Baja: Edge of Control Review (Xbox 360)
Have you ever started playing a game that you really did not expect much from, and then found yourself completely captivated by it? Stranger still, when you really ask yourself WHY you like it so much, you cannot seem to put your finger on exactly what makes it so great to you?
That’s the scenario I find myself in with Baja: Edge of Control.
I was not expecting to like it. I had heard the word of mouth on the Internet and from friends that it was mediocre at best. Even through the first hour or so, I was prepared to plod through a game that I was not particularly enthused about.
Then something changed. After flying around recklessly for the better part of two hours, I began noticing subtle things in the handling model that really impressed me -- but that is getting ahead of myself. Baja is one of those games that takes a while to sink its teeth into you (if you let it), but once it has got a hold of you, you will feel rewarded for sticking with it.
The first thing you see when you boot up Baja is an introductory video of different off-road vehicles tearing up the desert to a hard-rock riff. It does a decent job of getting you ready to plant your foot on the floor and sling some sand around. The menu music is some of the coolest I have ever heard, with a very cool sounding Spanish guitar tune as the main theme.
Tons of terrain....low-res terrain.
Then you get to the actual game. It is not exaggerating to say that it may be one of the uglier Xbox 360 games. It is not that the overall game has a horrid art style, but there are anti-aliasing issues all over the place, whether I played in 1080p, 1080i or even on my PC monitor in 1080p resolution.
There is just a very jagged rendering of the environment at all times, and I think that it makes it tough for people to get past, especially early on. It was less than impressive to me, and even as I spent more and more time with the game, it was still something that I always noticed. It is certainly something that you get used to as you spend more time with Baja, but it is very off-putting at first.
The vehicles are rendered well enough, though. Each vehicle type, from Baja Bugs, to Open Wheelers, to full-size trucks and the awesome Trophy Trucks, is rendered beautifully. You can see the tire treads and shock mounts, the driver inside sawing on the wheel to keep the vehicle on the track, and the suspension really digging deep to stabilize the car or truck over the rough terrain.
The environments are even decent to look at, but again, you have to get past the overall aliasing and "jagginess" issues that are there to appreciate them. Personally I did not notice them much after the first playthrough, but I have had some friends who refused to play the game for more than a few minutes because of it. Their loss.
The game isn't the prettiest, but it can still be quite fun.
Either way, I am done complaining about the visuals. Once you actually dig into the game, you will notice that there are several race modes available. The meat of the game is definitely the Baja Career, where you will earn cash for each race to purchase new rides, or upgrade existing ones in fairly basic categories like weight and drag reduction, shocks, tires, engine blocks, etc.
Throughout the career, you will earn both cash and experience points. Experience points are required to move up to the higher classes of race vehicles. You will not go from a Baja Bug -- the appropriately named starter class -- to a Trophy Truck instantly, as you must have enough experience points to be accepted into the more prestigious series of races.
To earn those points, you will race in all types of off-road races, including circuit races, rallies, hill climbs, open class (where you will race against other classes with handicaps) and Baja (a very long endurance rally). Circuit races are your traditional lap-racing affairs, and rallies have you racing from point to point. Unlike most rally games, however, Baja’s rallies let you actually see the other vehicles around. You may be required to make passes now and again as you come up on slower vehicles -- or be passed in some cases if you ARE the slower vehicle.
It is really on the racing surface where Baja started to grab me. For a racing game to really carve out a place in my permanent rotation, it has to give me something that I have not seen before, or refine something that I have seen before into a finely tuned piece of art.
Baja definitely falls into the former category. There is such a delicate balance of simulation and realism mixed with the arcade-like freedom to correct your mistakes, that it really is unlike any other off-road racer that I have played.
At first, I was ready to dismiss it as a rather bland, somewhat ugly racing game. The first impression of most gamers will likely be the same, as the starting Baja Bug class is by far the worst and most difficult class to drive. They are underpowered, they bounce around on the racing surface like an epileptic jumping bean, and they are generally not a ton of fun to drive.
One thing that they will do, however, is teach you how to keep your momentum going, which is the most important thing in Baja. If you lose momentum by over-braking, or even over-accelerating, you will lose a lot of time out on the track.
There is no better example of this than when you race a Baja Bug in Career mode, even on the Easy difficulty. It feels really cool to plant your foot on the floor and fly around the track, slinging dirt everywhere -- but you are extremely slow when you do that. Even on Easy, cars will just blow by you in a corner while you are throwing dirt around.
The traction model is something to behold.
That is when I started to discover how incredible the traction model was. To succeed in Baja, you really need to breathe the throttle and learn to almost "dance" with the vehicle and the track. You will need to be able to see the upcoming variations in the track, and learn when to lay off the accelerator -- even while traveling straight in some cases.
