Oh, just legalize it already.
When most people think Mexico, they think Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallerta. They think warm beaches, tequlia sunrises and zesty cultural events. The lamest may even think about that stupid Taco Bell dog.
When I think Mexico, I think Tijuana. And when I think Tijuana...er...I guess I don't "think" much when it comes to Tijuana, or as I like to call it, "Little Columbia." A mere 30 miles from downtown San Diego, Tijuana is a hot spot with legions of Southern California teens and college students - but not because of the weather or Chihuahuas. They go in droves for the drugs and drinking, baby.
And where there's narcotics, there are guys who deliver the goods. Enter Smuggler's Run, a wild racing romp across the borders of the great addiction known as America. Much like the drugs you smuggle, this one delivers its fair share of highs and lows.
The scene is sort of a cross between Mad Max and Cannonball Run. You play a member of a gang of smugglers working the Mexican and Canadian borders (to aid in the illegal importation of moose, I guess.) You pick up goods in one place and drop them off in another, all the while doing your best to evade the cops and rival gangs.
Graphically, the game is about on par with the other PS2 launch games...nothing brilliant, but nothing shabby. The detail level of the cars is terrific. The game features damage modeling, and if a piece of your ride falls off, it stays where it lands to become another obstacle. Very cool.
Two aspects of Smuggler's Run stand out like a narc at a Grateful Dead concert: a killer game engine and some of the largest environments yet seen on any console.
Similar to the PSX masterpiece Driver, the physics here play a balancing act between real world and fantasy. A twirl in the dune buggy will reveal independent suspension that, when coupled with the terrain, actually affects car handling. You car bounces when it should bounce, skids when it should skid, and flips when you get too greedy. Thankfully, you can flip it right back up with ease to keep on truckin'. This leads to an infinitely playable game grounded firmly in real-world dynamics.
In addition to the engine, the sheer size of the maps is testament to the power of the PS2. The pop-up is hardly noticeable at all. Plus, there's no real "backdrop" - if you see a point in the distance, you can drive right up to it, even if it's miles away. You can spot a tree only a few pixels high and proceed to drive straight up to it until it towers above you. You can literally go anywhere, so long as your car stays in one piece. The end result is a truly immersive game.
The AI can get very aggressive, leading to some hysterical chases. Getting mobbed by 5 border patrol vehicles and sliding down the sheer face of a mountain is a treat.
With it's fast pace and hectic action, Smuggler's Run is filled with some genuinely fun moments. But while it excels in its technological forays, it hits some road bumps as a game.
The campaign mode, Smuggler's Mission, lets you play through a bunch of missions held together by an incredibly disjointed and uninteresting story. Despite the fact that this is a PS2 game, there's no FMV whatsoever. You just go from mission briefing to mission briefing without even the slightest hint at any flash. A bummer, no doubt, since this is supposed to be next-gen stuff.
There are a few Instant Action modes, which can be played with 1 or 2 players. The best of these is Turf War, where you basically grab loot and bring it back to the same location, scavenger hunt style. You can also just explore the enormous maps in Joyride mode, which is a great way to get familiar with the levels.
However, regardless of which mode you play, the gameplay essentially boils down to a game of chase. You pick up stuff in one spot and deliver it somewhere else...and that's it. One or two actual races break the tedium, but for the most part it's just pick-up/drop-off over and over again.
This lack of gameplay depth is painfully noticeable when you look at the rest of the game. After you complete each mission, you are rewarded with a certain amount of money based on your time and the condition of the stuff you delivered (the more bumps a package suffers during delivery, the less money you make). But the money is never actually used for anything - it's simply your "score," just like Galaga or Asteroids. Guess what? That doesn't cut it these days.
There are several car types to choose from, each with its own attributes regarding handling, speed, acceleration and durability. But you can't buy or upgrade anything. You can't customize your paint job or tweak your specs. You can't even unlock new levels (there are only three, though again, they're huge). All this, despite the fact that you made over 200,000 dollars in the last mission. Why in the name of all that is playable someone omitted these features is beyond my tiny editor's brain.
Furthermore, there's no replay feature, so even though you just pulled a kick-ass 180 and narrowly dodged four cops flying at you from different angles, you'll never see it again. After being treated to an advanced replay system like Driver or even a simple replay feature like the original Gran Turismo, no racing game is complete without it. That includes Smuggler's Run.
And what's with the load times? I was expecting little to no wait, yet this game takes longer to load than most of my PSX games. Argh.
Apparently, the female voice actor wants to have sex with me. She's constantly spouting out dumb innuendoes - "yeah, faster, faster!"..."..."that's it baby, right there!"..."ohhh, you'll need staying power to stay in this one." Look, if I want porn, I'll go rent a DVD. Plus, she won't shut up. It's the same lines over and over again. Guess she really wants me bad. Gleefully, I just shut her off in the Options menu. My body is a temple, lady.
Smuggler's Run is at once an impressive, invigorating romp and a seemingly unfinished, unpolished rush job. At its core, this is a surprisingly limited game. However, it's still loads of fun if you look past its shortcomings. A rental for sure, but you might want to save your dough for something more addicting. And that's the straight dope.