4 Wheel Thunder
Choose your boat! I mean, truck - Review By Fragmaster
Back in the day, an arcade was the place to go to play the hottest, latest, and most popular games. But in recent years, their popularity has significantly declined. With online multiplayer games on PCs and console systems that rival coin-ops in every way, why leave home?
But every once in awhile an arcade game will be released that's so good, it persuades gamers to drag their asses off the couch and down to the arcade. Midway's Hydro Thunder was one of those games. With outstanding graphics, intense gameplay, and bone-rattling sound, it was everything you could want in an arcade racer, and one of the few bona fide hits to emerge out of arcades in recent years.
Midway, sensing the possibility of turning Hydro Thunder into some kind of franchise, has now released a sequel of sorts called 4 Wheel Thunder. The big difference here is that instead of racing boats, you speed around on bicycles with training wheels.
Ok, so I lied: instead of racing boats, you race a variety of off-road vehicles, running the gamut from Bigfoot-wannabe m-m-m-m-monster trucks to dune buggy type things. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but part of Hydro Thunder's appeal was the novelty of racing on water instead of boring old racetracks. Does 4 Wheel Thunder survive the transition to earthen soil, or does it come up all wet?
Hoo boy, 4 Wheel Thunder really rips it up when it comes to graphics. The beautiful tracks whiz by at a smooth 60 frames per second, with no hint of slowdown in even the hairiest situations, and almost no recognizable pop-in. This really helps convey a great sense of speed. The textures are crisp and realistic, so there's not much to complain about there. This really is a great showcase of the Dreamcast's graphical abilities -- well done!
Ooooh, oooh, 4 Wheel Thunder is one great looking game, thanks to crisp textures and a smooth as silk framerate.
The track design is top notch, matching and perhaps surpassing Hydro Thunder's. There are 24 tracks in all, a mixture of smallish indoor stadiums and huge, outdoor off-road tracks. Some of the later outdoor tracks are especially impressive, featuring huge wide-open spaces and a variety of shortcuts and hidden routes. You can easily take ten or so laps around some courses and take slightly different routes each time. Unlike Hydro Thunder, most of the shortcuts seem less "forced" and more natural. The environments really seem more like real places that have been altered to create a track, rather than tracks that have been altered to look like real places.
Once the racing moves indoors, the gameplay becomes much more traditional since there's no shortcuts to save you time.
If you're familiar with Hydro Thunder, then you should already know how 4 Wheel Thunder plays. Realism is tossed out the window into a big vat of boiling acid, and good old-fashioned arcade-style racing rules the roost. In every race, you start out in dead last place, and all the other cars have a huge head start. This leaves it up to you to fight your way through the pack if you want to place first. But since all the other cars go about the same speed as you and have a head start, you'll need to even the odds with the assistance of Boost powerups. Boost packs come in two varieties, blue (4 seconds of fuel) and red (9 seconds of fuel). Once you have boost fuel stored up, you can hold down the A Button to activate your turbo thrusters and zoom past the competition. You can hold up to 20 seconds of Boost at a time. And no, Hydro Thunder fans, there is no Boost jumping this time around.
So the combination of shortcuts and Boost powerups littering the tracks should make 4 Wheel Thunder a cakewalk, right? Wrong. 4 Wheel Thunder is as hard as and in some ways harder than Hydro Thunder. Unlike most racing games where maintaining the lead is the only challenge, in this game the only way to win is by clawing and fighting your way to the top, and even if you do place first or second, it'll probably just be by the skin of your teeth. Races are almost always down to the wire and intense, even ones with multiple laps. At times, it may seem like placing first or second on some of these maps is impossible, but once you learn all the shortcuts and hit most of the boost icons, it's just really difficult.
Bonus trucks include Milky, seen here Moo-ving a competitor out of the way.
4 Wheel Thunder contains both indoor and outdoor courses, which is significant because the game plays differently once the racing moves indoors. Unlike outdoor courses, shortcuts and secrets are pretty much non-existent. There are also more laps and fewer cars to compete against (only four instead of twelve). Indoor tracks are probably slightly easier, since the Boost is generally easier to get, you don't have to explore the track for short cuts, and there is less competition to deal with.
The controls are tight and the physics are perfectly arcadish. The analog stick is used for steering, X and Y shift up and down, A is for Boost, B is the hand break, left trigger brakes and right trigger accelerates. Pretty standard stuff, but the car handling is quite well done. It really feels as if you have total control over your vehicle. Cars are rated on weight, grip, handling, thrust, and speed. A monster truck won't have the maneuverability of a little dune buggy, for example, and the differences between vehicles are reflected well in the game. You can also unlock new cars by winning races.
Single player is split into four different modes: practice, arcade indoor, arcade outdoor, and championship. Arcade mode is pretty brutal, as you've got to place first in each race to advance to the next track. Once you beat the two tracks in the first series, you advance to the second series, and then to the final series. Pretty straightforward. Championship mode is a little more interesting. You can earn money to upgrade your truck and the gameplay is a little more lenient. You need to place first or second in a certain number of races in each series, but you can advance to the next course in the series by just placing in the top four. This means you don't need to place first or second in ALL the races to advance, which makes things a little bit easier. Also, at random times a slot machine will show up and you'll have the chance to gamble money in hopes of winning a $3000 jackpot. Moderately useless, but it's still there.
Neat little animated elements litter the environment, backdrops, and skies, really adding to each track's atmosphere and personality. Watch out for that moose balloon!
