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4 Wheel Thunder (DC) Review


Unfortunately, Sega Dreamcast owners do not have many high-quality arcade racers to choose from. Games like Hardcore Heat, Roadsters, and Test Drive 6 turned out to be disappointments for many. On the other hand, Speed Devils and Hydro Thunder proved to be more worthwhile, but were far from perfect. Which brings us to 4 Wheel Thunder, Kalisto's off-road follow-up to Midway's intense superboat racer, Hydro Thunder. Does 4 Wheel Thunder have enough "thunder" to satisfy arcade-racing fans? Let's take a look.

Presentation/Graphics : 93
4 Wheel Thunder is definitely a looker! With crisp high-res visuals and a smooth 60fps frame-rate, this is one of the best looking racing games available on Dreamcast. The vehicles, which range from huge monster trucks to slick buggies, are wonderfully detailed and have their own unique style. As nice as they look, though, players cannot change the paint job or logos that appear on their mean machine (the appearance only changes after an upgrade). This isn't that big a deal, but it would have been nice to have a few selectable skins for each vehicle. Fortunately, the beautiful tracks will quickly make you forget this small oversight. There are over two dozen tracks based on locations around the world, which are split between indoor and outdoor environments, including special arenas for the two-player modes. Admittedly, the indoor tracks are a bit dull and look bland when compared with the outdoor ones, but feature crisp, smooth graphics nonetheless. The outdoor environments, on the other hand, will cause many jaws to drop, especially while racing on later levels. Each of the outdoor tracks is littered with animated objects that include, among other things, birds, helicopters, planes, sky divers, and immense balloon animals that float above the tracks. The balloon animals in particular are quite memorable because they have a very goofy look about them. (When was the last time you saw a monstrous smiling pig or moose balloon floating around in a racing game? They're actually quite disturbing.) In addition, there is also a ton of environmental effects included on each level -- such as falling logs, blowing leaves, and flowing waterfalls -- that help fill the levels with life. I also enjoyed seeing the realistic tire marks left behind after sharp turns and out-of-control skids, which remain during the entire race unlike some other racing games. And although this is an arcade racer at heart, the vehicles display realistic-looking suspension while traversing the bumpy landscapes. That being said, the game is filled with brightly colored Boost icons that will shatter any simulation fan's hope for sim-like play. The Boost power-ups not only equip each vehicle with boosts of speed, but also provide some pleasing flame effects to boot. Perhaps the icing on the cake, though, is the lack of pop-up and draw-in problems (thanks in large part to the great layout of the twisting, turning tracks).

All is not well, however, as there are instances of slowdown, albeit rare. Still, I noticed the occasions of slowdown more while racing via the first-person view (arguably the best view to use) than the two third-person views, since the action was right in front of my very discriminating eye. Another small complaint about the graphics is the lack of visual damage. While the vehicles do blow up during the two-player Bomb modes, they do not show visual damage during any other mode. Also, I found the replays quite boring and stale when compared with other racing games. Even after winning a race, I never felt the need to view, let alone save, my replay. This could be because I've been spoiled with racing games that feature a variety of unique camera angles and tricks during their replays. Or maybe it's because 4 Wheel Thunder's own opening movie depicts an exciting race from a variety of exciting camera angles, giving the illusion that the in-game replays will follow suit. Whatever the case may be, 4 Wheel Thunder's stock replays fail to capture the magic of the race.

Presentation/Audio : 84
4 Wheel Thunder's sound effects are quite good and contribute heavily to the overall presentation of the game. As good as the high-powered machines look, they wouldn't be nearly as impressive without the loud rumpling engine sounds backing them up. The announcer's voice, unfortunately, is another story altogether. While energetic, the announcer sounds like he's done a little too much Dew, resulting in caffeine-induced screams that tend to annoy more than excite. This is especially true when, after racing particularly hard, you come in second or third place and must endure an annoying "You Lose!" taunt. On the positive side, it does make you want to put all your effort into each race so you can avoid being cut down by some jerk announcer. Then again, maybe I just took things a little too personal, eh?

The music is a decent mix of rock and techno, but nothing that I would personally want to listen to outside the game. Nevertheless, it does fit the nature of the game and the on-screen action well.

Interface/Options : 90
Menu screens are slick, stylish, and to the point. You have all of your basic options, including sound adjustment, control configuration, and load/save options. 4 Wheel Thunder also makes use of the VMU rather nicely by displaying the load/save options on the VMU. Granted, it's much easier to look at the screen while making a load/save selection, but it's a neat little effect. The only thing I disliked about 4 Wheel Thunder's VMU support was the extremely loud VMU beep after data is saved and loaded. In fact, the long high-pitched beep is highly reminiscent of the beep the VMU makes when its batteries are dying. It would have been nice if the developers supplied a more appropriate beep for the VMU, particularly one that didn't annoy or cause confusion over dead batteries. Loading time varies between short pauses while navigating the menu system to much longer delays before starting a race. The default control layout is that of your average Dreamcast racer (i.e., triggers control acceleration & braking), but lacks a dedicated button to change views. To change the view, you must first pause the game to bring up an in-game menu where you can then select a different one. This is more of an inconvenience than anything else, yet I can't understand why the developers didn't allocate the D-pad for this feature, since it isn't used in the game.

