Releasing yet another rally game in the current state of the overcrowded genre can be a big risk for a company. For the last few months, there have been at least one--sometimes more--rally games released for every gaming platform out there, from the PC to the Game Boy Advance. Activision is now throwing its hat into the ring with the recent release of Rally Fusion: Race of Champions from Climax Entertainment, but it's unique enough from similar rally games that it doesn't really compete directly with them. Rally Fusion focuses on the IMP-sanctioned sport of The Race of Champions and not FIA's World Rally Championship, as many other rally games do. By doing so, the game offers numerous driving modes that aren't typically available in other rally games that you might have played, though this wide selection of options is often plagued by repetition, and is confusing to navigate because of a poor interface.
The game draws its inspiration by The Race of Champions Rally Masters, a series of competitions that was initially held in 1988 as a test of driver skill. The race itself involved two drivers racing against each other on a unique parallel course of the same length and design, while using the exact same car. The idea was to isolate any advantages that a car or section of a track can give someone in a typical rally race, in an attempt to place the outcome of these events squarely on the shoulders of the driver's abilities. Since that time, The Race of Champions has expanded to include the Nations Cup event, which is a lengthy elimination process that filters down prospective entrants to The Race of Champions finals over the course of a weekend. All these elimination races, as well as the final event itself, are held at the Gran Canaria racetrack, a short obstacle course that features two identical parallel tracks side-by-side. The primary focus of Rally Fusion is on these Gran Canaria elimination events, though to keep the game from getting overly monotonous, there are nearly ten other rally modes available that take place throughout eight different road- and circuit races. As you'll quickly come to find out, however, these additions only serve to confuse you.
Upon starting the game, you'll be prompted with a simple interface that, for what it's worth, lacks the visual flare of similar games like V-Rally 3 or Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec. From here, you're able to select one of three primary game modes (a fourth can be unlocked at a later time): Race of Champions mode, Race of Champions challenge mode, and a quick race mode. There's the option of accessing either the Nations Cup race or the Race of Champions finals from the Race of Champions mode, though you can also get to a similar Race of Champions event from the quick race menu or the Race of Champions challenge mode. Confused yet? Hold on. The quick race and Race of Champions challenge modes both have additional overlapping events, including rally, circuit, and rally cross races, as well as hill climbs and an elimination event that's similar to Need for Speed's knockout races. What's more, the Race of Champions finals in any of these three primary modes of play are all nearly identical, and all painfully repetitive. They're all held at the Gran Canaria track, and while it's a fun course that includes a couple of jumps and corners that require a good deal of powersliding, it's incredibly short, and you'll be forced to race on it six or seven times before you're crowned the winner, at which point, you'll move up to a new competition class only to race on this same course all over again.
To be fair, Rally Fusion does include 19 licensed rally cars from manufacturers like Ford, Toyota, and Peugeot, all of which handle in a completely unique fashion. The Toyota Rav-4, for example, is top heavy, and requires a lot of input to keep pointed in the right direction. The nimble ROC buggy, on the other hand, can fly over jumps and breeze through corners with ease. These differences in handling do extend the life of the Race of Champions finals, so to speak, but the real value of Rally Fusion lies in its challenge and quick race events. It's here that you can do everything from a head-to-head race with another rally car in a point-to-point race, to racing against a full field of seven other drivers on one of several outdoor tracks. There's also a hill climb event that's reminiscent of RalliSport Challenge's hill races, and a follow the leader event that depletes the "health" of any car that isn't at the head of the pack. And while there's no dedicated multiplayer mode in the game, many of the events in the quick race and challenge events will let you race with or against three other people. Additionally, the cars themselves do take damage, and this damage affects their handling drastically. Slamming into a tree or mistiming a jump can cause you to break an axle or lose a bumper, forcing you to hobble across the finish line. Like many driving games lately, this damage is reflected accurately on your car's model, and even though a color-coded damage indicator exists on the screen, you can make out the state of your vehicle just by looking at it.
In fact, it's the game's graphics that are its strong suit, not the selection of quick race and championship modes. Rally Fusion looks great, though not as phenomenal as Rallisport Challenge. It's bright and colorful and makes use of some very impressive lighting and reflection effects. This is especially true of the snowy or rain-soaked tracks that you'll come across, where brake lights can be seen reflected off icy surfaces. Additionally, you'll notice that your car will get progressively dirty as you make your way through a given race, and beautifully rendered weather effects like rain, snow, or fog will often hinder your vision. What's more, there aren't any instances of slowdown in Rally Fusion, even in the rally cross events when several other cars are displayed onscreen at once. Interestingly enough, there are twice as many cars onscreen in the Xbox version than there are in Rally Fusion for the PS2. The sound in the game is particularly good, especially the engine noises, which are unique to each car and change in intensity and volume as you switch between the game's one first-person perspective and two third-person perspectives. What's more, the game supports surround sound, and this complements the already great sound effects very nicely. Most of the game's music, on the other hand, is composed of a weird mix of guitar rock, country, and techno, and it's all largely forgettable.
There's no denying this game's uniqueness. It's one of the few rally games not to focus on the World Rally Championship, and its inclusion of nearly a dozen driving modes is certainly admirable. However, this selection could have used a healthy dose of streamlining, and the game's primary gameplay mode, the Race of Champions, is too repetitive and doesn't translate into game form well at all. There have been plenty of recommendable racing games that have been released for the Xbox this year, like Microsoft's Rallisport Challenge, and unless you've already tried them all, you're better off elsewhere.