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18

Mired And Admired: Off-Road Drive

Every year in the UK, recreational 4WD users crush 33,070 primroses, wake 6,312 dormice, and ruin the reveries of 451 nature poets. They’re a menace and yet irresponsible game companies like 1C continue to glorify their activities through titles such as Off-Road Drive. I was so disgusted by the premise of this upcoming release, that I almost returned the preview code, and nearly didn’t spend most of yesterday happily jockeying Land Rovers and Jeeps through Karelian swamps and Rocky Mountain gorges.

I stuck around mainly because of all the sticking around. Despite giving off the pheromones of a budget-racing-game-with-bumps, ORD actually possesses surprisingly simmy depths. Navigating the boulder-strewn, bog-dotted courses requires an agreeable mix of sump-scraping trial and error, skilful wheel-work, and timely gadget activation. Think up-realismed Tricky Truck rather than down-market Dirt 2.

I can definitely recommend the winching. All of the vehicles seem to come with a motorized reel of steel cable bolted to their bows. When wheel waggling, shuttling, tyre pressure tweaking, and three forms of diff-lock adjustment fail to get you over a fallen pine or up a steep escarpment, you just hook the cable to a nearby tree and gently (too much tension = snappage) ease your vehicle out of trouble.

As I discovered when I accidentally put my Samurai into neutral at the end of one particularly arduous climb, delicacy is also required if you opt to drive with a fully manual gearbox. Take your foot/finger off the clutch and gas while in gear, or attempt to drive over an obstacle or out of a slough with inadequate revs, and you’re suddenly going to find yourself stationary wondering why it’s gone so quiet.

Being deprived of engine noise for a few moments does have its attractions. The weakest aspect of this preview build is unquestionably the audio. All engines currently sound like bottled bees and there’s a baffling lack of the kind of suspension squeaks and chassis thumps that you’d expect to hear when pelting along a rutted track or rocky foreshore. Hopefully, before the September release, something can be done to bring the ear stuff up to the standard of the Unreal Engine 3-powered eye stuff.

Perhaps there’s also time to supplement the enjoyable yet strict time-trials with some more free-form play modes. Right now most of the racing seems to involve winding your way along narrow preset routes in the shortest possible time. Knock down a stake, or stop for any length of time and you’ve got yourself a points penalty. Leave the track or face the wrong direction and you’re magically reset.

I’ve just scribbled some quick calculations on the wings of a passing butterfly, and interestingly, they indicate that ORD would be 138% better if 1C: Avalon added an orienteering-style challenge mode. Biggish chunks of chaotic wilderness. Random start points and destinations. Blaze your own trails or die trying. These things would be splendid.

I suspect the game would also be attracting more attention if it wasn’t wrapped up in a sporty shell. In my book, trouncing a faceless field of AI controlled 4×4 experts to win the Ladoga Trophy, will never be as satisfying or stirring as, say, delivering anti-venom to a hard-to-reach jungle clinic just in time to save a stricken villager, or plucking forest fire-fighters from the path of an out-of-control wildfire. So many of the civilian vehicle sims that turn up on my harddrive, seem to opt for the most obvious and prosaic settings.

Whatever you think of the context, if you’re partial to plausible physics and new simulation experiences, ORD is worth watching. It looks like those of an adventurous bent or Russian parentage can even go for a preliminary testdrive right now.

I’m attaching the latest trailer more out of duty than enthusiasm. Oddly it seem more interested in showing real 4×4 footage than pointing out how much fun you can have in Off-Road Drive wallowing in mud pools, scraping gingerly over boulders, and messing around with winches.

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