By Jeff Luther
The Smuggler's Run franchise has never been as commercially successful as it ought to be. A racing game at heart, Smuggler's Run is the best in the biz at off-road action, but also adds strategy, tactics and bit of slick defensive boom into the mix. The result is a fantastic game-a challenging racer where quick wits are more valuable than quick thumbs, but quick thumbs are still a necessity.
Smuggler's Run: Warzones is an upgrade of Smuggler's Run: Hostile Territory for the PS2. While there is a lot of new stuff here, basic gameplay and game design are unchanged. There isn't enough new here to warrant a purchase for anyone who played Hostile Territory, save perhaps the most diehard fans. Nevertheless, on its own, Warzones is far and away the best incarnation of the Smuggler's Run series.
The story is passable but more or less forgettable. Periodic cut-scenes help keep things moving, but skipping them doesn't substantially detract from the gaming experience. While this isn't exactly a glowing endorsement of the story, it says good things about the gameplay. Our hero is a smuggler, but he's basically a good guy. No drugs or nukes for this smuggler; sure he breaks the law, but he only steals from bad people. This is something of a shift from the first Smuggler's Run-and a reflection of post 9/11 America and the thirst to stand on solid moral ground.
Our series of adventures take place in Eastern Europe, Vietnam, and Russia. There are thirty-six different missions in the single player game, which is enough for five or six hours of gameplay, even is you're good enough to tear through most of the levels without having to try a few times. There's also a great deal of replay; new vehicles, new countermeasures, several gameplay modes and a nice multiplayer game round out the experience.
The most notable feature of Smuggler's Run is the wide open maps. Enormous levels seem to stretch on forever. Even more impressive, this isn't a barren grassland or desert stretching on. Levels have varied terrain that includes rolling hills, sweeping prairies, rivers, lakes, jagged cliffs, mountains, tunnels, and a wealth of vegetation. In Russia you'll find these in the snow-covered frozen varieties as well. The levels are active too. As you race to loose your pursuers-up to ten police vehicles at once-you'll encounter grazing animals, hikers, rival gangs, villages, ruins, mine fields, military outposts, sudden avalanches, and trains cutting across the landscape. Great particle effects rain, snow, and fog to round out the levels.
The gameplay amidst these sprawling levels is very solid as well. Generally, you race across packages left for you, marked with smoke billowing skyward, and race to deliver them to drop-off points, also conveniently marked with colored smoke. Your main obstacle is the above mentioned hordes of viscous, ruthless police and military vehicles. There strategy is to hound you relentlessly, box you in, cut you off, and do whatever it takes to take you down. There very good at what they do, though I found Warzones easier than past Smuggler's Run titles. Maybe I'm just finally getting the hang of it, or maybe they took it down a notch for the Gamecube-which isn't a bad thing since Hostile Territory was a very difficult game. Gameplay varies occasionally, asking you too run down an escaping enemy, trail an adversary without being spotted, or compete for large amounts of loot , with two teammates, against a rival gang-my favorite type of mission.
To aid you in your smuggling endeavors, you unlock counter measures as you progress through the game, eventually you'll have two per vehicle. Countermeasures are offensive and defensive tricks that include a speed boost, oil slick, bomb, vertical boost, cloaking device, repulsion sphere, and acid spray. It is this fact, combined with the variety in the nine different vehicles, that brings the most depth to the gameplay experience. Vehicles are vary in strengths and weaknesses, so each mission can be completed using a number of different strategies and playing styles. The vehicles are well balanced-much more so than in Hostile Territory, so they are all playable and all legitimate options. Although some vehicles are obviously superior in certain environments, there's room for innovation.
The graphics are solid; they're on the upper end of GCN, but not the pinnacle. While the stages generally look great, the vegetation could use more depth and the vehicles themselves could use more detail. Still, it's all delivered at a flawless 60fps and the action zips by, seamlessly.
While the visuals deliver the goods, the sound certainly does not, being wholly disappointing. The voicework, radio-transmissions, and so forth are adequate, but the music is an abundance of annoying techno-dribble that ranges from unremarkable to awful. Usually I could block it out, but sometimes it bothered me-not just the music, but the fact that someone probably got paid to make it.
The multiplayer game offers a variety of options, including vs. co-op matches, and something that looks a lot like tag. Extra stages are available-veterans of the original Smuggler's Run will recognize them-and this adds a lot of variety to the multiplayer experience. New levels and plenty of game modes for up to four people provide a solid experience, but the duration just isn't there for long term enjoyment. Diminished screen size for the split screen action is much more of a burden than it is for other games-like FPSs. It's important, vital even, to be able to read the terrain and see the position of vehicles around you. The ability to do this is really hampered in split screen and this detracts from the overall experience.
Overall, Warzones is a great game that will satisfy fans of driving games as well as the more action oriented gamers. The Gamecube isn't exactly overflowing with solid titles, and this is just another reason why Smuggler's Run : Warzones, shouldn't be overlooked. Besides, it's fun to be the bad guy sometimes. Even if you're a good bad guy.