With the release of Rallisport Challenge, Microsoft Studios entered the world of racing games…not only my favorite turf, but also a sector with a great deal of competition. So everybody knows that a new game should try to bring something innovative to get some decent attention. Luckily, Microsoft chooses it’s partners carefully and they did some checking up on Digital Illusions… they saw that the Swedish developers studio were responsible for one of the best games ever: Battlefield 1942. Quality guaranteed!
Installing Rallisport Challenge is unlike it’s title, not a challenge at all, but it does take a lot of space on your hard disk, something in the order of 1,8Gbyte. A well-done in-game intromovie visualy introduces you to the four different types of rally-play: Hill Climb, Rallycross, Ice Racing and the traditional Rally. The names of those four types are pretty self-explanatory. Right from the opening screen, you can choose to drive a quick race for some fast paced driving, where your pc chooses a random map, always a surprise. Or you could load a driver profile and then choose to race against the clock, drive some single races or start a ‘career’.
It’s in the careermode that you will have to unlock the majority of realy fast cars and the most tracks. You start of as a ‘Pro’, hopefully win a few races, and with the gathered points climb up to the status of ‘Expert’. Once again, after winning enough races, you’ll become a ‘Classic’ driver and unlock some pioneering Rally cars (and with that I mean, those nasty ‘80’s machines). Eventually you’ll reach ‘Unlimited’ status, unlocking cars that are definitely not suitable for the noobie driver. All in all, there are over 30 cars and more than 41 (!) tracks spread out over 12 territories! Now that’s diversity!
And what’s more: Microsoft has taken the trouble to fully license no less than 29 real life Rally vehicles. They are, as I’ve explained, subdivided in 4 categories: Pro (Subaru Impreza, VW New Beetle, …), Expert: (Saab 9-3, Ford Focus, …), Classic (Peugeut 205, Lancia Delta, …) and Unlimited (Saab Viggen, Audi Sport Quattro, …). Advancing in the career-mode will unlock better, faster yet more difficult cars to handle. What it comes down to, is that you’ve got the choice between a hell of a lot of well-known rally cars that cater to everyones taste.
Now, bear in mind that developers always have a choice when designing a racing game: do they go for an arcade kind of game with the emphasis on nifty stunts and pure fun or do they try to make a simulator, attempting to capture the complex real-world physics in a game. Rallisport Challenge lies somewhere in between those two, perfectly capturing the fun-element of an arcade game yet not making it as difficult and demanding as simulation games.
Now, how about gameplay? As soon as you start your first race, it’s clear that the cars in Rallisport Challenge ‘feel’ and ‘handle’ very good. They react perfectly to curves and respond quickly and precise on the different surfaces. And as you could expect, all cars handle according to their real-life configuration. The front-wheel drive cars like the Citroën Xsara, for instance, will understeer fiercely in a corner when you put your foot down. The four-wheel driven cars on the other hand, take the bends well balanced. You also have the option to tweak your car by playing with the suspension, gear ratio, power ratio, break balance, steering and tyre type. But, unlike it’s main competitors (thinking of the Colin McRae series), making adjustments to your car is not complex. Take the suspension: you’ve got the choice between soft, medium and hard. So the alternatives are minimized and that means… simply put… less hastle and more time to play.
In spite of the easy options on your car, Rallisport Challenge isn’t an easy game. One slight mistake sends your car over the cliff and into a ravine or into that strategically well put rock on the outside of a curb. As I’ve mentioned, the ‘career’-mode gives the game a bit of a linear path to reach the fastest cars, but this way, the developers save te best for last. The game starts out slow and steady and teaches you gradually how the different cars and surfices react. This could put some experienced gamers off, but then again… you should have some hors-d’oeuvres before the main course!
To further enhance the driving experience, the developers have included graphics that have never been seen in racing games. All environments are practically fully detailed to an extent that I’ve not witnessed in a racing game thus far. No more trees, shrubbery, spectators and houses that look like they’ve been cut from cardboard. You only get the real deal here. The ice tracks, for example, have a very nice reflection, suggesting that there’s a little film of water on the ice. This is the first time actually, that a racing game has graphics that are worth talking about. It’s a bit unfortunate on the other hand, that the car damage model wasn’t worked out too well. But I guess that’s something for Rallisport Challenge II. What I did like about the cars though, was that the environments are realistically reflected from the cars windshields. Very nice.
As far as the sound is concerned, it’s pretty much the same deal: a job well done. Each car has it’s distinct engine noise and the sounds whilst driving realistically match the environment. Driving on mud, for exemple, gives a sloppy wet noise. Some of the cars can be made to backfire, but then you’ll have to use the throttle wisely and in a fashion you could never do with a real car… or at least… not with your own car. All in all: good job, well done. Perhaps in Rallisport Challenge II we could get some nice rock music instead of electronic tunes? Just an idea.
In conclusion: superb graphics, good sound, entertaining yet sometimes frustrating gameplay, not too easy, not too hard. And above all… very great fun on LANs. But the absolute nicest element of this game was the excellent compatibility with the Sidewinder Force Feedback steering wheel. Words can hardly describe it. I purchased my steering wheel 2 years ago and I’ve finally found a game that makes use of it’s potential. Excellent.