A Quick Look At 4x4 Evolution

There are quite a few off-road racing games on the Dreamcast, with rally and baja-style scrambling featured in the likes of Sega Rally 2, Buggy Heat and 4 Wheel Thunder. The one thing all of those games have in common though (apart from the hills and the mud), is that they're primarily arcade racers. Bright, brash and unashamedly unrealistic in terms of vehicle handling and physics, they present an idealised version of racing through the wilderness and power sliding through turns. One entry in the Dreamcast library goes in the complete opposite direction though, instead positioning itself as a more real-world approximation of the sport of ploughing huge vehicles through forests and across sand dunes: 4x4 Evolution.
4x4 Evolution (or 4x4 EVO as it sometimes refers to itself) is a racing game stuffed to the gills with real-world licensed trucks and SUVs from a plethora of manufacturers, all of which can be driven to the very limits through a range of different environments. Interestingly, it also represents one of the only games on the Dreamcast where online multiplayer races could be held between console and PC gamers. Indeed, in it's heyday 4x4 Evolution had a burgeoning online scene, and was one of the few Dreamcast games that was still played extensively online. Sadly, this is no longer the case and using this guide over at Dreamcast-Talk and the dial-up connection detailed in my recent article here, I was able to log on to the servers but there were no other players in any of the lobbies. In 2017, it doesn't appear that many people are still playing 4x4 Evolution online with their Dreamcasts, but that's not to say the game isn't worth playing offline - it totally is. Furthermore, there's a fantastic website dedicated to everything you could possibly want to know about the online side of 4x4 Evolution, so if this is your bag head over to the 4x4 Evolution Revival Project here.
Developed by Terminal Reality and released in October 2000, 4x4 Evolution is a US exclusive with an emphasis on big trucks being driven at speed through big environments. The fact that it was never released in other territories outside the USA is an interesting footnote, as the game was advertised as coming to PAL regions and was featured on 'coming soon' pamphlets inside other games. You can see an example of the PAL box art in this article at Sega Retro, so quite why the game wasn't localised is something of a mystery. In any case, the fact remains that 4x4 Evolution never saw a release outside of the US and due to this many people may never even have heard of it, which is a shame because it's probably one of the best Dreamcast racers you've never played...

One of the first things you'll note about 4x4 Evolution is the sheer number of options and things to mess about with. You get your standard quick race and time attack modes, which is shored up by a pretty huge career mode; but it's when you get to see just how much actual game there is stuffed onto the GD that you'll be astonished. There are loads of tracks, loads of vehicles (around 70 in actual fact) and the career mode is full of tournaments and invitational cups that you can only enter with certain vehicles. There are upgrades and tuning options, visual accessories such as mud flaps and brush guards, new lights and engine parts - hell, you can even change the bulbs in the headlights for better illumination in night races. The number of customisation options doesn't end with the vehicles though.
The environments can be tailored to your every whim, with weather and lighting effects all being interchangeable, while the races themselves take place in some impressively large sprawling stages. 4x4 Evolution almost feels like a forerunner to something like Smuggler's Run, where the objective is to get to each checkpoint in sequence before the other racers do. There is a loose 'circuit' to follow, but if you want to you can literally just drive off the course and straight to the next checkpoint as the crow flies. It's not recommended as you'll usually find yourself struggling to get your beast of a truck up a massive hill or through a river, but it's nice to know the option is there. Occasionally, you'll notice the AI trucks taking shortcuts through the trees or cutting corners, and the game actively encourages you to smash through fences and go off the beaten track where appropriate.
The environments range from green and pleasant bayous and forests, to scorched and arid deserts or snow covered tundra, and while they aren't overly densely populated with 'stuff,' you'll see a nice range of incidental details - a battleship and a submarine in the arctic stages, cranes moving rubbish in the scrapyard, helicopters flying overhead, trains pootling around on their tracks and lots of other minor attractions that serve to make the world feel more alive. The stages are fairly sizable too, and because you can literally drive anywhere off the actual racing circuit, it can be fun to just explore. Eventually you'll reach the edge and the game just resets you on the opposite side of the world, but it is quite cool that you can just go anywhere you like.
As mentioned, all of the vehicles are official models from the likes of Mitsubishi, Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota and GMC. The vehicles do tend to be a bit on the lumbering side and some handle better than others (they're split into 3 distinct classes, ranging from novice to expert), and generally the steering tends to be a bit on the twitchy side, but once you get to grips with the controls 4x4 Evolution is a lot of fun. One way of getting the most out of 4x4 Evolution's 'acquired taste' handling is to use a race wheel - it's a great game for using such a peripheral (especially with the internal cockpit view), especially since the emphasis is less on speed and more on down and dirty grinding around corners, weaving through trees and navigating over obstacles. It's also worth noting too that an insane amount of detail has gone into stuff you'll barely notice at first, such as the ability to switch your vehicle between 2 and 4 wheel drive (should it be equipped with the feature) and this can be very useful if you need to tackle a big hill and then need to switch to a faster drive train for a straightaway.
Visually, the game does look quite good - the vehicle models are quite impressive and they all feature some excellent independent suspension effects. Watch a replay and marvel at how the wheels are all fully fully independent as you scramble over rocks or through a ravine. The environments are all pretty good too, although some of them are pretty empty and the engine does suffer from a bit of pop-up now and then. That said, the fogging does hide some of this and when you're racing at night you can't see it anyway (in fact, you can't see much beyond your headlights!).
Overall, 4x4 Evolution is a highly competent entry in the Dreamcast's stable of racers. The number of options and the immensely involving career mode are worth the cost of entry alone, but that it plays well and looks nice are added bonuses. The game did also come out on the PlayStation 2 and a sequel, 4x4 Evolution 2 was released in 2001 for the other systems but I've only played the Xbox version and it is full of screen tearing. As I stated earlier in this article, the fact that 4x4 Evolution was only released in the US may mean that many people reading this are unaware of its existence, but if you see it going for a reasonable price you'd be well advised to pick it up.

Want more 4x4 Evolution? Head over to the archived official site here for a trip down memory lane.


way2easy said...

Huh, I always assumed that this game was one of the PAL off road games with a different name. Now I got to check it out. This seems like my jam! Thanks heaps Tom.

ShiningSkies said...

I don't know why, but I just couldn't get into this game back in the day and it's one of the few games I traded back (totally regret that now!).
But I still don't know why - I enjoy racing games, I love racing games that let you explore/go outside of strict racing boundaries, I like 4x4s and I loved playing online. It's like the perfect racing storm. But every time I played it, I just couldn't get into it.

It's been many years now though. So perhaps it's time to pick it back up again! :)