Hummer Badlands (Xbox) review
"It’s not difficult to rush to the front of the pack, but the first curve you round will drop you back into the rear as your opponents navigate each turn with a professional combination of steering and acceleration that will leave even the best players green with envy. Even if you manage to build up a significant lead—say, half a lap—fumbling your way through one corner is enough to put you in fourth place."
Hummer Badlands is one of those games you might call a beautiful disaster. It’s got these moments where you’re totally caught up in its charm. You’re racing straight into the foothills of Peru while foliage and mist drape the bases of peaceful mountain peaks that stretch toward an overcast sky. Trains snake their way along the slopes to the side and wildlife calls from the edge of a peaceful stream. The artists and sound people handle all of that amazingly well. They’re a credit to their profession. Unfortunately, the people responsible for the actual gameplay dropped the ball. Big time.
I’ve never driven a Hummer, so perhaps I’m out of line for saying this, but I’m fairly sure that getting behind the wheel of one and stomping on the accelerator a bit doesn’t feel like floating drunkenly through the air three feet off the ground. That’s the experience here, and it ruins nearly all of the fun you might have otherwise had.
As rock guitars grind in the background, you’ll start each race in last place, then bounce all over like a pinball. It’s not difficult to rush to the front of the pack, but the first curve you round will drop you back into the rear as your opponents navigate each turn with a professional combination of steering and acceleration that will leave even the best players green with envy. Even if you manage to build up a significant lead—say, half a lap—fumbling your way through one corner is enough to put you in fourth place. And you will fumble, because there’s just no traction. This is true no matter which of the upgrades you choose for your vehicle.
Numerous shortcuts pepper each of the tracks, and you’d think these would improve the situation. They don’t. For one thing, the game starts telling you that you’ve taken a wrong turn the minute you try to get tricky. Suppose there’s a steep bank. While your rivals head left to loop around it, you decide to go straight. Halfway up the incline, a “Wrong Way!” notice appears. If you hesitate for a second, thinking perhaps you made a mistake, it’ll take that much longer to get back in gear. If you just plunge ahead, you might jump ahead of your competition. Then again, you might slide out of the shortcut and into a wall, allowing them to fly right by you because of the wonky controls.
Sometimes, you’ll take a shortcut without meaning to. Only it’s not a shortcut; you’ve just fallen back half a track because everything doubles back on itself in a confusing mess that the on-screen map doesn’t help you understand at all. The “Wrong Way!” indicator will start flashing no matter which way you drive, forcing you to guess which way is forward. Until you know a track like the back of your hand, you should anticipate some truly perplexing moments indeed.
This phenomenon will of course lead the prudent player to go easy on the accelerator, so that he doesn’t slide quite as much on every corner and so that he has time to turn at the last minute if he comes over a hilltop and realizes he’s not in a good line to cross through a coma-inducing trickle of water (oddly enough, you seem to get through them faster if you happen to be sliding sideways the moment you hit one, which is likely enough given the screwy vehicular controls). The problem with such a strategy is that the computer-controlled opponents are much more capable of steering correctly while driving in excess of 30 MPH than you ever will be. Translation? You are practically forced to drive full-speed the whole time. That only exaggerates the control issues I’ve been harping on, so that you’re constantly hitting against trees and rocks and fences, or even driving off the course.
Now, I know you must be thinking to yourself, “Poor Jason, he just sucks.” I can understand the sentiment, but it’s simply not true. With determination, I was able to come in first on just about every one of the various tracks. I’m convinced that anyone else can do the same, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s just not much fun. Satisfaction never settles in (just relief) because you know you took half the turns like a drunken fool and you know the only reason you finished so well as you did is that the game developers were fond of that whole “rubberband” school of artificial intelligence.
If you’ve played a lot of racing games, you know just what I mean. Imagine that you start off a race and somehow you’re zipping around each bend like the greatest player on earth. No one has ever played so well, and no one ever will again. Then, out of the blue, you fly off a bridge and into the water. The computer-controlled opponents immediately fly by and you have to spend the next 10 or 15 seconds getting out of your predicament. You finally do so, then start racing.
As you slide around the next bend in the games typical exaggerated fashion, there your opponents are, just about to vanish from sight behind some grapevines. All you have to do is race a little faster and you know you can catch them. No matter how well you do, they’ll never be more than a second behind you. Unless you totally take a turn wrong and have to redo half a lap, they’ll never be more than one bend ahead of you. That’s rubberband artificial intelligence, and it’s another reason why it never feels like you’ve truly “won.” You’ve just played cat-and-mouse with a computer and the “time-out” bell happened to ring when you were in the lead.
So to recap, Hummer Badlands is a game that looks and sounds great. Really great, like Jessica Alba in a bikini. There are even moments (mostly on straight stretches) where it feels great. However, that’s all a lie. Underneath the shiny exterior waits flawed gameplay with only one purpose: to make you miserable. Don’t pick up the controller. It’s a trap!
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 22, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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