The reason for this is because the traction model is good enough to pick up on single-wheel grip. If you have got the accelerator planted firmly on the floor and your vehicle is bouncing along a rough patch, only one tire may be in contact with the surface, and that is the tire that grips when you hit the gas.
What this does is suddenly snap the vehicle around that contact patch, almost like a pole driven straight down through the rear corner of the vehicle as a rotation point. When you see cars fishtailing left and right, or you do it yourself, this is what is going on.
What you learn to do quickly in Baja (at least if you want to succeed) is to feather the throttle and always be ready to release it when you are in a rough patch of track.
Couple that with the incredible damage modeling, and you have a recipe for a fantastic off-road racing game. In Baja, you will not be flying off of jumps like you would in a title like Pure. If you jump 60 feet in the air in Baja, you are likely to snap an axle in half, or crush your oil pan when you land hard and bottom out.
That adds an entirely different dynamic. You want to be "fast but cautious," and the other vehicles out there will really push you if you want to win. To counteract this type of realism, THQ managed to introduce a bit of arcade-style gameplay to help out.
You have the "pre-load" feature most commonly found in motocross games, as well as the ability to adjust your vehicle’s angle and direction in midair. The latter is very helpful in navigating some of the courses when you take a jump "not quite right," and need to fix it before you land.
As mentioned before, it is really a brilliant mix of realism and arcade-style racing, because you start to get into a groove the more you race, really "feeling" the vehicle more than simply pointing it in a direction and hitting the throttle.
But like a late-night infomercial, "wait, there’s more!"
You also have a clutch on the left bumper that is actually useful. Combined with using the "A" button for the parking brake to pitch the vehicle into a corner and then popping the clutch on a tight-corner exit, you begin to get a great rhythm through technical sections of a course.
But really, the visuals aren't that special.
You even have achievements for using the clutch, as if the developers went, "It really works -- here, we will get people to use it through an Achievement and then they will see."
In a nutshell, that is what has me so hooked on the game. You have to have a very controlled use of the throttle, to the point where you are barely ever wide open. You want to get as much forward-bite as possible, which means you will not be slinging dirt everywhere, but constantly trying to get grip. You use the clutch and emergency brake in conjunction with the previous techniques, and you have got a real winner on your hands.
Unfortunately, all is not candy and roses here. Multiplayer servers are fairly empty. I frequently get "Unable to Find Races" messages, even when using a Quick Match. And even if you find a race, there is no way to stay together in the game. You will be dumped back to the menus after each race, which gets a bit old.
Also, the A.I. is hyper-aggressive. I am all for challenging A.I., but in some cases the A.I. just feels downright cheap. I already mentioned the importance of keeping your momentum up. If an A.I. vehicle decides to slam right into the side of you to prevent you from passing, you are slowed to a crawl until you release the throttle and disengage from the other car.
Also, the A.I. does not seem to play by the same rules because they will frequently race off into the sunset the minute you let go of the throttle. That gets a bit frustrating now and then, but it is not something that happens constantly. Most times I can keep my nose clean in a race, but there will be instances where the hammerhead-A.I. trucks just cannot help but swerve into my path and hit my car.
Outside of those few problems though, I don’t have much to complain about. I have had an absolute blast with Baja, although, I had to get through a somewhat nonchalant first hour or two with it to really get to that point.
If you are a huge fan of off-road games and like some realism mixed in with your air time, you really should give Baja a look. If you can find some races on Xbox Live, it is an absolute blast -- it even supports split-screen multiplayer for racing with buddies locally. I had a fabulous time tearing around Mexico with my brother, and serious laughs as well.
You cannot help but burst into laughter when you see your brother's vehicle go flying off a rut and launch into the stratosphere, somehow taking the perfect angle to impale his car on a telephone pole. I am not kidding, it was something that probably could not be done again even if he tried, but it was awesome to watch. We had quite a few moments like that, and when you get to really dicing with another person in Baja, it is great fun.
But only if you can get past the somewhat bland first impressions.
On The Dirt: Incredibly complex handling system, requiring a good amount of practice to really become comfortable with.
Graphics: Not pretty, not horrendous -- but certainly not "pretty."
Sound: Great menu music. Engines are captured well and sliding across the dirt sounds authentic enough.
Entertainment Value: Through the roof if you love simulation-style off-road games, but through the basement if you are looking for high-flying arcade action.
Learning Curve: Pretty large. You are not just going to pick it up and break world records in the first hour or so. It takes some practice to really become quick.
Score: 8.0 (Great)