Sega Rally, we're told, is the Japanese publisher's most successful arcade game ever. We sat in Sega's UK offices, and our excitement at seeing the PlayStation 3 version in action was temporarily put on hold. Sega Rally is more successful than Daytona? Virtua Cop? The House of the Dead? What about the millions of yen that have been pumped into Virtua Fighter machines in Japan? Apparently, those amount to small change; there's a Sega Rally machine somewhere in the UK that has single-handedly swallowed three-quarters of a million pounds.
This all means that there's a lot riding on any new version of Sega's most successful arcade franchise. Only a few years ago, you would have probably expected the company to keep development in-house at one of its internal studios in Japan. A lot has changed for Sega recently though, and the seemingly risk-embracing company has done surprising things of late. The same company that's currently developing an Olympics game featuring one-time archrival Mario has also put the future of the Sega Rally series in the hands of an unproven British outfit called Sega Racing Studio. Perhaps it's not that crazy though; Sega Europe is now a major part of the overall operation with little to prove thanks to its canny acquisitions of Sports Interactive and The Creative Assembly.
Sega Racing Studio may be new, but the team that's overseeing development for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC comprises some of Britain's leading talent. Ex-employees of Codemasters and Rare made the relatively small geographical relocation to Solihull in the British Midlands, and the technology for the game has been built from the ground up by a team of more than 50 staff members. Perhaps most notably, the head of the studio is Guy Wilday, who worked on the original Colin McRae Rally games over at Codemasters.
It's clear that the focus for the new Sega Rally has been on returning to the arcade roots of the series while bringing the technology firmly up to date. The game looks graphically impressive, with an engine that throws around beautiful scenery, track deformation, and incidental details with ease--even if the frame rate suffered in this pre-alpha build. The demo we saw ran on PlayStation 3 hardware at about 20 frames per second, but the team hopes to get that up to 60fps during optimisation. While that seems particularly ambitious given the level of detail, the original Sega Rally's sense of speed was arguably more important than its visuals. Still, it's good to see the team replicate the little touches that made the original so great, such as the helicopters that film you from above and the birds that emerge startled from the trees as you zoom by them.
While such flourishes as these certainly add to the atmosphere, it's the track deformation that's lining up to be Sega Rally's unique selling point. While it's not totally unique in the racing genre, thanks to fellow British title MotorStorm, it's the first time that anything of this level has been seen in a rally game. In fact, it's so impressive that it was the first thing that Sega decided to show us using the in-game engine. Tyres compact the top layers of sun-baked mud by passing over them at 80mph on the first lap, giving way to damp mud that can impair progress on the second lap. MotorStorm players will already be familiar with this concept, but Sega Rally has one more trick up its sleeve: It also throws water into the mix. The tropical track in the demo was particularly water-logged, and as we saw the Subaru Impreza pulling donuts in the mud, the water began spreading to fill up the crevices. With all of this taking place on a next-generation console, the water also begins to wash your car clean, leaving you to appreciate the two-toned paintwork once again.
With all this hyperrealism in the graphics department, it's even more striking to see Sega Rally's retro approach to gameplay. With Codemasters offering a full-on rally simulation this year with DiRT: Colin McRae Off Road (DiRT in the US), Sega Racing Studio has wisely chosen to stay true to the arcade roots of the series. While the cars will physically deform, they won't be subjected to mechanical damage, which means that the vehicle you finish the race with will be physically as good as your first vehicle. The designers didn't want one big crash to force you to restart a race in single-player mode or make you feel like you could never catch up in multiplayer. Consequently, computer opponents have been programmed to be devious and aggressive, nudging you around corners and crashing into you from behind.
Damage will also take place to the environmental details, and if you crash into a wooden hut or a wall of tyres, they will remain on the track for the next lap. While we only got to see a tropical environment in our particular demonstration, the developers also promise more traditional European racing surfaces, such as tarmac and snow. The camera system offers two on-car views on the bumper and bonnet, as well as two outside views, but we suspect rally fans would also like to see a detailed in-car view. At least they should appreciate the realism that Sega has tried to achieve in car design, with a tarmac-specification Subaru lighter than a safari-spec one, which will also have an effect on the level of land deformation.
Above anything else, the original Sega Rally was memorable for its head-to-head multiplayer mode, so any updated version must get this aspect right. While we didn't get to see it in action at our demonstration, the game promises online multiplayer for all platforms, subject to certain conditions on the PlayStation 3. It's worth noting that multiplayer features were recently built into Sega's Virtua Tennis 3 on the Xbox 360 but not the PlayStation 3, and Racing Studio points out that it will "do what Sony allows" on its platform. Guy Wilday has already gone on record saying tilt-control won't be built into the PlayStation 3 version. However, Sega representatives said they were still looking into the possibility, even if they said it "didn't add anything to the experience in MotorStorm."
Sega Rally is looking very impressive at this stage, and thanks to its arcade leanings, it looks like it can happily coexist with Codemasters' DiRT. Our one concern is how the team will maintain the series' notorious speed with a graphics engine this detailed, but it has six months of development time left to figure it out. We've still only seen relatively little of the selection of cars and tracks in Sega Rally at this point, so there's plenty left that we're itching to explore. You can rest assured we'll be on Sega's tail like one of its artificial intelligence drivers up until the game's release, which is set for winter '07 on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.