64 game.

For whatever reason you can also play the game in a panoramic using 3 xboxes, with 3 copies of the game, on three TV’s. This doesn’t improve the game any and I highly doubt that anyone will actually use this option.

Then there’s the sound. Don’t expect much of a thrilling soundtrack to the game since most of the music is limited to the menus, though there is some decently pleasant guitar while you are in the menus. During the races there’s just the sound of the car engines, and during the longer of Baja’s race modes it’s kind of annoying that there’s pretty much no other audio.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, Baja is probably the most wildly inconsistent game that I’ve ever played. The game is developed by 2XL Games, which include developmental staff from games such as ATV Offroad Fury and MX Unleashed, and the influence those games have on Baja are impossible not to notice. Much like the ATV Offroad games in Baja you can preload your suspension for jumps and the game requires you to use the clutch frequently. If you’ve played those games, chances are you’ll feel right at home with the controls in Baja, and even if you don’t there are multiple control settings to choose from, chances are if the default control setting that you hate that there will be one that will work for you.

The control settings aren’t a problem, but the fact that Baja: Edge of Control is schizophrenic when it comes to gameplay design IS. The game doesn’t know what type of game it wants to be, and it shows in all of the really odd choices that were made in the game design.

For example, there are some important things you will need to know in order to race at all: proper time to clutch, handbraking at the right times, and how to use the preload for suspension. You would think that the fact that you need to know these things in order to win a race means that they would explain it properly with either an in-game tutorial or within the manual. This doesn’t happen. Strangely some of the best information for how to actually play the game come in the form of tips that appear at the bottom of the screen during load times. These load times can be quite long occasionally, but then again you’ll be grateful for these load times because otherwise you might miss a tip that could be crucial on just how to play the game.

What the hell? Seriously, without a decent understanding of these essential gameplay concepts the AI will destroy you. There are two difficulty settings for career, Easy and Normal. This is a lie; these modes should actually read Hard and Harder. The AI is completely unforgiving when it comes to the racing. While racing you might see the computer make some mistakes, but don’t be fooled, they recover much faster than you do and make less mistakes. Part of the problem is the fact that the AI isn’t exactly fantastic, it just has the edge on knowing when to use preload, clutch and handbrake more than you do. At many times it can just be outright dumb and stick to its designed racing lines even if you are in the way. At moments like this the computer will just bash into you and either knock you off course or spin you both out even if the quicker option would just be to go around you.

Speaking of courses and being knocked off, one of the most annoying things are the invisible walls that exist on the tracks. There are times that these are pretty forgiving and will let you cut through the track, but at other times a simple mistake into one of these invisible walls will completely reset you back onto the track. One of the reasons this is annoying is the fact that you are reset on the track at a standstill and by the time you get back up to speed you’ve completely lost your position in the race and will probably end up in the back of the pack. Of course if you interrupt the AI racing line ,they’ll push you out of their way and occasionally push you off course into one of these barriers. Nothing pissed me off in this game more than overcoming the first place driver only to get knocked off track and reset. The AI also knows which areas are okay to cut and which aren’t and will take advantage of these areas.

When you aren’t battling against the AI, you will be battling against the track itself. The courses in Baja are meant to be difficult to drive on, but this is insane. The ground is dirt and sometimes you’ll be driving down a straight path only to hit a patch of road that looks like dirt and sand like the rest of the track, and then you’ll lose control of the vehicle and veer off course. Other times you’ll take a corner the same way you took it the last time you went around the lap, only this time you’ll spin out despite not doing anything different. The terrain is inconsistent and frustrating.

On thing that left me scratching my head was the fact that you can set the difficulty level of the AI on a sliding scale…while in career there are only two fixed options. What’s with that? Shouldn’t the career mode offer the same type of difficulty features offered in the single race modes? The career mode itself is just a confusing mismash. The game has several different ways to upgrade your vehicle with a ton of authentic parts to use and matching descriptions for all of them. If you don’t want to try and decipher how a certain hose might help you in a race, there are handy bars on the lower right of the screen that show exactly how that will effect the performance of your vehicle. Sadly these same bars and descriptions aren’t available in the actual selection of the vehicles, leaving it sort of a guessing game as to what might be the best vehicles to choose from. The smart bet is the most expensive one, but since the game doesn’t give you the stats of any of these cars, who the heck knows?

