When I heard that there was a Ford licensed racing title on the way, my head filled with notions of a very specific type of game. I've got two friends who are Land Rover obsessives, and I've seen four-by-four trials on TV, where the durable if not exactly sporty vehicles are put through gruelling tests involving incredibly steep inclines, deep water traps and more sucking mud than you'd find in the camping area at Glastonbury.
To try and get the best overall opinion of the game in fact, I invited one of said Land Rover enthusiasts round to check it out, both so that I could tap his scarily vast store of automobile knowledge as to how authentic the game is in its treatment of vehicles, and also to try and gauge what kind of attraction it might hold for someone who's both a gamer and a four-by-four fan.
From the data on the initial menu screens, it appears that there's certainly plenty for the Ford/Land Rover fanatic to get their teeth into. Although you can only initially choose from four, there are ultimately 18 Ford and Land Rover models you get to drive, each of which - according to my man in the know - appeared, aesthetically at least, to be an accurate recreation of its real-life counterpart.
If you want to jump straight into things, then a 'Quickrace' option starts you on a random track in a random vehicle, but if you desire tackling the main game proper, with the opportunity of unlocking more tracks and more vehicles, then you first need to buy yourself a car from one of the four on offer.
Fortunately for me, whose knowledge of cars is pretty much limited to understanding which controls make the car start and stop, how to operate the wheel, and where the petrol goes in, the specs of each car are quite straightforward: ie: simplified. Not having to worry about torque, or tread depth, or engine horsepower - instead each vehicle gives a simple block graph for Acceleration, Speed and Handling. This is a bit of a clue for all the enthusiasts out there after a spark-plug-specific simulation of driving your favourite off-roaders. This isn't going to be it.
Next clue is when you start the game, and you hear the engine sounds of the vehicles - far from the throaty roar you'd expect to hear from a Land Rover, these cars sound more like... well, more like your average hairdryer than a high-performance four-by-four. And all the engines sound pretty-much the same for each vehicle too. Further evidence, if evidence were needed, that the only really accurate thing about the vehicles in this game is their appearance, comes from the speeds of each car - they simply don't match up with the real thing. The Land Rover I picked for instance, ran easily 10-15 miles faster than its genuine counterpart's actual top speed. A bit niggly, perhaps, but then this IS an officially licensed game, so it's fair to expect some attention to detail.
So... a bit of a flop on the enthusiast's front, and my friend went home disheartened. I however, actually quite enjoyed it. Because despite the lack of Land Rover realism, or possibly even because of it, this is actually quite a fun little racing game. There are 12 different tracks, each of which can be raced forwards and in reverse, basically giving a total of 24 in all. The cars themselves all look pretty good, and the progression through the models is easy for non-car aficionados to figure out - the latter models with higher Acceleration, Speed and Handling stats obviously perform better than the ones with lower stats - and they're all quite good fun to drive. There are a variety of game modes, including straight out racing, 'Gold Rush' where you have to win the race, but collect a certain amount of giant coins on the way, and 'Damage challenges' where you have to complete a race without exceeding a set amount of damage. This latter race type generally sees a noticeable transformation in the behaviour of the AI opponents, who go from sensible, fairly careful drivers to psychotic track-hogs dedicated to running you into the wall at all costs.
On the downside, the tracks, at least at first, do seem a little bit samey after a while - in career mode, you have to complete quite a few races before you start to encounter terrain that's not all a varied shade of brown. I also have a problem with the whole damage system. For one thing, the cars don't actually show any damage: the hated 'shiny side up' rule - presumably a stipulation of the licence - is firmly in effect here. And then there's the fact of the damage itself, and the effect that it has on the gameplay - as far I could tell, after some fairly deliberate crashing to push the damage meter up to maximum, the effect on the speed and handling of the car is pretty-much negligible, which makes the whole idea of collecting damage repair kits in-race or using your hard-earned race winnings to fix your car up after a race all a bit stupid, frankly.
What you've got here is a fairly well-paced, but fairly unadventurous racing game. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with it - aside from the rather pointless damage system - but in an era of video gaming where the processing power is increasing exponentially, and everyone expects just that little bit more from their games, for a racer to really do well it needs to do something to distinguish itself from the competition. The Burnout series has its crashes, the Gran Turismo guys have their quite scary, attention to detail, Need For Speed has police chases... Off Road has cars that look like Land Rovers and Fords, but don't actually behave like the real thing, some inoffensive gameplay, and not much else. It does have a budget price tag though, so it's worth a look if you don't set your expectations too high and just want a simple, easy-to-get-into racer to keep you occupied while you wait for something better to come along.