Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Alternative exhaust

Posted By on Wed, Jan 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Rockstar Games always seems to focus on the less legit, the more illegal.

With “Smuggler’s Run,” the title vomits the entire plot. You are a member an international ring of smugglers, destined to evade authorities and transport highly criminal cargo. (Unfortunately, like Pulp Fiction’s glowing briefcase, the contents of such naughty packages remain mysterious.)

However, piloting six mean, diverse off-road vehicles without being apprehended isn’t as brisk as Lipton Tea. The process is simple — snag and deliver — yet SUVs tend to topple when pressured by brutally querying officers. Buggies generally lack shock treatment when hopping mountainous hills (and energy when connecting with the ground). And massive trucks usually stray in races of agility and grace.

Think of “Smuggler’s Run” as a kind of Grand Theft Auto, oozing with four-wheel crash combat and relentless customs officers. Yet, as much as automatic weapons played a pivotal role in GTA, automatic transmission is the only luxury the driver pockets in this PS2 romp. Even the driving physics are jolting, unlike many other barbaric games in the same genre.

To add to the intensity, three equally diverse, plaster-of-paris terrain kits are provided as a place mat for missions: the slick, wintry edge of a December ice landscape; a cool, breezy countryside; and a dry, boiling desert.

Parking in second place for alternative racers is “Midnight Club: Street Racing.” The box copy strikes lighting — “You know the rules. There are no rules” — and the game manages to maintain some of that bold momentum.

Visual fireworks ignite as the streets of New York and London are modeled in remarkable detail, but the gameplay soon becomes sore and sorry. Races gradually deteriorate from intoxicating to the monotonous; the thrill eventually summoned to 128-bit decapitation.

So a sure enjoyment outlet is “Smuggler’s Run,” while “Midnight Club” is somewhat of a gamble. But, unforgettably, kudos to developer Angel Studios for stretching the line between grocery-store transit and pure automotive escapism one foot farther.

Jon M. Gibson investigates the triumphs — and pitfalls — of games and other technological poundcakes. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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