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February 1997

Combine high-profile vehicles like the Humvee and Land Rover with off-road, drive-anywhere, crash-into-anything action, and you have Test Drive: Off-Road. This fourth installment in the Test Drive franchise goes where the previous three dared not go: off the track.

Accolade kicked off the Test Drive series way back in 1987 on the premise that gamers who couldn't afford to drive high-performance cars would settle for the next best thing: racing them on their PCs. So Accolade gave them virtual Ferraris, Lotuses, Porsches, Lamborghinis, and Corvettes. With the release of Test Drive III: The Passion in 1990, with its Chevrolet CERV III and Pininfarina Mythos, sales climbed to one million units for the series. And that, apparently was that. No more Test Drives.

Fast forward to April 1996. Elite, a British game developer, was 12 months into creating an off-road sim for Accolade called Dirt Racer. Meanwhile, Ted Tahquechi, a new producer at Accolade just off a six-year stint at Atari, was assigned to wrap up that project. He liked what he saw, but not enough to sign off on it.

"I started adding stuff to it, tweaking the parameters to make it faster and turn it into a blast to drive," Tahquechi says. Elite had a 3-D engine they had been working on for three and a half years, but Tahquechi insisted on more enhancements. Futhermore, Dirt Racer was originally intended to run on a 486, which meant the texture-mapped terrain looked chunky. Tahquechi upped the ante to a Pentium. That still wasn't good enough.

What he really wanted to do was revive the franchise. "I began kicking the shins of management to make them call it Test Drive: Off-Road," he says. To convince them, the game had to be true to its predecessors, which meant using name-brand vehicles. So they scrapped Dirt Racer's six, distinctly different custom vehicles, that ran the gamut from monster truck to dune buggy, and licensed the Hummer and Land Rover Defender 90 plus the Jeep Wrangler and the Chevrolet K-1500 Z71 pickup.

Using 200 different parameters, Elite and Tahquechi gave each vehicle true-to-life handling characteristics. Of course they first tested the real things in some off-road tracks. "We went screaming through an abandoned orchard and kind of went crazy," Tahquechi recalls. They did take time out to record sounds from each vehicle's engine to use while starting, climbing, accelerating, and even shutting down.

Racing will take place in three, polygon, texture-mapped, 3-D terrains: snow, desert, and dirt tracks. You select your vehicle and race against the other three. You�ll be able to follow the track, find your own shortcuts, or turn off at designated shortcuts. In order to successfully complete a race, you�ll also need to drive past several checkpoints while you follow your progress on an overhead map.

Crashing into your opponents is not only allowed but encouraged. Each vehicle will show up to three levels of increasingly dramatic damage, from a simple dent to a demolished side panel. Flying off dunes, jumping off ledges, and spinning out all add to the visceral experience.

"What's cool about it? The terrain engine is awesome, it has realistic physics, and hey, you can drive a Hummer!" says Tahquechi.

Take your pick of controls from keyboard or Gravis to Joystick or Thrustmaster. A player can run soloagainst a "nasty" AI - "they absolutely force you off the road" - or with others via a four computer LAN or two-player modem or serial connection. The AI does give neophyte players a break, but as you improve, it stays one step ahead.

The "techno grunge" band Gravity Kills, who provided music for Mortal Kombat and Escape from LA, did Test Drive's soundtrack. Add flying dust, sand and snow, varied topography, and nine different camera angles, and Tahquechi says you've got a "hard-core" off-road racing game. Plus, look for a few surprises. Your off-road wanderings may lead to close encounters with a crashed spaceship, a meteor crater, and a bobsled run. Think of it... rocketing a Humvee down a bobsled chute. Too much.
- Jeff Sengstack

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