PlayStation era memories are dominated by the likes of Ridge Racer, Wipeout and Gran Turismo but for many, a racer on a doomed system proved to be the most incredible arcade game ever to be released on a home console. That game was SEGA Rally. After a semi-successful sequel on the equally ill-fated Dreamcast and a less than brilliant PS2 incarnation, SEGA has finally put together what can truly be considered a real sequel to the cult classic.
Created by the newly formed SEGA Racing Studio, SEGA Rally is something of a new beginning for the series, keeping enough of the trademark controls but adding plenty of next-gen polish to pique the interest of younger gamers yet to experience SEGA's arcade classic. What this boils down to is a fairly simple racer, with highly impressive track deformation and six-player online support. Things have certainly moved on since the 32-Bit days.
No matter how good the underlying game is, first impressions most probably won't be so positive. It's hard not to be slightly under whelmed by the plain, rather empty menu and the small number of game modes that lie within. On top of the aforementioned six-player online multiplayer, two-player split-screen and a quick race mode, you get the core Championship mode, which offers three increasingly hard tiers. Each of these tiers is home to numerous rally events that are made up of a handful of races, with progression determined by points earned.
All this equates to a fairly substantial and challenging Championship mode, but it won't be for everyone. Fairly early on you'll be replaying courses and the relatively few on offer (16 set across five different environments) might be quite jarring. Of course, each of these takes time to master, and the deforming tracks (on dirt, sand and snow surfaces) makes each race feel slightly unique, even if you're driving on the same track over and over again.
The key to how the game manages to stay engaging despite its apparent lack of content is the way in which new cars and classes are opened up as you progress. Each car feels unique and with the option of road or off-road tyres you have numerous choices to make. Car selection and set-up (tyres and transmission) can only be made at the start of a 3 event rally, so you need to decide what the best set-up is for the courses on offer. While one of the tracks might feature a lengthy section in thick mud, the higher overall percentage of harder track will mean a road tyre is the better option.
At first your attempts to glide around corners will feel less than brilliant. The primary thing to do is change the view point from behind the car to the brilliant bumper cam. Not only does this make the game look far more impressive (giving you a close-up view of the mud being churned up by the cars ahead) but also gives you more control over your otherwise twitchy car. It's fair to say that victories won't come easily but after a few hours you'll have grown accustomed to powersliding and find yourself reaching a more than respectable podium position.
But what of the much talked about terrain deformation? Surely it's just another fancy graphical effect that does nothing to the actual gameplay, right? It actually has a significant effect on the handling of your car, with the grooves created by cars changing the traction of your tyres on the road. The Xbox 360 game actually comes up trumps here as you not only get the visual representation of where you are on the track, but also an important change in rumble. With the PS3's Sixaxis not offering rumble, the PS3 game feels considerably less impressive.
SEGA Rally's next-gen party trick is most definitely the track deformation, but the game as a whole also looks great. The five locations (Alpine, Canyon, Arctic, Safari and Tropical) are each different enough in appearance and at times look genuinely stunning, especially when racing bumper to bumper with rival drivers, as mud, sand, snow and water is sprayed into the air, the surface beneath you deforming and the track-side view stretching into the distance. Both versions of the game run at a nice smooth frame rate for the most part, but they do drop a few frames now and again. It's disappointing, but nowhere near game breaking.
Online functionality is pretty much as expected, offering slightly more than the bare minimum but nowhere near as much functionality as you'll find in Microsoft's forthcoming Project Gotham Racing 4. Online races with six players were smooth and relatively lag-free, and the downloadable time trial ghost cars come in very handy when trying to better your previous lap records. It's the kind of feature set that hardcore SEGA Rally fans will appreciate, but casuals might be left wondering why more isn't on offer.
Players looking for more will undoubtedly be disappointed, as will anyone who wants the same event structure as in the original. In this sense the mix between a more modern progression system and a rather old fashioned reliance on a single core game mode is likely to see SEGA Rally appealing to a rather small group of gamers. But for those that get to grips with the driving dynamics and can tolerate the bare-bones structure, SEGA Rally is a fine re-imagining of a classic racing series.