I am starting to believe that developers are intentionally avoiding the rally racing genre even though it is unpopulated and ignored in favor of track racing games. After all, fans have the long running Colin McRae (CMR) series for their arcade racing desires and the one and only simulation Richard Burns Rally (RBR), each with a large and dedicated following. That is why Techland are being really brave, as with XRX they are trying to challenge both at the same time, and while it is certainly not the ultimate rally racing package it has enough to compete with the current favorites.
What initially attracted me the most were the two racing modes, arcade and simulation, or more specifically how they played. Overall, I found the arcade mode a bit more demanding than CMR, and the sim mode a bit more forgiving than RBR. Xpand is literally the game which addressed the biggest issues I had with those games, which I thoroughly enjoyed in every aspect minus the physics. Not being particularly fond of hardcore simulations, I mostly struggled with RBR, yet I wasn't that uncaring to ignore the unnatural and weird way cars behaved in CMR. Best of all is that both modes offer a challenge and in a way represent two difficulty modes, each requiring a certain amount of skill and concentration.
I believe this works so well largely thanks to the track design. In most simulations, for the better part of the race you are fighting with the vehicle, trying to keep in under control around the bends. In Xpand, you are fighting the road and your vehicle in equal well-balanced parts and, unless you are traveling on asphalt, the ground is never flat or leveled. A bump here, a rock there, trees or houses around you, water on the sides or a cement wall, grass and plants obscuring your vision, alternating road surfaces having real impact on handling, and everything becomes deadlier when you add speed, rain, or night conditions. The good thing is that few of these obstacles completely stop you, so damage and losing speed or direction are the usual penalties.
All of this, of course, remains challenging even on arcade mode where the vehicle is quick and maneuverable and it's easy to get carried away and trick oneself into being careless. Both game modes require constant input from players, especially when tracks consist of turns after turns which need to be negotiated with care. Mistakes are allowed, however, and thankfully this isn't one of those cases where you need days of practice and outstanding skill; if you drive well you'll be rewarded and do well - you don't have to be meticulous to advance in the championship.
The very beginning of the game is a bit sluggish and slow, and you can blame that on the vehicles. Unusually for a rally game, you earn money from winning races which are used for getting upgrades and better components. Soon after, the pace really picks up and you'll find yourself twisting and turning through narrow roads and see the game as a lot more exciting. The few places which allow you to achieve higher speeds are a thrill since the road is narrow and the vehicle begins to sway, easily making even small bends in the road hazardous. Jumps or the oncoming hairpin are another story, and breaking ahead in time is vital, otherwise the momentum will carry you well out of boundary and usually it is faster to reset on the road than to crawl back over to it. Naturally, I was glad to find out that one of the environments seemed to be made solely for the purpose of high speeds, with wide long stretches of tarmac, and straighter than usual off-road sections.
Money is also used to buy new vehicles and to repair them after eventful races. You progress in the championship in this manner; winning cash, upgrading, unlocking the next batch of races until there is no more. Unfortunately "no more" comes a bit soon and ends abruptly, and this is where I realized that Xpand Rally is more like a set of rally races rather than a rally event. I was very fond of the way the player was involved in CMR, which was set up like the real championship. I personally found the approach in Xpand a bit dull and disappointing at first, but the more I played the more it resembled one of those arcade games where you strive to beat level after level until you reach the end boss and get a nice high score. It was actually nice just sitting down for half an hour to complete a few stages, unlock some more, and not feel like I wasted hours fiddling through a campaign mode. I only spent time with the menus when I had to configure my car for the upcoming race. This is actually a very important step and sometimes the difference between $10,000 and $4,000 is a poorly set transmission box. You can plainly see and feel the contrast between different setups, as they play an important role in either game mode; arcade may be easier to handle but road conditions and physical laws still apply to it.
Large environments housing numerous tracks inside are not uncommon in racing games, but those looking this good definitely are. I am not saying the game is photorealistic - it is actually the opposite, bright and colorful - but the detail and presentation are outstanding. Up close are the clean textures, detailed cars, grass and dirt, sparks and rubble, smoke and skidmarks. Far ahead are spectacular views, unobscured by fog or limited draw distance, made even more attractive by the fact that each point inside the boundaries is accessible. Such open spaces give one a really good impression of being somewhere real and whole rather than in a closed stretch of a linear level. The varied elevation is the key element which makes this possible, as sometimes you find yourself speeding along the edge of a vast slope overlooking the whole area, other times advancing towards it from down below. On one hand, however, you have such exotic views and scenery; on the other, you sometimes feel confined running around in circles. A lot of the races are repetitions made varied by changing direction or the time of day, but regardless many tracks share the same routes and sections. This is a tradeoff with such levels and not a problem when track design is skillfully done, and I am happy to say that, even though I became familiar with the surroundings, they were always fun to go through. The weather system deserves a special note because it lets you play any stage in either good or bad conditions, night or day, sunset or sunrise. It's curious how even a small change in lightning can give levels a different atmosphere, in effect making them appear less familiar than they really are.
Low points are the cockpit views which I found lacking detail, and the visual representation of damage. On a physical level the latter is done really well and if you're not careful you can lose performance or a wheel or two, but visually it's nothing special. I admit that I shouldn't blame the game for this, as very few get it right, but I'm getting tired of seeing the same pre-defined stage-by-stage deterioration of the car. After all, a front collision shouldn't affect my rear bumper, and such cases make vehicles seem stiff and rigid as if the force is absorbed by the whole chassis at once. Parts fly off, of course, as well as bend at some arbitrary points, but I'd love to see the car deform realistically depending on the force and position of impact, and it's sad that Carmageddon 2 did this eight years ago better than most recent releases.
In regards to multiplayer, I can only mention features since there were no servers during the period before writing this article, and none even at this moment. The regulars, of course, are here, LAN and online play for 8 players, a decent number of game settings, all races from the single player modes, and a nice lobby room. What seemed most interesting is that you can choose to have collisions between players during the races and this will inevitably add more action to the time trial nature of the game.
Techland have pretty much taken the idea of rally racing and its most essential elements to make a straightforward title without the nonsense. More game modes taking advantage of the freeform nature of the levels would have been a fun distraction, but the rally racing itself is superbly done and offers two distinct styles of play. It's a basic package overall, compared at least to other rally simulations, but it's solid, stable and engaging, a great download especially if you've grown tired of familiar racing series.
People who downloaded Xpand Rally Xtreme have also downloaded:
Xpand Rally, Rally Championship Xtreme, Richard Burns Rally, Cross Racing Championship 2005, World Racing, TOCA Race Driver 3, V-Rally Edition 99, V-Rally 3
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