Digital Illusions' RalliSport Challenge, a PC rally title, takes place across a variety of terrain. Unlike traditional rally titles, crashes and car damage do little to affect a car's overall performance, with the designers emphasizing speed and forgiving control over strict realism. Four game modes consist of Single Race, Time Attack, Multiplayer, and Career.
Career is the heart of the game, requiring players to compete in 17 events (each consisting of a varying number of races), with progress dictated by the number of points accumulated in each event. Surfaces such as sand, ice, gravel, and tarmac require players to master different driving techniques. The 25 licensed cars include models from Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Ford, Toyota, and Subaru.
Though damage does not significantly affect vehicle performance, it does have a bearing on the number of points awarded at the end of a race, providing some incentive for keeping the vehicle on the course as much as possible. Real-time damage appears in the form of broken taillights, smashed windows, and dents as players negotiate a number of hairpin turns and hills on their way to the finish line.
During a career, players will participate in four distinct rally events: Point-to-Point Rally, RallyCross, Ice Racing, and Hill Climb. The first is a traditional rally event where players race the clock in an attempt to place within the three top times; the second is a race to the finish against three other opponents. Ice Racing is similar to RallyCross but takes place on ice, while Hill Climb requires players to reach the top of a treacherous slope in the shortest time possible. Using the cars and courses unlocked in Career, up to four players can engage in split-screen competition in Multiplayer mode.
When first released for the Xbox, RalliSport Challenge was the very definition of "sleeper hit." Excellent graphics combined with dead-on control and challenging gameplay hooked would-be rally racers for weeks, even if they weren't necessarily rally fans. In its translation to the PC, nearly everything that made the original so good has been kept intact, and some things like the PC's higher resolutions actually improve on the game's visuals. In fact, it's arguable that the PC version may be better than its console brethren, with only a few missteps keeping it from greatness.
The first thing most will notice is the game's extremely pretty graphics. Everything is how it should be, with realistic backgrounds, types of driving surfaces (dirt, ice, pavement, etc.), and the requisite sun flares. At resolutions over the standard console output (around 640x480 depending on the game), RalliSport Challenge is one of the more stunning games available.
Once you're past the flashy graphics, there's a very good game tucked in as well. RalliSport Challenge is a driving game in the style of rally racing, which is perhaps the most popular form of racing in Europe. Instead of oval tracks or F1 cars, players compete over real-world terrain with all the real-world hazards as well. There are trees lining many tracks, and houses, rocks, fences and cheering fans are found everywhere. Scarier is the fact that many of the courses take place along mountain sides, and it's all too possible to go careening over the edge.
Since most of the game styles are "point-A-to-point-B" races, rather than tracks that you "lap" around, you're not always aware of what's around the next corner or over the next crest. Thankfully, there's a passenger in your car and he's got a map. As you drive, he tells you all the important things you need to know such as "careful, bumps" and "hard right, narrows into bridge ... caution, do not cut ... rocks inside." It all flows beautifully and it's provided much like a Java compiler - i.e., just-in-time. Additionally, there are symbols that correlate to what your passenger is saying, so if you miss what he said, there's still visual representation informing you of upcoming hazards.
The main portion of the game takes place in career mode, where you are taken from novice to expert levels on over 40 tracks. The cars are all licensed, and in true console style, harder tracks and better cars are unlocked after successfully completing increasingly difficult races. Unlike some games, though, there are plenty of cars and tracks initially unlocked for you, giving you plenty options from the get-go.
In addition to being licensed, all the cars take damage, always a nice touch in racing games (it wasn't that long ago when car manufacturers refused to allow their cars to be beaten up in video games). In fact, you get bonus points for taking less damage in the course of a race, and you can most certainly screw up your car to the point that you'll have to start over. However, you really have to do a lot of damage to score a "DNF" (did not finish). In other words, while the cars are licensed and it's possible to completely wreck them, the driving style definitely leans more on the arcade side rather than the simulation side of reality.
There's a variety of racing styles as well, including standard Rally Racing, Hill Climbing, Ice Driving, and Rally Cross. While most races are a point-A-to-point-B style, others will be more familiar to those of us used to competing for the fastest lap. Racing also takes place on many different surfaces and the physics are definitely noticeable. For example, if you are going from sand to asphalt, the asphalt will provide much better gripping. Ice driving is as slippery as you'd expect, allowing the "power slide" style of driving prevalent in many console racers. Overall, the physics provide a near-perfect blend of arcade and simulation sensibilities: It's not so over-the-top that it's still believable, but it's also not so realistic that you'll need an intimate level of knowledge about tires, engines, and gear boxes.
One of the features that PC gamers have become accustomed to over the last several years is multiplayer gaming. While consoles are still in their infancy as far as connectivity goes, PC users are used to downloading modifications and patches, and most expect to play their games competitively with others across a LAN or the Internet. Unfortunately, this is the biggest fault of RalliSport Challenge and it's what keeps this game out of the 90% range. There is no lobby, no chat room, no anything. Instead, you're given the options to either host or join a game and that's it. You need to know the IP of the host, making it virtually impossible to find an online race with a random competitor.
While I was able to test the game on a LAN, that wasn't a truly satisfactory test. Many gamers don't have access to a LAN, much less one setup in their house (like I do). It's really a shame that the multiplayer implementation is so poor, as this could've been a ton of fun to play with other real drivers. As it stands, it feels tacked on at the last second. We can only hope that some sort of patch fixes this glaring error in an otherwise-excellent game.
That being said, the single-player portion of RalliSport Challenge stands up quite well. The computer AI is decent and I found no hint of "rubber-banding." (That's when the AI magically catches up to you, regardless of how well you are performing.) In fact, it's possible to lap the AI cars on the tracks that are styled that way. As you unlock more cars and tracks, they all become available for use in the single race mode, so you can always go in for a quick race if you don't want to play in career mode. There's also an instant action option whereby you're given a random car and placed on a random track. It's interesting to test other cars this way, even if the results are sometimes hit and miss.
It should be noted that you will want to have a good analog gamepad or steering wheel to play RalliSport Challenge. While it's possible to play the game with just the keyboard, it's not nearly as fun (or easy to control). Although it's not necessary, you'll also want force feedback. The implementation is well done, really allowing you to feel all the bumps and different surfaces. Keep in mind that this is a console port, so I found myself most comfortable with the gamepad.
On the PC platform, driving games are usually very sim-oriented (NASCAR and F1 games) or very over-the-top (the Midtown Madness series, Carmegeddon, etc.). RalliSport Challenge stands out because it's a very good mix of both styles. The graphics are fantastic (assuming you've got the hardware to handle it), and the gameplay is spot-on. The poor multiplayer is the biggest flaw here, but the saving grace is the involving single-player career mode. Racing fans will have a blast with this game, especially those looking for a console-style racer. It's fun, fast, and gorgeous.
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