Formerly one of PC racing's quietest subgenres, rallying has experienced tremendous growth since the turn of the millennium. With star performers such as EA Sports' Mobil 1 Rally Championship, Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally 2.0, and Infogrames' Rally Masters continually ranking at or near the top of the racing charts and grand newcomers such as Rally Trophy leading the way into the future, rallying has quickly become one of the most intriguing vehicular disciplines on the PC. Into these suddenly competitive surroundings wades the latest racing game from Microids, Master Rallye. Differentiating itself from much of the rally crowd by virtue of its nonrestrictive routes, wide-open environments, and head-to-head racing, Master Rallye is an entertaining trucking thrill ride that walks a fine line between a realistic rally title and a wild 4x4 off-road racer such as Codemasters' 1nsane. It exhibits many of the traits of a budget game, which it is at just $19.99, yet it should appeal to anyone who believes rallying is more fun when conducted with other cars and oodles of directional options.
Based on its real-life namesake, Master Rallye takes its drivers on a journey through 42 locations and a total of eight European and Asian countries. The game's competitions are conducted in a variety of modes, including single-leg practice sessions, three-event quick races, three-event Rallye cups, one-on-one challenges, and the full Master Rallye. In a quick race, you may vary the difficulty level, select up to three opponents, or opt for a solo checkpoint race in which you must pass through a series of gates on your way to the finish line. In all other modes, the number of competitors is preset at three and racers may follow any path to the finish line. It is this last wrinkle that makes the game as unique as it is.
Like Microsoft's Motocross Madness, Master Rallye unfolds in a series of sprawling and fully drivable environments that are completely open to your interpretation. In other words, it doesn't matter what route you take to the checkered flag, as long as you get there before the other guys. Indeed, if the beaten path looks too tricky or too confining, it is perfectly legal to detour over the untamed wilderness, up a nearby hill, or through the middle of that upcoming pond. But while certain alternate off-road routes will cut precious seconds from your final time, others can spell disaster. In fact, miscalculating the landscape may send you off the edge of a steep cliff or head-on into a vertical rock face. Furthermore, the courses are generally designed to reward those who adhere to the designated roadway and break from it only in certain situations. In this way, developer Steel Monkeys has ensured that drivers will usually feel like part of a close-knit pack rather than a lonely trailblazer.
Fortunately, Master Rallye's artificially intelligent opposition is more geared toward avoiding you than bouncing off your rear bumper. Though some collisions are unavoidable, the AI drivers will generally recognize your presence, steer clear when the opportunity presents itself, and respond to your actions. They also seem to be working under the same physics limitations that govern your own ride, and they therefore rarely behave in superhuman or super-foolish fashion. As for your own capabilities, Steel Monkeys' physics model is an appealing combination of simulation authenticity and arcade fun that forces you to adopt the smoothness and skid control of a real rally racer without taking on the taxing rigidity of the aforementioned Mobil 1. Part of this relative driving ease can certainly be attributed to the game's vast, wide-open spaces, yet Master Rallye's forgiving automobiles are also capable of ascending grades that would stop a real-life 4x4, maintaining grip when all known laws of physics dictate otherwise, and surviving cataclysmic events that would destroy any real-life vehicle.
Even so, the driving experience that Master Rallye offers is more challenging and realistic than it is simplistic. You'll spend much of your time quickly shifting up and down for a given corner or grade and twisting your wheel back and forth in varying increments to adjust for the spinning tires and four-wheel drifts that only a true off-road experience can bring. You'll also want to choose the correct vehicle beforehand. Master Rallye does not offer the motorcycles you'll find in the real-world event, yet it does present a number of high-end production and esoteric four-wheelers such as the Chevy Blazer, Tata Safari, and the Nissan Terrano II and X-Trail. Each features a unique set of characteristics, the most valuable of which is "endurance." Essentially, a durable vehicle is far less susceptible to damage and therefore far less susceptible to the performance degradation such damage can produce. Sadly, visible damage is accrued so slowly that some drivers may never even witness the game's lovely depictions of cracked windshields, bruised bumpers and deformed bodywork.
Nor does it allow you to access its entire roster of 4x4s until you've first proven yourself worthy of such an honor. Indeed, Master Rallye keeps nearly all its vehicles, many of its circuits, and all its major competitions under lock and key from the outset, thus forcing you to win one of its many three-stage "cups" just to open up a new truck or circuit. Fortunately, the game is structured so you won't be compelled to repeat given races ad nauseam in order to unlock the next element. Therefore, if you've performed well in the first two stages but failed miserably in the third, you'll need only to successfully reattempt the latter in order to win the cup and unlock your prize. This feature will definitely seem like a real blessing for those who've grown accustomed to the repetitive unlocking techniques required in so many other racing games.
Graphically, Master Rallye is by no means state of the art. Its vehicles are not nearly as well defined as those found in Rally Trophy or Colin McRae 2.0, its major scenery elements are sparse, and most every object seems a bit rough around the edges. However, the game environment is simply so huge and so interesting that such oversights can be forgiven. You'll wind your way between massive rock outcroppings, dive into twisting valleys and gorges, hurtle over a variety of humps and bumps, tiptoe across one-lane bridges, and maneuver through cobblestone village streets. You'll generally drive where you want in this massive world and see whatever delights happen to be perched there. What's more, Steel Monkeys has situated its scenery in believable locations. Rather than placing farms, industrial sites, or bodies of water directly in the line of vision, it has scattered them about, often so that you'll catch only a glimpse as you motor by.
Unfortunately, the economically priced Master Rallye simply isn't as professionally appointed as many of its competitors, and is weaker because of it. The game's vehicles do not belch smoke, steam or flames when in states of severe disrepair. Drivers do not have the luxury of a rear view mirror, and the in-car perspective lacks a visible cockpit, dashboard and steering wheel. There are no replays, and the off-track menu transitions are so painfully glacial that you might think the program has frozen. Racing audio is limited to a variety of incidental environmental sounds such as tweeting birds and roaring waterfalls and one of the most feeble engine notes of any racing game. Road noise, crash, and mechanical effects are noticeably absent, as are the verbal prompts of a co-driver. Instead, Steel Monkeys has fashioned a sequence of reasonably accurate visual cues warning of upcoming surprises and hazards. Worse still, the onscreen admonitions of "wrong way" and "off course" are sometimes incorrect.
The good news is that you just might be having too much fun to notice. As a single-player game, there is much to like about Master Rallye. As a multiplayer game, there may be no better rallying experience. We experimented with a full six-player field, and we found the frame rate smooth and the fender-to-fender action and wide-open spaces both thrilling and intriguing. For a first-time racing game from a relatively fresh-faced developer, Master Rallye is a versatile and unexpectedly competent effort.