Career mode starts you out with off road geared VW’s called Baja Bugs and as you earn money and experience, you can use those credits to buy further vehicle parts and other cars, while the experience is used to unlock more races. One of the problems I had with this is that it’s essential to upgrade these cars in order to actually be competitive, but if you spend money on the car by the time you have enough experience to move up a class then you might not be able to afford the next level of vehicles.

In both the career and exhibition modes, you will be able to either take on specific courses with a determined amount of laps, Rally Races where you race from point A to B, then from point A to B again and so on, and Uphill Races.

Uphill Racing in the game is not nearly as fun as it might sound since you have to race both uphill and then down the other side of the hill. Unfortunately how the tracks are laid out there are several opportunities to just fly off the track, and if the tracks are hard to deal with in a straight line, then going downhill is even worse since it’s even harder to control.

Then of course there are the Baja races. The game has a couple of 250 races, some 500 races, and the 1000. All of these races are pretty much the same except for the length of time to complete them. The 250 will take about an hour, the 500 will take between one and two hours, and the 1000 can take three to four hours. You read that right. The thing is, the Baja races don’t feel like super long races, instead they just feel like extremely long versions of the Rally Race. I played the Baja 1000, during the time I played each section of the track lasted 20 minutes or less. At the end of a section you are given what place you completed that section at and then the next area loads up. The issue I have is that the next area might look completely different than the area you just left, and the car damage is completely repaired in-between. This sort of is a let down since I went from a desert area to a wooded area and it completely killed the stigma that I was part of a 1000 mile race. Instead it felt like I had just done one race and now I was doing a different one, they just happened to be in a row. As for damage, the game allows you to hit a button while driving to ask a helicopter to come and fix your car, except it’s really unnecessary most of the time. I wasn’t competing at the easiest difficulty level at all and I had damage turned one, but even when I knocked off all my panels and had raced for 17 minutes I still didn’t need to get fixed. This is a bit weird since I played a race where within 4 minutes I needed a repair, yet in the Baja 1000 mode I did several flips and was a-okay.

You can play the Baja 1000 online and when you do you can pause the game in order to let the AI take over for you so you can use the bathroom or whatever. In single player you get to play through the whole 3 hour long experience. In another odd moment after completing the Baja 1000 and some of the career mode the game told me I’d only driven 260 miles. Huh? Why does the game call it the Baja 1000 if it’s more like the Baja 100?

Finally there’s also the weird physics quirks. While the game has some features that seem designed under the understanding that this is indeed a video game, like being able to control the direction of your car in mid-air, the physics in many areas attempts to be super realistic as far as traction between the wheels and the sand are concerned. But then there are moments where I’ve hit a rock and have gone flying through the air as if I hit some giant rubber band, or hit oncoming traffic and never even knocked a panel off, or hit a tree and got stuck in it.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you add all of this up the game doesn’t make sense. The learning curve is too steep for casual players, especially since the game doesn’t try to teach the player how it wants you to play at all, and for the diehard simulation fan there are too many aspects of the game that ruin the simulation (like bouncing off rocks, resetting to the track) to make it worth the recommendation. I honestly wonder if two different teams designed this game since many of the design decisions just don’t make any sense.

As a side note I can’t reliably review the online portion of the game since I couldn’t find anyone playing it online. I found a match just once, and the ping connection was so bad that I couldn’t connect. Every race, including the Baja 1000 is available online however, if you want to get your off road on with other people.

The Scores:
Modes: Decent
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Below Average
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Poor
Balance: Bad
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Bad
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Dreadful

Short Attention Span Summary:
Baja: Edge of Control is a game that just doesn’t know what group of racing fans it is trying to appeal to. The inconsistent design, steep learning curve, and annoying AI make it a game strictly for those who are fans of Baja racing and want to play a digital form of the races no matter what. Otherwise there are better off road racing games out there, and just better racing games in general, to make a recommendation for anyone to purchase this game. Seriously, it’s a Baja racing game without motorcycles when most Baja races have been won with motorcycles. WTF?



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