There's a nice variety of 2-Player modes as well. You can play all of the regular gameplay modes in split screen with a pal, but there are also four multiplayer-only modes: Bomb!, Bomb Race, Balloon, and Tag Mode. Bomb! is simply a game of tag with dynamite; you set the timer on the bomb from 10 to 60 seconds and whoever has the bomb at the end of that time limit explodes. Bomb race is pretty much the same, except that whoever is trailing behind the leader has the bomb. If you don't gain the lead within the time limit, you die. In Balloon mode, the object is to collect balloons of your car's assigned color. As you collect balloons, more time is added to your timer. If said timer runs out, you lose. This is the weakest of the multiplayer modes, but can be mildly entertaining. Finally there's tag mode, which is like the opposite of Bomb! mode. The object is to keep possession of the championship trophy for as long as possible. You can adjust the time limit, rounds, laps (in balloon and bomb race), checkpoint, and countdown times. Split-screen looks and plays almost as well as its single player counterpart, which is always nice.
The audio is positively average. The music is OK, but not particularly interesting, and the sounds are moderately realistic... that's about it. The announcer isn't as energetic as the one in Hydro Thunder, which kind of stinks. The screams of the crowd you hear when playing the indoor races are a nice touch, though.
The interface is vastly improved over Hydro Thunder's pathetic thrown-together mess of menus. It's really slick and easy to use. The in-game interface is laid out really nice as well, including information such as your total time, lap time, best lap time speed, boost gauge, lap number, position, gap time (how many seconds you are behind the next car), and even a small map in the bottom right hand corner that shows where the other cars are. There's also a Crazy Taxi-like hall of fame section that records the best lap times for all available tracks.
Like Hydro Thunder, 4 Wheel Thunder is pretty DAMN difficult. With the AI essentially cheating by getting such a huge head start, the only way to win is to collect almost every single Boost power-up on the track and take merciless advantage of alternate routes. This makes the the game challenging and extends its replay value, but it also makes it extremely frustrating at times, since you may have to play the track over and over again before you can finally win. It doesn't help that the AI is also more treacherous than Hydro Thunder's, and enemies will try their ruthless best to keep you from passing them. At times, winning a race seems impossible, and after failing to beat a track after forty attempts, you may just throw your hands in the air and give up. And since you pretty much need to place at least fourth in all the tracks, this can stop your progress dead in its, well, tracks.
Getting all the Boost you can is key to success in 4 Wheel Thunder. You don't stand much of a chance without a lot of it. Damn those cheating AI drivers!.
Speaking of the tracks, one of the things that make 4 Wheel Thunder so frustratingly difficult is that many of the later tracks are littered with obstacles that can bring your truck to a dead halt. With Hydro Thunder, it was pretty easy to hit something and keep on going, but hitting ANYTHING in 4 Wheel Thunder can put you right out of the race. In the time it'll take you to back up and get back on course, you'll probably drop at least one place in position, which is almost always a fatal mistake.
The options are surprisingly skimpy, especially in single player mode. About all you can change is your controls and the sound. There's no way to adjust the difficulty, which is a shame.
If starting in dead last place with all the other drivers way in front of you wasn't difficult enough, you've also got to deal with chuckleheads like this who try to ram you off the road. ARGH!
The upgrade system is kind of lame. You can save up money to customize your vehicle, but you have no control over what you customize. As soon as you get enough money for the next customization your car is improved automatically, and you have no input over what aspects are changed. There are five levels of customization in all. While I suppose this keeps the game balanced, the downside is you can't customize your car to fit your driving style. Blah.
You can't restart a race in championship mode (although you can in other gameplay modes), so if you want to restart a race you've got to retire from the track, wait for the interface to load up, and start up the track again. Pretty annoying.
About the only graphical issue I could think of is the very rare and nearly impossible to notice clipping problem that occasionally occurs when your car is whizzing through a tight, enclosed space. Hydro Thunder had the same issue, but 4 Wheel Thunder's isn't nearly as bad. This is really getting nitpicky, since you probably won't even notice it and it doesn't affect gameplay, but whatever.
The Final Word
With the exception of Crazy Taxi (which is a very different game anyway), 4 Wheel Thunder is probably the best arcade racer available on the Dreamcast. If you loved Hydro Thunder, you won't be disappointed. Otherwise, try before you buy to see if you can cope with the relatively high learning curve without pulling your hair out. If the high difficulty level didn't impede a player's progress so much, this probably would have scored higher. This is one difficult game, but if you're patient and have a bucketful of "mad skillz," you'll be rewarded with the best balls-to-the-wall arcade racing action the Dreamcast currently has to offer.
Highs: Looks awesome, great control, nice tracks, multiplayer is fairly cool.
Lows: Hard as hell, partly due to cheap bastard AI. Can't tone down difficulty.
Other: 1-2 Players, VMU Compatible (16 blocks for game data, 70 for optional replays), Jump Pack Compatible.
Intro Movie (MPEG) - 4 Wheel's intro cinematic. Pretty nifty. [Big (13.2M)] - [Med (7M)] - [Small (1.5M)]
Gameplay (MPEG) - The Jordan course. Check it out as I ram into a tree and spin out near the end. I suck. (Big version unavailable) [Med (7.2M)] - [Small (1.5M)]
Gameplay (MPEG) - The Corsica course, and once again, I mess up midway through. [Big (25.7M)] - [Med (13.8M)] - [Small (2.9M)]
(out of a possible 10)
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