Originally released for Microsoft's Xbox video game console in March, Rallisport Challenge was one of the best driving games on the system by virtue of its gorgeous graphics, well-designed tracks, and great variety of cars. The game was developed by Battlefield 1942 creator Digital Illusions, and its publisher Microsoft has since opted to release the game on the PC. And racing fans who don't own an Xbox will be pleased to know that nothing was lost in the translation. In fact, Rallisport Challenge for the PC even has a few key bonuses that weren't in the Xbox version, including noticeably sharper graphics and the ability to play online.
Rallisport Challenge is actually like four different rally games in one. There are a total of 41 tracks spread across 12 different environments, and each environment is the setting for one of four unique rally types. There are the traditional rally races, wherein you race against the clock throughout a series of checkpoints; ice racing, which involves competing against three other opponents on icy, slippery roads; hill climbs, which are similar to rally races except that your overall objective is to scale a mountain as fast as possible; and rally cross events, which are circuit-based races against other drivers on tracks that have several different types of terrain, like mud, gravel, or asphalt. To be precise, the tracks in the game consist of one of six different terrain types, and each one has a dramatic effect on the way your car handles. Tarmac, for example, provides for extraordinary grip but makes it somewhat difficult for you to turn a corner with a powerslide--a technique that's a staple of rally racing. Gravel and mud, on the other hand, will affect how fast you accelerate in a straight line, but the relative lack of traction makes it easier to push your car around turns. Before every race, you're given the option of choosing a tire compound that's best suited to the current track conditions, but things such as changing weather conditions (a light drizzle at the start of a race might clear up by the time you cross the finish line) and multiple surface types (some tracks consist of mud and gravel or tarmac and sand) add a bit of challenge to this selection process.
As you'd probably expect from a racing game, Rallisport Challenge is split up between a persistent career mode and a quick race mode designed to get you in and out of a race as fast as possible. A third option, a time attack mode, is also available. Time attack is similar to quick race, but in it, you compete against the clock, not other cars. Obviously, the game's core lies in the career mode, in which you create a persona and compete in a series of 19 events that are split up across four difficulty levels. Each of these events is made up of anywhere from three to nine individual rally, hill climb, rally cross, or ice races, and you'll get points for driving each course faster than the posted times for first, second, and third place.
Initially, only the easiest series of races is available to you, but as you rack up enough points, you'll unlock subsequent events. If you didn't think you gave a certain series of races your best shot, you can go back and try it again, though you'll lose all the points that you gained in your last run, so there's a bit of risk involved in reattempting old races. Interestingly enough, you also get points for completing each race with as little damage to your car as possible. If you aren't careful, your car can end up with broken taillights, shattered windows, and bent fenders, and the more scrapes and bruises that your car accrues, the fewer points you'll get at the end of each race. However, no matter how much you bang up your cars, damage has no effect on their handling or performance.
As you unlock tracks in the career mode, they'll be made available to you in the time attack and quick race modes. You'll also unlock a new batch of cars after qualifying for a new difficulty level. In all, there are 25 real-world cars from manufacturers such as Audi, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Lancia, Opel, and others, and each handles differently. The front-wheel-drive Citroen cars, for example, will understeer dramatically while cornering if you're on the gas--lift your foot off the throttle (or your finger off the keyboard), and the car's rear will snap to the outside. The all-wheel-drive cars in the game have noticeably different handling and are decidedly more balanced in turns, even though some of the more powerful vehicles do tend to oversteer a bit. While some cars are more suited to certain environments than others, you'll probably choose a favorite and stick with it for the majority of your career. You can't buy any upgrades for your cars in Rallisport Challenge, though you can tweak several of their handling characteristics, such as the steering speed, gear ratio, suspension stiffness, and brake balance. All these changes have a significant effect on your car's performance--an effect that you'll easily be able to feel while driving.
After a few minutes behind the wheel in Rallisport Challenge, you'll quickly realize that it's not really an orthodox rally simulator like Rally Trophy or Master Rallye. Its slightly exaggerated sense of speed is designed to give the game a little excitement, and certainly, you'll feel a rush as you blast down winding mountain roads at 90mph, with a solid wall of trees and boulders on one side and a sharp cliff on the other.
