Outside of America, the land of the free and the home of permanent left-hand turns, exists a grand racing tradition called “rally.” Far be it from a circular NASCAR event, rally racing takes any and every environment, from desert to mud to snow, and turns it into the most twisting, turning off-road track you’ve ever seen. The cars, too, are creative visages of everyday vehicles, from souped-up Subarus to tricked-out Toyotas.
This combination of “everyman” tracks and cars has spawned some fantastic video games, including the Colin McRae series and the Xbox’s first rally game, RalliSport Challenge. This week Microsoft releases the follow-up to its acclaimed racer, hoping that RalliSport Challenge 2 will pick up where its predecessor left off, plus carry the torch while the rest of the XSN Sports games take the year off. For the most part, RalliSport Challenge 2 accomplishes exactly Microsoft wants, but a few miscues and uninspired gameplay keep the game from being the be-all racing game RalliSport fans were hoping to see.
RalliSport Challenge 2 is divided into a series of brackets, each stage of which is comprised of anywhere from two to four events. Like real-life rally racing, your time from each race within that bracket is combined to determine the cumulative winner at the end of the series. For example, if you’re playing a two-event bracket, you can lose by 15 seconds in the first race (normally considered a serious failure), but if you win by 20 seconds in the next race, you’ll come out as the cumulative winner.
Winning a bracket awards players 20 points, while subsequent positions award fewer and fewer points. As you progress, the points you collect enable you to unlock additional brackets and events, which in turn allow you to unlock additional cars by completing them. Unlike Project Gotham Racing 2, the points you accumulate in RalliSport Challenge 2 aren’t traded in for specific cars. Rather, they amount to a “progress report” of your performance in the world circuit. Reaching the last brackets in the game will require a good performance in dozens of brackets, but it’s nothing that seems insurmountable (read: it’s not like getting platinum on every PGR2 track).
Speaking of tracks, if diverse locations are your bag, and if you like rally racing then they are, you will not be disappointed with RalliSport Challenge 2. Ice racing through Swedish countrysides at midnight. Rally racing through Australian deserts at noon. Hillclimbing through Monte Carlo’s cobblestone streets at dawn. There’s no shortage of locales in RalliSport Challenge 2, and as many countries are included, there are even more tracks.
The diverse tracks are equally varied in their composition, from dirt and gravel to tarmac and mud to snow and ice. Unlike lesser rally games, this composition actually has an impact on how your car handles. And it’s more than an increase in the controller’s rumble effect. Turning from a tarmac straightaway onto mud, for example, will require some solid handling to keep your car from sliding into a tree. Similarly, ice racing is a lesson in using the pressure-sensitive right trigger to apply the gas, because just one tug on the emergency brake will see you making more cookies than a fat grandma. This is a refreshing change from other rally games where the tracks feel slippery regardless of the setting.
Likewise, every car in the game handles a bit differently, which means you’ll have to pay attention to the track and weather conditions before you start. Each event is open to a handful of vehicles, which makes the decision easier, but there are subtle differences you’ll need to gauge. Do you want better handling for a curvy track, or would you prefer better acceleration for when you exit each turn? You can make minor adjustments to each car as well, from the suspension to the brakes to the alignment, but the base qualifications of each will give you a good idea of how a car will perform. In addition, Dice has made significant improvements in the overall handling, which in early builds of the game was incredibly squirrelly in third-person view. Now, the control is much tighter when outside the car, although the cockpit mode still seems to handle a bit better.
Yet mastering the handling of your car, as well as the proper maneuvers over various track conditions, is almost moot due to the game’s manual-reset feature. In the original RalliSport Challenge, it seemed as though the minute you drove off the road you were reset automatically back on the track. This feature felt both confining and abrupt, since it limited the freedom of driving haphazardly and happened so quickly. With RalliSport Challenge 2, you’d think the inclusion of more off-track leeway and a manual reset button would help solve the problem. It does, at first. But then you realize there’s no time penalty for manually resetting your car. And that’s a problem.
I’ll be the first to say that half the fun of rally games is driving like a bat out of Hades, whipping around corners and kicking up more mud than a drunk pig in a tropical storm. But in the back of your mind, there should always be a little driving instructor reminding you that if you don’t let up on the gas, you’re not going to make that tight hairpin right with a cliff on the other side. With RalliSport Challenge 2, that instructor is nonexistent. What’s the motivation to let up on the gas when any mis-steer can be corrected by hitting the white button, which places you just 50 feet back and incurs no time penalty? There is no motivation. No need to fight your way back onto the road. Just drive recklessly; the white button will save you – and preserve your lead.
