BAJA: Edge of Control
The racing genre (along with the FPS) is the most difficult in which to stand out from the crowd, bring new ideas to the table and shake things up in. Burnout 3: Takedown did just this way back in September 2004, but since there’s been little revolution. Gran Turismo 4, PGR3/4 and Forza 2 all took the bog standard ‘bigger and better’ approach but they’re all starting to lose the simple thrill of racing like when these franchises were fresh. Enter BAJA: Edge of Control, a punishing off-road racer that will grab you by the balls and pull until you scream, making you come back for more, time and time again. BAJA is the girl next door your mum told you to stay away from.
Let’s get one thing clear, BAJA has more in common with rally games of the past generation (in particular WRC) than MotorStorm or Pure. The basic premise is to find new ways to throw yourself around the dusty tracks to win the races as simply ‘playing nice’ won’t get you too far up the field, and winning is a tough, tough thing to do even on the easiest difficulty. Becoming acquainted with the vehicles is a gradual process, so sticking to the basic ‘race’ modes is strongly advised unless your gaming skill is proportionate to that swollen ego. Three laps and nine opponents to pass – it doesn’t get much more standard, but the unpredictable terrain and realistic physics give you a pure racing experience. As fun as the bog standard circuit races are though, this game was built for the hill climb and BAJA modes which are both completely different but equally intense.
Think back to winter 2004. Do you remember the first time you hopped on that Sanchez outside Mount Chilliad on San Andreas and roared up the sides of the rocky terrain only to throw yourself from the top? Hill Climb mode takes this basic principle and add structure to it, with each lap a race up and down. Because of the overwhelming ascents the chances are you won’t usually see where the next corner is and it’s all so easy but ridiculously fun to go flying off the edge of the ravine. Luckily this doesn’t infuriate though because with a simple tap of LB+RB, the game resets you in the centre of the track from a standing start. After a few laps around the circuits, discreet shortcuts start to come to the eye and it’s these little advantages which make the difference between mid race mediocrity and victor, as the AI opponents are surprisingly efficient on the track. A welcome change from the Sunday drivers seen in most simulation games.
The other key mode (BAJA mode) is the off-road alternative to Gran Turismo’s endurance races, which are half hour epic blends of a pure head to head racing and a time trial. A multitude of different class vehicles are all racing on the same track but only against each other, so if you’re class ‘x’ then you won’t be racing directly against class ‘y’ and class ‘z’, despite them being on the track. These rallys are extremely hypnotic and the time melts away during them as you’re gliding along the track, throwing yourself around every new corner without so much as easing the throttle. It’s just you, the clock and a seemingly never-ending desert track. Damage and fuel plays a critical factor in the races too, as you’ll be required to call for your team to fix the car up on the side of the track, this is done by calling the team helicopter what’ll track your progress through the race.
BAJA’s vision isn’t the most ambitious in the gaming world but it is a completely refreshing take on the racing genre. Being purely a desert racer can be a slight drawback though, as no matter how different each race type is, you’re constantly driving in the same environment. Even if it meant introducing a completely unoriginal ‘world tour’ mode to give an excuse to visit new environments, then for the sake of variety it would be worth the sacrifice. With such a sturdy physics engine, there’s that niggling feeling of wasted potential. Taking the world of BAJA to glacier regions, the tropics of the Amazon rainforest and the woodlands of Europe would well have taken this release to the next level in terms of ambition and would maybe have attracted more than simply cult interest. Whilst it does stay true to its origins of the ‘Baja 1000′ off-road race (which is included in BAJA mode), it’s perhaps this heritage which prevents it from being regarded more highly.
The empty wasteland of Mexico does look fantastic though, the environments boasting a luscious colour palette. The vehicles however don’t quite look up to scratch at times, which sometimes gives the impression of the vehicle not being completely ‘connected’ to the world around it, however switching to a first person view shrugs this problem off mostly and gives a far greater sense of speed. BAJA supports split-screen multiplayer as well as your meat and two veg online mode, but unfortunately the community size is proportional to sales figures thus far, so your best bet is to arrange before you play.
Whilst Pure may have taken the crown of the dark horse racer of 2008, BAJA: Edge of Control is an essential addition to anyone’s collection who’s so much looked at an off-road racer with a pink tint in their eyes. It’s a punishing game but rewarding in equal measures, and will draw you in like no other racing game quite has managed so far this generation - bring on BAJA 2: World Tour.
Eight out of ten