The latest entry in Sega's highly successful racing series isn't called Sega Rally 2007. Nor is it Sega Rally Anniversary, Sega Rally Redux, or even Sega Rally HD. Anything that suggests this might be a mere update has been willfully disregarded. In what could be seen as an ambitious statement of intent for a brand-new studio, "Sega Rally" suggests that with this game, they're aiming to for nothing less than the definitive entry in the series. With such obvious confidence on show, we've been particularly eager to play Sega Rally and see how it could possibly improve on the arcade classic. Luckily, Sega Racing Team was only too happy to give us a full hands-on during a recent visit to its headquarters.
It's fair to say that the studio was keen to make a good first impression. Laid out in a dedicated gaming room were no less than six custom-built driving setups, each with a Logitech force feedback wheel, a PlayStation 3 debug unit, and a Sony high-definition LCD TV. What's more, this rig was solely to demonstrate the multiplayer part of the game, and a further five Xbox 360 consoles were also around to show off the single-player game. There were a couple of restrictions with both versions, though--only four tracks and six cars were available to play at this stage.
While these limitations were a shame, they did allow Sega to present the game in a fairly polished state. Wasting no time in getting started, we joined the assembled throng of journalists and staff members to indulge in a spot of head-to-head racing. Perhaps because of the recent release of simulations like Forza Motorsport 2 and Colin McRae: DIRT, it took most of the players a while to adjust to the arcade style of Sega Rally, but after a couple of laps we rediscovered the familiarity of the game. Anyone worried that the new studio might not be able to recapture the feel of the arcade original should put their doubts to rest--even at this stage, the game had all the characteristics of the arcade original.
So while the overriding principle for Sega Rally is evolution rather than revolution, there are many features in the new game that would have been unimaginable on last generation's consoles, let alone the arcade original. Perhaps spotting a new trend with the arrival of MotorStorm, the ace up Sega Rally's sleeve is deformable terrain, and it's used to great visual and physical effect in the game. Sega throws all sorts of environments at its engine and adapts them dynamically, meaning that no one lap is ever the same as the last. For example, tracks in the snow melt to reveal a slushy mess, while the inroads left in dirt tracks will throw your car around considerably more on the second lap than they did on the first. With force feedback through the wheel or joypad, races in Sega Rally become noticeably more difficult as you progress.
We played all four tracks a number of times during our day out, and by the end we were pretty familiar with their ins and outs. Only time will tell if any of them will become as iconic as the desert track in the arcade game, but the tropical levels certainly feel as though they could have been in the original Sega Rally. Full of long bends and a couple of tricky hairpins, these tracks allow you to reach a high speed while also practicing your powerslides. They also look beautiful, with fisherman, shanty houses, and mountains all dangerously tempting your eyes away from the road for split seconds at a time. As with the original game, there are lots of characteristic little flourishes, like the helicopters and birds that pass overhead at very convenient points during the race. Unlike the original, though, the technology has progressed enough to offer breakable roadside features, with wooden housing extensions teasing those who venture too far off the road.
As for the other tracks, the alpine one is a devious mix of both tarmac and snow, meaning that it's perfect for seeing both the game's speed and powerslides. The snow can be particularly difficult to drive through at first, but as you master the acceleration and braking routine, you can cut through huge bends with one elegant slide. The backgrounds are also particularly luscious on the alpine level, with snow-capped mountains filling up the distance. The canyon track is a more traditional mix of dirt, mud, and tarmac, with some narrow straights and particularly difficult bends.
The PlayStation 3 test units were running online code, meaning that they were sending information around the world before it got back to the adjacent players. The net code seemed stable, rarely slowing or crashing under the strain of six simultaneous players. The collision detection was certainly rough, but it provided hilarious crashes that threw cars several meters into the air. The Xbox 360 version seemed slightly more stable by comparison, with more convincing crashes and a more stable frame rate. The team is currently programming five levels of difficulty for the opposition, but only the first two had been tested for our preview. While the first level was easy to beat, the second proved to be more aggressive and we could only muster second place on most races.
Six cars were included in the demo--the Subaru Impreza, Citroen Xsara, Skoda Fabia, Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Lancer, and Peugeot 206. Sega claims that all these cars will be in the same class, so they're all comparable in terms of performance. With so many racers offering full-fledged online modes, it's a competitive market out there for any new multiplayer racer. By offering gameplay for up to six players online, Sega Rally already has one up on rival Colin McRae DiRT, which didn't allow rival players to compete simultaneously on-track. Online matches can be created with restrictions on car classes, so you can either specialise in one type of vehicle or open a match up to all types of cars. Sadly, though, there will be no way of forcing all players to have an in-car viewpoint, as is the case with Project Gotham Racing 3.
Sega Rally is in an impressively advanced form right now, which bodes well for its September release. While both versions were polished and highly playable, the Xbox 360 demo looked slightly more advanced, with a smoother overall frame rate and easier controls thanks to the standard joypad. The final game promises to run at 30 frames per second on both consoles (although the physics are modelled at 60fps), but this is yet to be optimised on either the PS3 or Xbox 360. The result is that the game never slowed down to a sluggish pace, but it did seem to be smoother on Microsoft's console overall. We'll have more on Sega Rally in the run-up to release date, so stay tuned for further information.