Insane, yet another EXTREME SPORTS game is unleashed upon our MTV generation, hoping that the 'cool' factor will grab consumers' eyes and their hard earned cash. Hey, what am I being so cynical about? I love extreme sports as much as the next guy and such games are a welcome distraction from the crappy English weather that often hampers the British Public's real life attempts. Although the weather does not really affect off-road racing, I suppose the more rain, mud and wind the better. And that is exactly what Insane is all about, wild and uncontrollable off-road racing. Developed by the Hungarian code mill Invictus and published by Codemasters Insane brings some much need fun to current 'realism is everything' racing titles.

And Insane really does triumph in the fun department. The controls are easy to pick up, with simple arrows for direction and the space bar for handbrake, but to put down. You start the game with the choice of a simple practice session, a quick race or the full out Championship mode. To start with forget all about that racing and just try and pull off some of the craziest jumps, flips and crashes. Quite similar to the Motocross series of games you have a huge level expanse before you filled with bumps, jumps, mountains, rivers, trees and even herds of buffalo to contend with, depending of course on which country and track you choose. Just hit that accelerator and find out what you car can do, what damage you can inflict upon yourself and then maybe learn how to control your car a bit more. Flying along on any level you never really feel in complete control of the car, but you need to learn to be gentle on the controls as any frantic turns will surely end up in a flip or two. The key is just opening up the throttle; taking jumps as flat as possible and generally treating the controls with a babies touch.

Remarkably the physics engine is based somewhere near realism. The different car models all have different engine settings, centre of gravity and weight. The lighter, faster buggies have that all-important acceleration but seemingly bounce all over the place. The heavier trucks on the other hand are much slower but deal easily with every bump and grind. All four wheels and suspension react noticeably independently to the terrain but a few tweaks have been made to mother nature to make the game a whole lot more playable. Jump of a 30ft drop and the car and driver will miraculously survive but expect heavy damage to the car's shell, or perhaps you'll loose a wheel or two. This is another area Insane implements particularly well; each area of the car can be dented, removed and bent out of shape resulting in some excellent post accident car profiles. Consequently such damage makes the car a little difficult to control, but press backspace and the car will be magically repaired. Although this takes around three seconds to complete which will hamper you in a race situation.

Admittedly this hit and run style gameplay will only keep you entertained for so long. So just as well there are a whole host of different race modes, cars and levels to choose from. Most of these extras have to be unlocked by progressing through the Championship mode. This is split into the four different car classes: 4x4, Sports, Pickups, Trucks and Extreme, which is then itself split into a grid of different arenas and modes. Here a total number of points (10 for an event win, 7 for second and 4 for third) must be accumulated in order to beat the class, allowing you to move onto the next. There is an excellent variety of different events you must overcome like the carnage fest that is Destruction Zone - gain points for smashing and flipping other competitors or staying in the 'zone' for as along as possible. Then there are the gate based events, from a fully laid out off road race, the jamboree with a randomly placed order of gates, and gate hunt where the winner accumulates the most gates in no particular order. Lastly there are the flag based games with quake MOD style capture the flag and return the flag.

After a while playing all this on your own Insane may seem to be a bit of let down. Some of the events, especially gate hunt drag on far too long and the AI is unimpressive at best. The computer controlled competitors maybe challenging in the off road race sections but for most of the other events if the different zones or gates get placed in awkward positions you will see them all trying to drive up sheer cliffs or getting stuck in large basins. Where this game really wins hands down in through its multiplayer. Insane is an absolute blast against your friends or on the Internet. And this is made even easier through Codemaster's new multiplayer software - Codemaster's Network (CMN) - that integrates IRC sessions with hosted game servers. You can chat with fellow players, create your own game or join games already running. Each player has his or her own secure username and rank. This inbuilt ranking system then provides a great framework for ladders and online competitions.

Visually Insane is impressive at first with a fast engine, well-designed tracks and well developed car models and incorporated damage system. But the draw distance seemed average and the textures could get very monotonous. But worst of all I noticed a frequent number of annoying map errors. For example, you could be sprinting towards a small gap between two jagged mountains when suddenly a new slope appears from nowhere and you are flipped into oblivion. The sound is very well executed though with impressive engine effects and in-game music that rarely seems repetitive and adds some great atmosphere.

Even if you are more of a tinkerer and love tweaking around there is a fairly basic system for you to delve into. You can create your own custom car and driver, with different skins and models as well as applying different settings for steering lock, suspension, tyres, brake power, handbrake pressure and gear ratios. Or for the more casual player different presets are available from the basic factory setting to off road and racing set-ups. There is even a level editor for you perusal once the full championship has been completed.

Perfectly recreated Rally Championship and Formula 1 racing games are all very well and good but for the less enthusiastic and initiated Insane brings a whole heap of fun to the genre. With an impressive physics engine, good maps and a cracking multiplayer experience Insane will create a welcome distraction over the Christmas period. If you are online at home and are a little tired of all those FPSs then go for it - jump in the driving seat, pull on that four way racing seat belt and open her up. Grrrrrr!

N.B. The shots are taken from the ECTS press kit because for some reason, I could not fix, HyperSnap-DX 4 kept crashing the game.