This also affects any motivation you may have to keep playing the single-player portion for weeks on end, although RalliSport Challenge 2 does include 238 unlockable items (cars, skins and tracks). There’s just no sense of purpose. “Why do I need to drive prudently again? Oh, I don’t; I’ll just manually reset my car if I screw up. Why am I trying to unlock these events? I guess it’s because I want to see how many times I can beat the computer by 90-plus seconds.” When a game is as easy as RalliSport Challenge 2, it’s hard to keep playing because there’s little sense of accomplishment.
Several DailyGame staffers commented while playing through the final build that there should’ve been a point where they needed to actually work for first place. Instead, they almost had to work not to place first, even in the later levels. To compensate, the game includes three difficulty levels (Amateur, Pro and Champion), but only Champion provides any sort of a challenge. Unfortunately, if you’re a fan of unlockables, most of them are tied to the Amateur and Pro brackets, so you’ll have to drive mindlessly through those skill levels to open everything in the game.
The saving grace of RalliSport Challenge 2, then, is its multiplayer options, graphics and sound. The game supports split screen, system link and Xbox Live play, enabling gamers of all multiplayer capabilities to take on a human opponent (and therefore find some real competition). Rally is traditionally a solitary sport, with racers competing against a clock more than nearby opponents, and RalliSport Challenge 2 certainly incorporates that same solitude for some races. But it also introduces a bit of arcade fun in letting multiple players race on the same rally track simultaneously, which keeps the multiplayer races interesting and full of trash talking.
Like PGR2, RalliSport Challenge 2 includes a feature where the host can create a race with any of the tracks he or she has unlocked, letting anyone in the game race that track even if they’ve not yet unlocked it in their own single-player game. The only stipulation is that only people who’ve unlocked the track in the offline mode can have their times posted to the server. Unlike PGR2, however, the only cars available to racers over Xbox Live are the ones they’ve unlocked offline. We’ve heard rumors of an update that may change this, but as of this writing we’ve heard no official word about whether this will actually happen.
Graphically, RalliSport Challenge 2 is one of the most detailed racing games I’ve seen. The cars are generally on par with PGR2, and in some cases, I’d give the edge to PGR2 in terms of polish. But the fact that damage affects each car’s handling in RalliSport Challenge 2, and that dirt realistically accumulates during each race, evens the score.
In terms of environments, RalliSport Challenge 2 wins hands-down. Never have I seen an Xbox game with this draw distance, and never have any console’s digital trees looked this good. The skid marks and grooves left on the road disappear after a short while, but since rally racing seldom visits the same part of track twice, we can hardly ding the game for that. Every surface in the game seems bump-mapped or covered with high-resolution textures, and when you’re driving 120MPH in cockpit view with the cracked Outback road whizzing beneath your front bumper, it’s tough to focus on the road ahead because you want to just stop and stare.
Switching from cockpit to third-person view reveals no change in the graphical quality, but it does indicate the integrity of the game’s sound. Outside the car, gravel kicking up behind the vehicle is louder than anything but the engine and your copilot, while inside the car (cockpit view), the engine’s sound is darn near deafening. But thank the sound gods for Dice, because for the first time in a rally game, the whine of the engine and the sounds of backfiring is not annoying. Whatever Dice managed to do with the sound effects in RalliSport Challenge 2, they need to teach other developers the same technique, because it’s a welcome improvement to the rally genre. The soundtrack, though, while it gets the job done, is not nearly as special as the rest of the game’s audio. It’s there, it’s “hard rock-y,” it’s just as good if it’s muted.
With such good multiplayer options, graphics and sound, it’s a shame that the single-player portion of RalliSport Challenge 2 falters as much as it does. The game is still better than the original RalliSport, if for no other reason than its multiplayer components, but it’s not necessarily the best racing game available, nor the best rally title. RalliSport Challenge 2 will certainly have its fans, and it’s bound to inspire more than a few multiplayer games over Xbox Live. But like Midtown Madness 3, it’s just a bit too shallow on the single-player side to warrant “must-have” status.
- Gameplay: 8.4
- Graphics: 9
- Sound: 8.7
- Replay: 8
- Overall: 8.4
- Fans will rally; general gamers should rent first.
— Jonas Allen