July 16, 2012

Get a Little Mud on the Tires

Lasting First Impressions of Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad

» Developer: 2XL Games  |  Publisher: Reverb Publishing

Jeremy McGrath boxartMy love affair with racing games first began when Pole Position landed in arcades in 1983. In the mid 1990s, The Need for Speed (yes, it had a ‘The’ back then) and Screamer on PC gave me a glimpse of what would later be possible in an immersive at-home racing experience, and I haven’t checked the rear-view since. We’ve seen everything from hardcore simulators to mascot kart racers and 2XL Games is now bringing an off-road racer to XBLA and PSN that puts an arcade spin on the track tested DiRT formula. Since Brad Paisley’s lawyers haven’t come after me for the above strap line, then it’s now safe to tell you about the hour I spent behind the wheel with Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad to see if it’s worth your gas money.

I didn’t know what to expect when I first loaded up Offroad, but the uninspired menu screens urged me to call video gaming in the 1990s to see if they wanted their interface back. The voice of Jeremy McGrath called out “Remember me? I’m baaaack!” as I let out an audible sigh. Determined to see this through, I perused the available modes: Arcade, Career, and Xbox Live, and elected to see what Career mode had to offer. I continued through the throw-back selection screens until I was able to launch into the first of five championship series. Then it struck me…a slick interface means nothing if it doesn’t lead to compelling gameplay, and a dull but functional one can still direct you to a great game. Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad is thankfully a case of the latter.

Jeremy McGrath screen

Within the opening moments of that first race, I was completely turned around. By that I mean my Sportsman Buggy was still facing in the right direction, but my prejudices were left in the dust. The graphics were first to grab my attention. Although it doesn’t look as good as recent full retail releases, Offroad offers some surprisingly capable visuals and at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second. Environments were lush and detailed and I was particularly impressed by the trees and roadside foliage. Track textures were of noticeably lower resolution but consisted mostly of dirt and mud anyway. Vehicle models were decent but only one chassis was available per class. However, a number of liveries were available within each class to at least create a variety of opponents for you to shunt, pass, and shake your fist at. Surround sound support boosted the immersion factor, especially in over-the-hood view, but engine sounds lacked texture, and tire and collision effects sounded especially weak. If I’m careening over crests and skidding around berms, I want to feel those chunky landings and hear the rocks and pebbles spitting out from beneath my tires. Controller vibration support was conspicuously absent, at least in the XBLA version, serving to further amplify the shortcomings of the audio design.

Jeremy McGrath screen 1

So what in the way of content and gameplay did 2XL manage to cram into a 750 MB download? Five championship series/classes are available: Sportsman Buggy, ProLite Truck, Pro Buggy, Rally Car, and Trophy Truck. Each series includes a mixture of both circuit races and point to point rally races. I managed to reach the Rally Car championship during my hour of gameplay and each vehicle class was appreciably different in how they interacted with each of the seven available tracks, requiring me to frequently switch up my technique. Each track also featured the occasional dynamic obstacle, such as runaway hay bales, giant rolling snowballs, or falling poles, mixing up the action in arcade fashion. Experience points are earned during each race and are awarded for a variety of feats including hitting big air, passing opponents, destroying elements of the environment, finishing clean laps, and placing at the finish line. Those points are then spent between races on upgrading your chosen livery’s handling, top speed, acceleration, or brakes. Three difficulty levels are available and selectable between races, and ‘rubber banding’ AI was delightfully non-existent. By choosing upgrades suitable to my driving style, I was able to cross over from Semi-Pro to Pro difficulty mid-way through a series, earning even more experience points. While amateur difficulty can be conquered simply through generous application of the accelerator with occasional braking, success at Semi-Pro or Pro levels requires the judicious use of more advanced techniques such as optimal driving lines, mid-air pitching, power sliding, and clutch-boosting. These techniques may sound intimidating to a casual player but they are all accomplished through easy-to-use arcade controls, and reinforced through loading screen tips. Although there was no mini-map, McGrath served as my co-pilot calling out the turns instead, and certainly was a nice touch. There was no option for manual transmission but this was not a surprise given the arcade focus of this title. Offroad is perfectly suited for play with a gamepad, but steering wheels are indeed supported. I experienced some issues with my accelerator pedal that was more likely a factor of my complicated simulation setup than anything else.

Jeremy McGrath screen 2

As if custom-built for our review purposes, an achievement popped letting me know that I had been playing for an hour. I put my controller down and walked away pleasantly surprised and satisfied with this $10/800 MSP download, and also a little ashamed of how I had initially judged this book by its cover. If you’re a fan of off-road or rally racing with some space on your hard drive, then you can’t go wrong with this peppy little number. I would be very interested to see what 2XL could do in the retail space with this genre. Until then, I’ll keep my pedal to the metal with four wheels off the ground.

2XL Games, I gave you an hour and I am IMPRESSED.

About the Author

is an avid gamer on all platforms, unapologetic graphics whore and peripheral junkie. He is also a drummer both electronic and acoustic, a loving husband, and adoring father to two lovely girls. Follow Craig on Twitter as @Talus as he eats sandwiches and posits on the latest inconsequential happenings in the games industry.



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