SODA Off-Road Racing
So you want to fly, but you hate flight simulator games and get airsick easily? No problem! Just hop in an off-road vehicle and do 70 MPH over a bump in SODA Off-Road Racing. Unfortunately, flight leads to landing rather abruptly -- followed by a cool mid air roll. Other fun aspects of this game include pushing trucks into bodies of water (when they are parked, of course), knocking down fences, flags and other inanimate objects, and spinning out uncontrollably while taking a corner.
SODA stands for Short-course Off-road Drivers Association and was proud to put its seal of approval on SODA Off-Road Racing by Sierra/Papyrus, which should give a good indication that it is pretty close to the real thing -- but with a few quirks.
SODA Off-Road Racing is a "short course off-road racing sim" utilizing 2X4 trucks, 2X4 buggies and 4X4 trucks (can you say Bigfoot?). It features a lot of nifty options such as a real-time radio system while driving, customization of tracks (oasis, country, evergreen) and track conditions, adjustment of vehicles' horsepower, shifting (automatic and standard) including rpm adjustment for certain gears, a g-force analyzer (gauges how much traction your vehicle gets on certain terrains), tread types, an interactive replay system, suspension options such as camber (wheel angle when tilted) adjustment, springs and shocks, weight distribution, and steering lock. There are a lot of adjustments that you can make to your vehicle -- and believe me, once you play a couple of times you will make it a point to adjust anything you can to gain better control of your vehicle, because at times your vehicle is going to drive you to the point of anxiety and insanity.
SODA is not your standard "arcade fare," to say the least. It is a true simulation in the respect that it is not easy to control a real off-road vehicle. If you are looking for an arcade style game here, my advice would be to look elsewhere.
Let us start with an overview of typical gameplay without adjustment to your vehicle. Start a standard game under the single player menu option, and choose your vehicle. To start out I tried the 4X4, as it has more weight and less chance of jumping all over the road. You'll start the race in the last position (I set it up to have three opponents). Since your transmission is standard, you will have to shift into first gear, accelerate, and go. Everything seems groovy until you hit your first turn -- where you spin out a full 90 degrees! Any speed above 40 miles per hour will cause you to do this. The manual insist that you can safely corner going about 40 MPH, but this is just not the case.
So in order to corner properly, you must let off the gas and take the turn. Don't bother using the brakes at this point as it will simply cause you to spin out. The key to learning this game is to figure out how to turn a corner -- with a 4X4 truck I had a lot more success using a generic 4 button, 2 axis joystick. Once it was properly calibrated, I was able to take some turns at 70 miles per hour. By not accelerating at the right moment and turning by hitting the cross on the joystick once (not holding it down), I was able to avoid spinning out. What makes me angry is the fact that the computer controlled players never spin out and do on average a top speed of 70 MPH. This is very unrealistic, and shows that you will have to work very hard to do what the computer can do easily. Needless to say, even on the easiest settings I was trounced soundly every time -- and came in last.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the concept of an automatic transmission. In SODA the automatic transmission still makes you shift, when in reality the only shifting you would have to do is between Neutral, Reverse and Drive (there is no such thing in this game). I really couldn't surmise what the difference between automatic and standard transmissions were in this game. They certainly didn't fit the criteria of what an automatic transmission is in the real world.
Playing the game without making adjustments to your vehicle is just a big fat waste of time -- especially on the 2X4 buggy and 2X4 truck, as these vehicles are lightweight and easily spin out, fly to and fro when hitting a bump, and generally seem like an out of control Quad runner (I can relate to this concept). I found that by adjusting the suspension, tread and weight distribution, that the vehicles were a bit more user friendly, and less like kamikaze killing machines.
There are several multiplayer options that should be mentioned, as well as "career" play. Career play is your standard vanilla-flavored play, in which you play a series of races and advance in rankings. Career play is not very complicated to figure out, and it is fun once you get the hang of the game. The Multiplayer support is pretty solid, though noticeable slow downs can be found when graphic settings aren't finely tuned. By turning off some texture and shading options, you can probably clear up most of these issues...
Overall the gameplay is solid, though a bit uncontrollable at times. 50% of my woes were caused by the joystick I was using. If you are going to purchase this game, get something by CH Products or Thrustmaster -- specifically, a joystick with force-feedback support or a driving wheel.
Graphics and Design
SODA provides support for Rendition-based graphics accelerator cards. Unfortunately, there is no 3Dfx or Power VR support. Since I almost exclusively use a 3Dfx Voodoo card, this kind of left me out of the loop, and I was unable to see the game at its best. This is not a good or bad thing in and of itself -- Game companies make these decisions as they see fit -- but Papyrus/ Sierra might want to consider supporting other chipsets (hint hint) in the future. There are many adjustments you can make to the graphics in the game that can make it look great but can also cause a slow down -- especially in Multiplayer mode. Overall, the software version of the game without acceleration looked very sharp.
The sound and music in SODA is "okay." The music in particular is a tad bit irritating -- but only because of its overpowering nature (you can't hear the sound effects very well with it on). The sound effects were effective, excluding the radio fellow's useless stream of information. Spinning out, hitting signs, and the landing sounds added to the gameplay nicely, making it more realistic.
SODA's weakest area is its controls. You will have an impossible time playing this game without a decent joystick or a wheel. If you think you can use a generic joystick or a keyboard, you had better rethink your position, as you will find yourself unable to control ANY vehicle in this game effectively. Although a generic joystick will probably work to some extent, you'll get the best control by getting something that is more customized to games of this genre -- in other words, if you buy this game, buy a PC racing wheel too!
The documentation is solid for this game. The manual is 112 pages long, features an overview of every aspect of the game, and provides plenty of driving tips. The track editor section is very detailed and supplies you with the basics you need to build a decent track without too much effort. Some of the tips in the manual are a bit misleading, like when it tells you that it is possible to take a corner at 40 MPH.
Required: Pentium 90, 16 MB RAM, Windows 95, 2X CD-ROM drive, SoundBlaster or 100% compatible sound card. SVGA 256 colors
We recommend: Pentium 133, 32 MB RAM, 6X CD-ROM drive, SVGA graphics, Rendition-based graphics accelerator card, SoundBlaster or 100% compatible sound card, PC racing wheel
SODA is a fun and interesting game if you have the proper equipment -- a driving wheel and pedals, or a joystick with force feedback (just buy the wheel!). SODA features a nifty track editor that lets you build your own crazy tracks with plenty of bumps and turns. If you own a rendition-based graphics accelerator card, you get the added bonus of sharp and beautiful graphics. On the other hand, if you don't own a PC driving wheel or don't enjoy racing titles that lack an arcade feel, avoid this title like the plague.