The PS2 had arrived. The first-generation games were upon us, and while some took baby steps beyond what their developers had accomplished on the PSone, Rockstar came out of the gate kicking and screaming with titles that simply could not have been done on any system before now. Among them was Smuggler’s Run.
Sandbox games got their start here, with Smuggler’s Run‘s wide open free-roaming environment. Three locations are available, though they’re really just the same map with minor modifications. For example, the U.S.-Mexican border sports desert climate, steep ravines, and some adobe architecture. Other areas feature wintry climates with frozen lakes, and temperate climates with live deer and hikers to run over.
The draw here, despite their intrinsic similarities, is that what’s there is humongous and will take hours to explore fully on its own. Then consider there are actual smuggling missions to undertake and several engaging multiplayer modes, and you’ve got a game you can really sink your teeth into.
Perhaps most impressive is the “if you can see it, you can drive to it” design philosophy. There’s a tall plateau in each level you can ascend, park atop, and look out to the horizon in any direction. If you can see something from up there, you really can drive to it, with no choppiness, pop-up, or fog. Incredible.
Each of the vehicles – ranging from monster trucks to dune buggies to trophy trucks to rally cars – has their own cadre of sounds, and most everything in the environment makes some kind of unique noise when you crash into or drive over it. Paved roads, railroad tracks, rivers, covered bridges – everything makes its own sound when driven on. The music is pretty tame, and the voice-over girl who chats you up in-mission can be annoying, but with the fuzz hot on your tail for your tariff-dodging deeds, sirens blaring, you won’t have much time to notice.
The single player mode starts out easy enough but becomes insanely difficult by the end. Each car has a certain amount of damage it can sustain before stalling. It’ll recover if left alone, but if there’s a cop nearby when you stall, it’s game over. A lot of silly things can be done if you work at it. For instance, get the cops chasing you full speed over a hill, brake at the last second and just crest the hill to see them go flying over your head and into the distance, tumbling down the hill on the other side. This will give you time to get away, but it won’t be long before they’re on you again. Getting banged up while carrying cargo causes it damage, thus reducing its value. It’s a battle against the law, the clock, and the depreciating value of your cargo. It’s enough to make one go mad at times.
Multiplayer works really well. There are relative equivalents to deathmatch and team deathmatch here, involving contraband. The free-for-all mode turns eight cars loose to fight over one item at a time, racing for it, and then taking it to a drop off point. Other drivers (up to two players with six other opponents) try to ram you, transferring ownership of the cargo to their car. Whoever has the most points at the end of the match wins. It’s frantic and fun.
The other mode involves two teams of four fighting over four contraband items at a time, seeing who can recover a dozen or so first. Same transfer rules apply as before, so lay in wait at the opponent’s base and steal his cargo as he races in, thinking he’s home free. It’s cheap but effective, and he can do the same thing to you. This mode allows players to outfit their team with any vehicle they want in any of the A.I. positions as well as their own.
There may not be a lot of customization and online play is absent (understandably as a first-gen PS2 game), but this franchise certainly has a bright future if the developers take care of it. Smuggler’s Run is an impressive piece of technology and can be enjoyed for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, depending on what you want and how you play. Multiplayer modes are enjoyable if not incredibly robust, and can be enjoyed with nothing but A.I. competition as well. Smuggler’s Run is a solid addition to any action or racing fanatic’s collection.