Baja - Edge of Control: Eay My Dust!

October 5, 2008

Ever since mankind invented the wheel, he has feverishly found ways to push it, and the attached vehicle, to the limit. What better way to do that than with the Baja 1000? This tumultuous race, pitting racers against Mother Nature’s uglier side, gives wannabe stunt-devils the chance to risk life and limb for the checkered flag. This is what Baja: Edge of Control tries to replicate, but should you strap yourself in for the ride or leave it in the dust?

Race enthusiasts will appreciate the extensive list of modes. In circuit race you select a vehicle from several different classes and race against opponents across multiple tracks. There’s also hill climbing events, point-to-point rallies, free ride, and baja mode--a series of point-to-point stages that takes anywhere from one to four hours to complete with chopper repair assistance. Each 20-minute interval streams along with no loading times.

Career mode has you tackling various vehicle classes and events. Winning earns you cash that you can spend for upgrades. Baja keeps it simple with just four different attributes to boost. If you get tired of taking on the computer, you can head online for a robust, yet typical suite of options for up to 10 players.

While there are lots of tracks, and each one has branching paths, they all take place across the same, barren desert terrain. Jeeps, trucks, and buggies fill out the vehicle roster, but dirt bikes at ATVs are oddly absent.

There are plenty of ways to hit the dunes in Baja, but they all amount to basically the same thing—race from point A to point B. There’s nothing particularly unique or compelling about the design unless endurance is your thing.

Baja strives for realism, so you won’t find turbo boosts or nitrous-oxide powerups littered around the track. It’s all about technique and managing the point where your tires break free. Brakes are basically optional and difficult to manage, so you need to use the berms to stay on-course. Steering constantly teeters between easy and nearly impossible as the terrain constantly changes. Edge of Control definitely lives up to its name.

Rough, unpredictable terrain, combined with floaty physics, has the tendency to send your buggy skyrocketing off the track. It takes constant maintenance of the analog stick. One lapse of total concentration and you’ll be searching for the track reset. It’s so demanding it will make your eyes dry out as you try not to blink. It’s a lot like trying to control a wild bull.

The tracks look so similar that the shortcuts are often far too difficult to spot. The moment you veer off the track an irritating warning sign is plastered across the screen, so expect to see it a lot. The terrain seems to encourage exploration and shortcuts yet you’re penalized for cutting corners.

Once you come to grips with the controls in Baja it’s manageable, but the learning curve is severe, and one small mistake can carry big consequences.

While it’s easy to swoon over Baja’s expansive draw distance, the collision detection and vehicle physics leave a lot to be desired. Getting T-boned in Baja is a lot like bumper cars at the local fair. The sense of realism is undermined when every object behaves like a stiff piece of rubber.

Not everything is created equal with Baja, as we came across a few key differences between the PS3 and 360 versions. The 360 version runs smoother overall, though the differences aren’t enough to dampen the overall experience. Aliasing is also more prevalent on the PS3. No matter which version you play, the game looks bland. With miles of endless desert covered in shrubs, all the brown can become overwhelming.

Baja manages to capture the chaos and intensity of off-roading, but the finicky controls undermine the experience. Races can last as long as some television shows, and when you couple this with the funky hit detection the frustration ultimately outstrips the reward. It’s a crowded genre, but Edge of Control does little to stand out.