BAJA: Edge of Control Review
Lost in the skyrocketing popularity of Call of Duty and Halo, Baja: Edge of Control quietly landed on store shelves in late 2008, a month before the two major shooting franchises released their yearly variations. And it sat there. After six months, those copies were moved to the bargain bin, and eventually, GameStop. Today, over five years after release, online leaderboards struggle to show more than ten or eleven people with registered lap times at most tracks. Online itself was a ghost town since launch day. People simply didn’t buy this game.
And that’s a shame, because Baja: Edge of Control is a title that any motorsports fan shouldn’t hesitate to add to their collection.
Designed by the same team who brought you the much-loved Motocross Madness and MX vs. ATV series, Baja: Edge of Control was meant to be a spin-off of sorts. The previous games in the MX vs ATV series had always featured vehicles like Trophy Trucks and Sand Rails as neat little diversions to the main gameplay, but Rainbow Studios (now under the name 2XL Games) never spent much time perfecting the driving model for the full sized beasts. As a result, Edge of Control was an experimental spin-off. Fans seemed to enjoyed the Trophy Trucks and Sand Rails in MX vs. ATV Unleashed… Why not make an entire game centered around them?
The developer diaries trickled out from 2XL Games, and every few weeks, the incredibly small fan base Baja had attained after the first announcement would slightly grow. Videos about suspension travel, track design, and a complicated sound engine were buried under countless World at War trailers, but the few still interested eagerly anticipated every little source of information about this brand new off-road racing game that hoped to re-create the world’s most dangerous race on a home video game console.
And as a few of us predicted, mainstream review sites simply had no idea what to do with Edge of Control. There was no auction house or vinyl editor allowing you to plaster anime girls on your cars. There were no killstreak rewards or ACOG scopes. There was no riveting story. This was a racing game with a name they couldn’t pronounce correctly, based on a racing series they’d never heard of, and featured tracks that their full-assist sessions of Forza 2 never prepared them for.
In other words, it was too hard for them, but they were afraid to say that outright because that’s “unprofessional,” so they gave it middle-of-the-road scores and suggested you pick up Forza 2 or DiRT instead.
Because of this, Baja Edge of Control is easily the best racing game of this console generation that absolutely nobody played. Had this been released on PC, the mod community would have worked its magic and the community would most likely still be growing.
The core element in any good off road racer is a robust physics engine, and that’s why Edge of Control is worth the eight dollars used that it currently goes for. Jumps, bumps, and uneven terrain are useless track obstacles if there isn’t a threat of losing control when encountering them. Baja Edge of Control makes gentle slopes scary, large hills a horror movie, and high speed rough sections require counseling sessions. This is not like any other off-road console game where you can simply throw the truck into a corner and it’ll stick, or soar off of a ramp and take in the view. This is more or less Richard Burns Rally, Trophy Truck edition, with an Xbox controller.
Regardless of what you’re driving, momentum and weight transfer matter. Every little bump wants to send you into a cactus or rock formation, and you’ll spend most of the race trying to keep the thing going in a straight line. Jumps are around every corner but extremely dangerous, and landings are a virtual version of Russian roulette. Having the balls to stand on the throttle means your truck will smash into the cactus that much harder if you make a mistake. However, that isn’t to say Baja is impossible to control. 2XL did a great job with the steering settings, making them both responsive and heavily dependent on a proper driving line to be competitive. You never feel cheated by physics if you find yourself flying off a cliff or barrel rolling along the side of the road. While there is a bit of sorcery that goes on in mid-air, allowing you to slightly tweak the pitch and roll of your truck beyond what’s possible in the real world, it’s a minor addition that is very important when driving some of the faster trucks, because otherwise some of the environments would eat trucks alive.
Conserving your equipment is also quite important. The damage model in Edge of Control is very good, with multiple sets of tires needed during a race, water temperature building and engines going down on power if you’re too hard on the throttle, tires and suspension blowing after hard landings, and gearboxes breaking down if you’re indecisive when it comes to shifting. There’s probably much more than just that, but anytime I hear a bang or my co-driver yell at me over the radio, I don’t hesitate to call in the repair chopper because you won’t get very far with a broken truck in the desert.
