Quick! What’s the difference between Dallas, Chicago, and New York? If you’ve been living the same sheltered life as the folks at the Xicat Interactive, your answer might sound like, “I dunno. Nothing?” In Hot Wired, you get to race in these and seven other “different” cities without being able to distinguish any difference between them. Roads get narrower, more twisty, more cops, but you don’t see any differences in foliage, skyline, traffic, or weather to otherwise mark your passage from city to city.
You’re a car thief, and as you’ll quickly learn, crime does pay, just not necessarily in raw entertainment value. You start out with two cities (Miami and LA), with a choice of two cars to steal. So, pick one and steal it. Why not, right? There’s nothing good on TV during the summer rerun season anyway. There are some quirky sound effects of you breaking in and starting the car, and then a guy doing a bad Marlon Brando impersonation with a mouth full of marbles tells you “Now that you got the car, let’s see if you can make it to the county line,” and you’re off. Well, not exactly off. You begin at a dead stop, cop cars piled up maybe eleven inches off your rear bumper waiting patiently for you to step on it and try to make a getaway. Your first two cars have pretty good acceleration, so you can pull away without them damaging you too badly. And you wouldn’t want to damage the car you just stole, would you? The cash value of the car you steal goes down with various fender benders, and it serves as sort of a damage meter as well, because when the car is worthless, the drive is over.
So I make my escape, the cops hot on my trail. I regrettably don’t have a rearview mirror, so I can’t try to slide side to side and keep the cops behind me, but that’s OK, because they’re not interested in passing me and pulling me over – they’re trying to ram me. I have a choice of like nine different camera angles, but some are wholly impractical for driving purposes (the ‘drive by’ camera) and there are three variations of the ‘above and somewhat behind camera.’ I’m sticking with an in-the-car view, and it’s working OK for me. I have the option of controlling with keyboard, joystick, mouse, gamepad, or wheel. I don’t own a wheel, so I’m going with the old reliable keyboard. I tried the mouse a little, and found the controls a kind of unresponsive, which is too bad because as a gamer I probably play with my mouse 75% of the time. All the cars are automatics, which I know annoys a lot of gamers, but personally I am all right with that.
Once I’m ahead of the pack, it’s more a driving game than a chasing game. Sometimes police appear in front of me, and their basic plan seems to be to try and get me into a head-on collision. In a road this wide I can avoid them. When the road gets narrow, that’s next to impossible. They don’t do anything clever like deploy spike strips or set up roadblocks to stop me. My car has surprisingly poor traction, even in rather modest curves at moderate speeds. I bump into the guardrail, which costs me about ten bucks in the value of the car, and then I slide off the other side of the road up onto the shoulder. The shoulder is wide, but most of that is just for show – I’m bouncing off of thin air as if there were a wall there. My car ends up turned around, and police cars surround me pretty quickly. The chase doesn’t end there though; I can ram my way out, which I do, knocking maybe three-quarters of the value of the car off in the process. I don’t notice any change in performance at all. And I’m off to the O.J. Simpson races, a pack of police cars behind me all the way to the border. As soon as I cross the border the chase is over (haven’t these guys ever heard of hot pursuit?), and apparently with only about $300 value left in the car, I’m still the winner. What to do with that money? You use money in Hot Wired to unlock other cars to steal. Oh, that makes perfect sense, I - Huh? And I repeat, huh?
Anyway I don’t have enough to unlock a new car, but I have beaten that city, so why not try the other available car in the other available city. Give it a shot, new city, new car. This city has a longer distance to the border, narrower roads with more turns, and more cops. I don’t succeed this time; I slam head-on into a police car. Jail? Community service? A stiff fine, perhaps? Nothing. I’m back out on the street stealing cars again before the radiator has even stopped steaming from the first wreck, and it didn’t cost me a dime.
Eventually I collect enough money to unlock the next car, but it feels only a little different to drive from the first car. In fact, none of the cars feel all that much different except in terms of maximum speed, primarily due to the fact that all of them have such abysmal traction. You can unlock and drive an 18-wheeler, which tops out at about 100mph, but other than being able to suck up abuse in collisions, it’s pretty much the same to drive as a car. There are seven different cars total, such as they are. I was going to write that there is no damage model at all and that cars drive unchanged up until the point you wreck them, but that’s not quite true. In maybe 100 games I managed to damage a car once just enough, something like 95% worth, that its handling got a little worse (the game even warned me with something to the effect of ‘approaching maximum damage, car performance will now be less’). Half a second later, I totaled it, so the effect of the damage model is slight.
In Hot Wired it is night. It’s always night. All the chases in all the cities take place at night. You could give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they figured people steal cars at night… or you could be a cynical bastard like me and say that they were too lazy to write a daytime graphics package. At night the streetlights look great, glaring at me as I go by. There is a full moon in the distance, and that looks great too. Traffic is sparse, but the other cars look a little more blocky then I would expect given the state of the art. Here’s something funny – at almost 150 miles an hour, I’m just barely passing what ambient traffic there is. How fast are these people driving? There are no identifiable special effects in terms of weather, tire smoke, sparks from collisions or any of that, and no city skyline in the distance to help you identify the city you’re in. Beyond the shriek of the police cars behind me, I can’t identify any sounds really. Your engine noise is muted. I did notice that at high speed I heard some wind, and that sounded pretty cool.
Sometimes I find myself asking just what the hell the plan was when they were writing this game. Did some company find itself with a really good nighttime streetlight glare model and figure they could drive some cars by them? Because that’s what it looks and plays like. The whole car stealing, cop chasing, money earning, city progressing thing is so poorly executed, that the whole game plays like someone trying to sell the streetlight graphics engine. Sort of like (and I’m dumping lighter fluid on myself as I type) Quake 3 – a really great graphics engine in search of a game to play with it (Let the flaming begin!). So it’s got a pretty good graphics engine, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a game.
Hot Wired - do yourself a favor and steal something else. Wow, that would be a great quote to put on the box.