2000: To get feedback on a product in development or to get a new version of a program out early, software developers often release a “public beta” version of the program.
Such beta versions, often called “previews”, are commonplace in the computing industry. Apple will release Mac OS X Beta on September 13th. America Online released preview versions of AOL 4.0 and 5.0 before releasing the final versions. And Netscape released Netscape 6.0 Preview Release 1 – which gave public betas a bad name by being nearly impossible to use – and recently made available the second version of the preview.
Terminal Reality, the maker of “Fly!” and “Fly!2K” flight simulators, has released a public beta of their forthcoming 4×4 Evolution SUV (Sport-Utility Vehicle) racing game for the Mac, PC, and Sega Dreamcast. With smooth, rich 3D graphics, cross-platform online play, and full steering wheel/joystick usability, 4×4 Evolution is a must-have for any auto racing game buff. It’s loaded with goodies, too, so even people who hate such games will reap something enjoyable from it.
This game knows it’s very realistic, and it’s more than evident in the warning when you start it up: “Sport-utility vehicles handle differently from ordinary passenger cars. Federal law cautions to avoid sharp turns and abrupt maneuvers. Always wear your seatbelt.” In the beta version, you race against computer opponents (a.k.a. “bots”) or online against humans, in the Nissan Xterra on a course in the Arizona desert. (The full version promises many more vehicles and tracks.) You have three gameplay types: Quick Race, which is against computer opponents; Time Attack, where you race against yourself to beat your record time; and the online Multiplayer Race.
There are dozens of options and settings you can configure, including:
- Tires: shallow cut, medium cut, deep cut, and studded
- Weather: clear, foggy, dense fog, and rain
- Time of Day: midday, dusk, night, and pitch black
You can also configure other vehicle settings like suspension stiffness and handling bias, as well as computer-optimizing settings like graphics quality and viewing distance, so you can get high frame rates on the slowest of graphics cards, or have maximum quality on beefier cards.
As it is limited to one vehicle and one track, the game is more like a playable demo than an unfinished full version, but it makes up for that shortcoming in download size (only 18.6 MB). That may seem enormous, but compared to the Quake III Arena demo at 50 MB or the Deus Ex demo at a whopping 160 MB, it’s tiny. It’ll take about 60-90 minutes to download on a dial-up connection. You can download the file from FilePlanet.
Speaking of dial-up connections, on my computer, which dials in at a lackadaisical 31.2 Kbps, online multiplayer performance was surprisingly excellent. Similar to Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena, and other tournament-style FPS games, multiplayer games are set up such that one person becomes a host or server and the other people connect to their computer, via the 4×4 Evolution network. I hosted a race once against several opponents, on that very dial-up connection, and I had no “lag” or connection problems whatsoever! Gameplay when hosting or connecting to other hosts was as smooth as playing against the computer. Multiplayer games over a Local-Area Network (LAN) are also supported.
Graphics quality is nothing short of stunning. Hang gliders soar overhead, flocks of birds squawk at the ruckus your opponents have caused, and huge cacti are everywhere. The phenomenal OpenGL-based graphics rendering engine is very fast, and its polygon count, which determines the smoothness of the lines between adjacent surfaces (in other words, how good everything looks) puts Unreal Tournament’s famed graphics engine to shame. It also uses progressive rendering, which gradually displays an object or surface as you come closer to it, instead of loading it all at once, so gameplay feels speedy even on older systems.
Despite its stunning three-dimensional graphics quality, the system requirements for 4×4 Evolution are relatively light. You’ll need a Mac with a G3 processor, a 3D graphics accelerator (which all Macs that shipped with the G3 processor come with) and 6 MB of VRAM. iBook users aren’t left in the dark, however. Since the iBook’s graphics card uses an AGP interface to connect to the motherboard – which all Mac systems use now – it can tap into the system RAM and use it as VRAM, with only a nominal speed hit.
The game runs with as little as 32 MB of RAM if virtual memory is turned on, but you’ll get a huge performance boost with at least 64 MB, especially if you’re using Mac OS 9. One additional point worth noting is that the game is written using the Carbon Application Programming Interface (API), so it will run natively on Mac OS X.
As is typical with beta releases, 4×4 Evolution Public Beta is not without bugs. On my iMac DV, as well as on a dual-processor G4 I tested it on at work, after about three races, the whole system locks up. It’s only a minor inconvenience, however, because it doesn’t disrupt anything else on your system, and the game loads fairly quickly. Also, in certain points along the track, your truck can get stuck in ditches, and the system that puts your vehicle back in the middle of the track if you get stuck or rollover doesn’t always kick in then. This forces you to restart the race.
One other tiny gripe concerns the sound effects. While the bird calls and the tire bumping sound very crisp and authentic, the engine drone is another story. Yes, I know gasoline engines can be noisy, but geez! Also, the track you’re racing on has dozens of hops, and when you’re airborne, the engine is not under any load, so it revs up. Thus, your engine sounds as if it’s running at full throttle almost constantly. Still, you get used to it, and you can turn the sound volume down significantly without sacrificing playability.
Overall, the 4×4 Evolution is a joy to play whether you’re a Voodoo5 5500-wielding auto racing champ or someone who only uses your computer for Microsoft Word and the occasional email message. It’s a great way to experience the off-roading fun of an SUV without the hourly trips to the gas station.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Stunning graphics, excellent multiplayer support, low system requirements, relatively quick download, full Mac OS X compatibility.
Cons: A few minor bugs, limited track and vehicle choices, annoying engine noise.