4 Wheel Thunder includes three basic modes: Practice, Arcade, and Championship. Practice mode is your standard practice run around a track, with individual options to set the number of laps and disable checkpoints and opponents. Arcade mode allows you to jump right into the action and choose between indoor and outdoor races. This mode forces you to place first in each race before moving to the next. The Championship mode is the main mode of the game, in which you create a name and pick a vehicle to use throughout your career. Unlike Arcade mode, you can finish as low as fourth and still advance to the next race; however, you will need to finish second overall in each series to advance to the next series of races. This mode also allows you to customize your vehicle after you have earned enough money. Once you have earned enough cash by completing races and collecting cash icons, you can upgrade your vehicle, which the game automatically does for you. Occasionally after a race you can play a slot game to try to win more money. Each slot game costs $100 to play, and if you can match all three icons, you will win a $3,000 jackpot. Fortunately, if you have bad luck or a "small" gambling problem like I do, the game will award you a "special" bonus after losing 10 times in a row -- the maximum number of tries allowed.

There are also four exclusive two-player games included that are played via a split screen: Bomb!, Bomb Race, Balloon, and Tag. Both Bomb! and Bomb Race revolve around a bomb that's attached to a player's vehicle. Bomb! plays out like a simple game of tag (with a bomb, of course), while Bomb Race takes that idea one step further by forcing players to also race against each other. Balloon race doesn't involve any explosives, but instead centers on colored balloons specific to each player's vehicle that he or she must break to add seconds to their timer. The first player who runs out of time loses the race. The final two-player race, Tag Mode, is basically the same as Bomb! but without a bomb. Instead, players must locate a trophy on the track and prevent from being tagged to keep the trophy in their possession. Whoever can hold the trophy for the longest amount of time is the winner.

Gameplay : 84
As with any game that focuses solely upon delivering a pure arcade-like experience, 4 Wheel Thunder's gameplay won't appeal to everyone. Unfortunately, its heavy reliance on turbo boosts and shortcuts may even turn off a few casual racing fans. Unlike an arcade racer like Speed Devils where nitro boosts serve more as an accompaniment to gameplay, 4 Wheel Thunder's is built around the boost. (This type of gameplay experience, in which collecting nitro boosts is essential, should be familiar to anyone who has played Hydro Thunder.) Furthermore, you start every race at a disadvantage, as you are always the last one to leave the starting line, no matter how many races you may have won. Of course, you will also need to make use of all available shortcuts if you want to get a leg up on the competition, of which there can be up to 11 competitors racing at once (you'll rarely see more than two or three on-screen, though).

The real trick to the gameplay is learning how to use the Boost power-ups effectively. There are two different colored Boost icons in the game -- Blue and Red -- and each adds its own amount of boost fuel to your Booster Meter: the Blue Boosts add four seconds, the Red nine. Your vehicle can hold up to 20 seconds worth of Booster Fuel, but rarely will it ever be completely full. By tapping, rather than holding, the Boost button you can conserve plenty of Boost fuel and get more use out of each Boost power-up you collect. Most of the Boosts are placed on the direct path of the track, but some -- especially on later levels -- are more spread out. Sometimes going out of your way to pick up a Boost will unveil a hidden shortcut that you may have otherwise missed; other times it will waste precious seconds and possibly cost you the race.

While your opponents seem to have no problem racing without the aide of the Boosts (they cruise right by the icons), they don't exactly put up much of a fight. In fact, the only time they're difficult to pass is while racing on a section of the track that is too narrow to allow you to pass them from the side. (I was a bit disappointed that my monster truck couldn't simply drive on top of the much smaller quad or buggie during these types of situations.) Once passed, however, you rarely have to worry about them coming from behind, unless you make a serious error or run out of the all-important Boost fuel.

Replay Value: 85
4 Wheel Thunder is an enjoyable and challenging game that will keep you playing until you have made your way through the Arcade and Championship modes. The four exclusive two-player modes also provide a fair amount of replay value, but, unfortunately, three of them (Bomb!, Bomb Race, and Tag Mode) are very similar to each other. 4 Wheel Thunder would have greatly benefited from some additional, or at least unique, modes. Perhaps a combat or destruction type of mode in the vein of Destruction Derby or Thunder Truck Rally would have served the game well. Other than that, 4 Wheel Thunder is the type of game that you'll want to pick up and play from time to least until the next big racer comes along.

Overall : 87
When it comes down to it, 4 Wheel Thunder is currently the best off-road racer on the Dreamcast and a huge step ahead of its only direct competition, Hardcore Heat. While its boost-oriented gameplay will not appeal to everyone, this game is a must for everyone who enjoyed Hydro Thunder. However, if off-road racing isn't your thing, and you don't fancy monster Trucks or dune buggies, 4 Wheel Thunder most likely won't convert you...but it's at least worth renting to find out.

By: Cliff O'Neill 6/20/00

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