Written by: Rik

Date posted: September 4, 2015

Whoops!

Whoops!

Screamer, as you may remember, was the PC’s answer to Ridge Racer. Success brought a couple of sequels (Screamer 2 and Screamer Rally) that saw the series turn to another console big hitter – Sega Rally – for inspiration. As is traditional, we haven’t covered either here (yet): your correspondent did briefly make an attempt at Screamer 2, only to be thwarted by diminished physical and mental faculties, eroded by the ravages of time. Or perhaps I was just being a bit crap: I might go back to it one day.

Anyway, Screamer Rally was the final Screamer game produced by the original developers, and though I can’t find a single source to verify this, I could have sworn that the game that ultimately became Sports Car GT was once slated to be the next in the series. Ultimately, though, that honour belongs to Screamer 4×4, although quite what relationship it has to the series, other than the name, is open to question. Brand recognition is all very well, but in this case it makes little thematic sense: whatever you might make of the name Screamer, its most likely origins would be in the notion of a car ‘screaming’ past at high speed, something that is not only unlikely, but actively discouraged here.

This game is not about driving fast. It involves manoeuvring 4WD vehicles around a variety of hilly landscapes at low speeds against the clock. Think of a rally game that revels in wide open spaces, such as Rally Trophy or Rally Championship Xtreme, but without any sense of speed or excitement. In Screamer 4×4, you’re lucky if you can reach the national speed limit, and even if you do, it’s usually a sign that something has gone, or is about to go, wrong.

My prediction is: we won’t make it.

My prediction is: we won’t make it.

There are two main types of race, if you can call them that: checkpoint and pathfinder. Checkpoint is more common, and involves negotiating a series of gates which plot a fairly loose path through some otherwise open terrain. There’s no road or track to speak of, but you have the use of a radar and a map to locate the next gate. Pathfinder is even more open, with fewer checkpoints that are usually placed so that the most direct route (as indicated by the radar) involves driving up an impassable incline. Hence, a little more strategy is required.

It’s actually all a lot more fun than it sounds. For me, it followed a couple of playthroughs of Need for Speed: The Run, a perfect example of vacuous modern nonsense, obsessed with maintaining ludicrous top speeds at all times, and as such the more considered low-key fun on offer here was a welcome change of pace. It’s not a hardcore sim, but in some areas you’d be advised against taking the easiest option, as you might with an arcade racer, and I soon abandoned my usually slavish devotion to automatic gears in an attempt to motivate my vehicles up and down hills more successfully. Yes, I said down – much like in real life, brakes aren’t always the best way of controlling speed down a hill, and canny use of low gears is essential. In the early stages at least, mastering a course by working out when to be careful and when you can give it a bit of welly is immensely satisfying.

Sadly, this novelty doesn’t ensure lasting appeal through the game’s many championship options, even with the carrot of unlocking more vehicles and equipment as you go. As the courses get harder, the niggles become more significant. For example, checkpoints that are placed in close proximity to each other are sometimes prone to cause confusion, particularly if they’re on a hill. Visibility is also an issue, both with the in car and chase camera, which again can cause problems not only with checkpoints but also with spectators, who are often placed in areas many would consider unsafe. The penalties for hitting or missing checkpoint gates are pretty severe, to the extent that they’re likely to ruin your race time, while running over a man in an anorak – though admittedly very amusing – is an instant disqualification.

Escaping the attentions of another obsessive fan.

Escaping the attentions of another obsessive fan.

In addition, while selecting manual gears is obviously a start, one suspects there are more subtleties to the controls that are beyond the realms of possibility for the humble keyboard user, and getting alternative input methods to work is a bit of a pain. As the courses become trickier, serene and considered progress is often undone by a particularly steep hill, and in the absence of a full range of controls to work with, the only option seems to be to resort to more ham-fisted methods, such as reversing back and taking a big run-up. Which is probably not what the developers intended. (Plus, it doesn’t always work, either – it’s often likely to see you moving back down the hill again, wheels spinning furiously, amid a flurry of hastily-chosen swear words).

Presentation is ok – the graphics are a little furry and dated, obviously, and even with draw distance set to maximum, there’s the odd bit of pop up – but they do the job. Sound is pretty sparse, with the most memorable feature being the comments of your co-driver, delivered in an enthusiastic dudebro American accent which seems slightly at odds both with the low intensity action and the game’s origins (4×4 was developed in Hungary – your vehicle also has Hungarian plates, complete with an ‘H’ for Hungary and a small Hungarian flag). The prospect of being shouted at – in Hungarian – by a stern-sounding drill sergeant type as you once again fail to successfully negotiate some on-course vegetation would have been a lot more appropriate. (I’m speaking from a position of ignorance here, of course – perhaps helping idiots drive around in the mud is what surfers do during the winter.) Accent aside, your colleague also delights in delivering incorrect or contradictory advice regarding your strategy, so you may as well just ignore him altogether really.

Working windscreen wipers: always a bonus, in my book.

Working windscreen wipers: always a bonus, in my book.

Overall, Screamer 4×4 does offer something a little different from your typical racer or rally game, and is fun for a little while. It may seem like a strange thing to say but I can imagine that, had it been released a couple of years earlier and one or other of us had picked it up for cheap, the teenage versions of FFG – and our associates – might have spent some significant time messing around with it and affording it some kind of cult status. (Certainly I know Stoo has a soft spot for any driving game that offers you unglamorous vehicles and an opportunity to drive where the hell you want). However, without such imagined nostalgia to fall back on, the annoyances soon outweigh the novelty, and as you jam down the throttle in frustration at sliding off a hill yet again, your thoughts may soon turn to the more traditional thrills and spills an arcade racer is likely to offer.