I wish I could write a detailed paragraph on the vehicle models and spend some time obsessing over the beauty of the suspension dynamics, but the truth is, you just don’t have time to admire that while actually playing the game. You’re always trying to find a good line through a rough section, or scanning ahead for a safe way to take a certain combination of turns. It’s one of the only racing games for the Xbox 360 and PS3 where you NEED to pay attention when driving because that’s how you go fast. Memorizing a certain line and all the different braking & shifting points just won’t cut it here, because you’ll never enter a corner the same way twice, or even see the same corner twice in certain events.
It’s a driving model where finishing a stage without wrecking feels just as good as a win, and rolling violently is demoralizing. And that’s how the Baja 1000, the world’s toughest auto race, should be represented in a video game. No nitro boost, no silly three hundred feet jumps, no dedicated “drift” button, just the sheer brutality of being on the complete Edge of Control.
Baja’s car selection is made up of nine different vehicle classes that try to represent most of the classes that run in the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 and several other off road endurance races each year. Your barely-modified Volkswagen Beetle class gives way to several different Open-Wheel and Truck supporting classes, culminating with the incredibly fast Class 1 Unlimited buggies and Trophy Trucks. Every vehicle you see in the game has a real life counterpart, most of which were pulled from a few different racing seasons over the course of the game’s development. While this does create a rather inaccurate driver lineup (as one truck will be from 2003, another will be from 2007), it’s hard to turn down almost two hundred officially licensed trucks with accurate paint schemes and AI driver names.
These various classes of vehicles all handle differently and they’re all worth experimenting with for at least a few races, as, coupled with the robust and demanding physics engine, all have their own incredibly unique driving style. While Trophy Trucks and Class 1 Unlimited buggies can rely on speed and power to get out of tricky spots and set blisteringly fast times, light trucks and SUV’s depend on picture perfect throttle control to get through technical sections at a decent pace. It’s pretty much a given that people will jump to Class 1 or Trophy Truck after a few hours of play, but the slower classes do present their own individual driving difficulties and teach you the key fundamentals of driving in Baja.
Tracks are split up into nine massive open environments with branching paths, most of which are a sea of sand and dirt. You’ll occasionally come across paved roads with AI traffic cars, but there truthfully isn’t much to look at; it’s sand, trees, bushes, and cacti. On a more impressive note, all nine environments were modeled by hand, and it’s painful to imagine the man-hours it took to design everything. Not just because seeing that much dirt and cacti could cause a person to go insane, but because every single path in every single environment was expertly crafted just to piss you off.
Every path has multiple bumps, ruts, crests, jumps, and berms to ruin your day. Not a minute goes by where you aren’t trying to find a less demanding line through a fast section, or land as safely as you can after an unexpected jump. Knowing that a group of people did all of that by hand is simply awesome. And all nine environments are put together quite well, too. Long freeways connect neighboring towns. Dirt roads actually lead you past landmarks such as farms or water towers. There’s not a whole lot to see and the Free Roam mode included in the game isn’t exactly a California Adventure, but the layout of each environment is realistic and makes you feel as if you’re racing through a section of the country, rather than just on a random desert-themed circuit with the occasional farmhouse to remind you that you’re in the middle of nowhere. Occasionally, you’ll see a banked turn that is much too big to be realistic, or you’ll fly off a drop in the road that just wouldn’t exist in real life, but it’s an overall nice representation of rual Nevada and Mexico, with just a slight bit of fantasy thrown in to keep you on your toes.
Races are split into two simple types. You have your traditional circuit races, the lap based affairs that are more or less CORR events, and you have the shockingly long point-to-point rally races. The overall track count is just under one hundred, and you’ll rarely see the same paths in each environment used more than two or three times.