The physics model is also somewhat forgiving, since it lets you do things like get a little more hang time off jumps than would have been possible in real life or power through a turn using nothing more than your hand brake. Still, Rallisport Challenge isn't easy. At first, you'll often find yourself sliding off the road after applying a little too much pressure on the brakes or flipping end over end after colliding with a tree. the game doesn't feature a tutorial, but you'll learn an important lesson very quickly: speed kills. Staying on the gas, braking too late, and not turning early enough are sure ways of crashing. And while the spectacular accidents in the game are a sight to behold, it takes only a couple of crashes in any given race to put you out of contention. Still, the game's well-balanced mix of slightly lenient physics and the realistic handling properties of the cars make for a driving experience that few racing games can match. You'll have a blast driving each course, and you'll find that there's no better feeling than finally nailing every turn of a course you've been trying to master for a while.
Adding to this driving experience are the game's amazing graphics. Nothing brings a game to life quite like great visuals, and Rallisport Challenge definitely delivers in this respect. This game looked great on the Xbox, and it looks even better on the PC because of its ability to run at resolutions of 1024x768 and above. The environments are spectacularly detailed, and a subtle amount of bump mapping on the terrain adds a three-dimensional texture to the different driving surfaces. The icy roads, for example, have a slick sheen of water that's visible in the sunlight, and you can easily make out the individual indentations in the gravel. Level design is usually an important consideration for first-person shooters, not driving games--but not so with Rallisport. Every turn, every tree, and every rock is deliberately placed to keep you challenged. Many of the blind corners in the game, for example, will dump you smack into the trunk of a solitary tree--or off a cliff! Many open turns have a rock or two hidden underneath a thick patch of grass, so cutting corners can sometimes be a risky proposition.
Rallisport Challenge is easily the best-looking driving game currently available on the PC--the game has no clipping plane to speak of, the lighting is subtle, and the vegetation is incredibly realistic. The cars themselves are also modeled with an eye for detail, and they reflect the sun and their environments realistically without looking like they're made of chrome. What's more, the more you drive your car, the dirtier it gets. By the end of each race, the bottom half of your car will be caked with a nice layer of dirt, mud, or dust, depending on the kind of track you were driving on. You'll be hard-pressed to find any clipping problems between the cars and the terrain, and the collision detection is exact--you'll never wonder in frustration why one of your wheels clipped a rock. These graphics do come at a slight price, however. You can't turn on all the visual bells and whistles if you don't own a high-end machine, and even then, at its highest settings, Rallisport Challenge may stutter a bit.
For the most part, the game's sound components are on par with its visual prowess. Each of the 25 cars has a distinct engine noise that varies realistically as you change gears, as well as a unique exhaust note that changes depending on your perspective to the car. You can even make out the whine of the blow-off valve when you ease off the throttle in some of the turbo cars. Likewise, each of the different terrain types sounds different. Driving over mud really sounds like driving over piles of soft, wet dirt. Your navigator, who constantly feeds you information about the distance and severity of every turn on the track, never gets repetitive or annoying. The game's music is composed mostly of electronic tunes from the likes of Dub Pistols, Soundmine, and Fear Factory, and for the most part, it sounds just fine. Unfortunately, you can't import MP3s to create your own soundtrack like you could on the Xbox. However, the PC version of Rallisport Challenge features the ability to play online or over a LAN. When you choose to play a multiplayer game, you'll actually be taken back to your Windows desktop, where a separate server browser will open. From here, you can create or join a game with up to four players and choose any of the game's numerous tracks. Rallisport Challenge will then revert back to the game and put you into the actual race. It's not as glamorous as an in-game browser, but it's certainly better than the alternative: split-screen racing.
Even though there were four different rally games released for the PC last year, Rallisport Challenge is the only such game to come out this year. That reason alone is probably enough to recommend this game to fans of the sport, but Rallisport Challenge is an excellent game in its own right, and it can be wholeheartedly recommended to anyone interested in driving games.