There comes a time in every game reviewer's life when he finds himself torn between a polite review pointing out flaws and constructive criticism, and wanting to tear a new one for the game.
This is one of those times.
Today, as I checked my mailbox, I found a happy package awaiting me from our friends at Ubi Soft - It contained Free Wheelin' USA and The Sum of All Fears. Since our other game reviewer here at SLCentral lives with me, and he's of the more political/military persuasion, I gave him the Clancy game.
I made the wrong choice.
Should Have Taken the Blue Pill
It's pretty clear where Hoplite Research was aiming with this title. Think about it - Every Wal-Mart on the face of the earth has a Cruisin' USA/World/Exotica arcade machine in its game room. Also, Wal-Mart is king of the $20 knock-off titles that are notoriously bad but that continue to sell. The formula is simple. Looking at the box, Free Wheelin' USA gives promises of speed, excitement, and ample chests. It fails to deliver on all three.
As a matter of fact, during this game's development, it underwent a name-change to "Hooters' Road Trip". It appears, however, that this name only managed to stick on the PlayStation release from a few months ago. Presumably, with the famous restaurant license gone, the...um...bosoms...had to go.
It's difficult to figure out a good place to start with this review. Let's just start off by pointing out that no matter how good your game is, if a player has a difficult time controlling his actions, he's gonna quit pretty early on. Free Wheelin' USA allows you to play with either the keyboard or a game controller. Neither option really presents a good way to play, unfortunately. Using the keyboard is actually advantageous when compared to the joypad, because the keyboard is configured from the get-go. Setting up controls on a gamepad is an exercise in futility.
I started off with a Gravis Gamepad Pro plugged into the gameport on a Sound Blaster Live! 5.1. Windows XP confirmed that it worked fine, and all the control settings responded perfectly. I loaded up Free Wheelin' USA and went to configure button assignments, but to no avail. The game pretended that the pad didn't exist. After about ten minutes of fiddling, I gave up and used the keyboard. Eventually, I revisited the issue, but this time wielding a Gamepad Pro USB. This time, the gamepad actually worked in Free Wheelin' USA, but only to a certain degree. None of the default button assignments worked; For some reason, the game assumed that my pad was gamepad #2, and not #1. What made this even trickier is that, as I was mapping buttons, the game refused to recognize the axes on the directional pad properly...specifically the X-axis. After messing with it for five minutes (and screwing in the joystick tip), it finally worked.
Did my effort pay off? No. The game still had absolutely awful control. At times, it was as if the game interpreted immediate shifts from one direction to the other as simply throwing the wheel to the stops. I could have easily won a couple of tracks in this game had I not spent 3/4 of my time wedged in a fence or facing backward.
And really, this was the absolute worst problem in the game. The physics engine of the game must look something like this:
if(collisionDetected( ) )
Seriously. I'd be moseying on along, and I'd hit another car's rear bumper, and then suddenly find myself facing backwards. It was as if the developers were secretly giving me a message: "Turn back now! While you still can!" Eventually, I gave up and started driving the damn car in reverse. This actually helped. The game assumes that steering is a bit softer in reverse, and so I can actually control the freakin' car. Unfortunately, being in reverse means that I'm effectively stuck in first gear, but that by itself was enough to get me to 3rd place in one racing attempt.
I probably would have won too, if the game hadn't suddenly decided that I *didn't* go over the finish line. Maybe it wanted to see my l33t driving skillz again. I don't know. All I know is that the game wanted me to play it more...give it more love. But it was far too late. I had no love remaining for this game. There's supposed to be extra tracks and unlockable cars, but frankly, I can't see how anyone would stick out the game long enough to get them, or find them rewarding enough to withstand the misery of the game for that long. Even worse, these "rewards" involve playing the game even more.
Hammerin' In My Head
Well, back to the mechanics of the game. In the era of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Half-Life, and Serious Sam, it's easy to take a backseat in the graphics department to games with polygons as their primary focus. However, it's difficult to say that I remember a Windows-based 3D game with better graphics than this. As a matter of fact, I can think of plenty of DOS games with better graphics.
On the one hand, Free Wheelin' USA bucks the valueware trend by allowing Wal-Mart shoppers with beefed up systems (500 MHz, even) to run this game in as high of a resolution as 1024x768. I must salute Hoplite Research for acknowledging that console ports need not run *only* in the console's native resolution.
On the other hand, if you believe that someone will have a system strong enough to run this game in 1024x768, I think you should take it for granted that they can handle a few more polygons so that we don't have to use *sprites* in the game. I haven't seen this many sprites since I played Descent. At the very least, the trees could have had polygonal trunks and flat-brushed leaves like most other games use. Even worse, they don't resample to more-detailed sprites as you get closer, so even in 1024x768, you're stuck with a pixelicious mess on your screen.
The music is unremarkable. It doesn't grate my nerves to listen to...only the silly titles. Candy Pantz? Honestly...Someone's just not trying very hard. What *really* disappoints me about the sound is the relative lack of sound in the game. There aren't any voices whatsoever in the game. These would have added a nice touch to the arcade feel of the game, much like Nintendo/Rare's Cruisin' series. Of course, given the quality of the rest of the sounds, perhaps neglecting voicework was a good idea. Despite having one of the meanest-looking cars on the planet, my engine sounds like something ripped out of a cheezy Radio Shack R/C race car. Instead of 12 cylinders, I have 12 volts. Utterly ridiculous.
I could mention how the game has no multiplayer features. That's fine though. I hesitate to say that I'd want to play with anyone else who bought the game. We'd have more fun emulating Olympic figure-skating in our cars than actually trying to win a race.
Pros & Cons
I know it seems like I'm being mean. Hoplite no doubt had the best of intentions. With a *lot* more work, this racer could have really been something. To this day, Cruisin' USA earns a lot of money in arcades because it's fun. Free Wheelin' USA (notice the name similarity) has a very similar formula, but it botches it so many times over that it's a hopeless proposition.
Ultimately, the game's aspirations are low to begin with, and so I have trouble faulting it for something it was never meant to be anyway. This game was made so that people who wouldn't ever read my reviews anyway would find the box interesting and sink the $20 to buy it. I don't blame them...Breasts are a very compelling feature for male purchasers. Still, you'll find no love in the game, whether you're looking for fast cars or fast women.
Graphics & Sound: 2.0
Fun Factor: 3.5
Lasting Appeal: 1.0
Final Score: 2.0