Circuit races are, as described above, CORR races in the desert. Each layout features a BF Goodrich pit stall to repair your vehicle, and the developers did a good job of making layouts that are both challenging and fun to drive. Some circuits are more suited to the lower classes, while others are more suited to the high powered vehicles, but there is never any restriction on what you are allowed to drive and where, as is the case with past MX vs ATV games.
But the main stars of the track selection are the fifteen point-to-point rally stages. All rally stages in Baja are over twelve minutes long and incredibly demanding. Equipment conservation is necessary, and you will make use of the repair helicopter more than a few times each stage. Clean runs on these stages just don’t happen. You’ll ALWAYS get caught off guard by a section you don’t quite remember, or you’ll come into a tight corner just a bit too hot. These kinds of challenging marathon events are very refreshing in a console game, as many of us sim racers are able to tear through Xbox 360 or PS3 racing titles without much trouble.
The game’s main career mode attempts to tie all of these races together in a progression format similar to the Forza series at the time. You start in the lowest Volkswagen class with a junk car that can be upgraded as you participate in events. Winning events or placing well earns you sponsorship decals, money, and experience points, which are used to buy new parts, vehicles, or unlock the ability to move on to the next class. Events range from single circuit races, to simple three race points series, all the way to endurance rally events like the San Felipe 250 and the Score Baja 500. A widely circulated cheat code can be used to take the XP part away from career mode, allowing you to progress through the different classes as long as you have the money, more closely resembling how real world racing progression works.
The goal is obviously to make it into Class 1 Unlimited or Trophy Truck, and win the Baja 1000, which is easier said than done. Whether you’re attempting the 1000 in Career Mode, Single Race, or Online (with up to six other people), you need to make sure you have two and a half hours of guaranteed free time. This is not an event that gives you the option to scale back the race or save your progress. Once you start, it’s over two hours of straight driving, and you’ll never see the same turn twice. It’s you against the nine longest rally stages in the game, with only a ten second loading screen in between each stage to separate fifteen minute driving sessions. A good final race time is around two hours and eighteen minutes, and that’s a completely clean run with no wrecks and the occasional helicopter repair. I have no idea how I did it, but I remember wanting to desperately go outside when I was done.
If you’ve got a bunch of Xbox Live buddies sitting around on a rainy day, this is the perfect online road trip. Games like Test Drive Unlimited 2 or Grand Theft Auto IV beg you to grab a vehicle and go exploring, but nothing will ever match up to the epic scale of the Baja 1000 in Baja Edge of Control. Sure, it’s entirely possible to do full length F1 or NASCAR races over Live or PSN without much trouble, but Baja’s demanding style of off road racing forces people to strategize on their feet over two and a half hours. Praying for a caution doesn’t happen in the desert. You are always contemplating whether to push hard through the next section or play it safe and hold your position, because the rest of the pack won’t wait while you call in the rescue chopper. It’s a beautiful race in motion that is complemented by the challenging-but-never-frustrating driving model. Whether you choose to attack the 1000 alone, against the AI, or with friends, it’s the most demanding race you’ll ever find on a console.
Baja Edge of Control would have benefitted majorly from a PC release. Without a doubt, mods would have been made to create a true cockpit view, take away the slightly unrealistic mid-air control, and add entirely new environments. After Milestone’s WRC 3 was turned into a great game with only a physics mod and advanced plugin, I firmly believe this game would still be played actively today had it been released on PC as well as consoles. Hell, even the Xbox version has triple screen support.
Unfortunately, a PC release didn’t happen. Baja: Edge of Control sold horrendously and never received a proper sequel. The assets were reused for the Marketplace-only “Jeremy McGrath’s Off Road,” a game that would have been more at home on MiniClip. Don’t even look up YouTube videos of it, it’s that bad. Currently, copies of Baja Edge of Control live on the bargain shelf at GameStop, going for less than ten dollars. The game can also be found on the marketplace for about the same amount. Round up a few of your online buddies and spend an afternoon racing the virtual Baja 1000. You won’t regret it.
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