When Sega Rally first made the journey home from Sega's Model 2 arcade hardware to the Saturn, the gaming world stopped to take a look at what would eventually become the finest racer ever on the Saturn, and the finest rally-style racer on any home console, bar none. Other off-road rally games came and went, each of them trying to emulate Sega Rally's playability, with none quite reaching that high watermark. It's been more than three years since Sega Rally's home debut, and, despite having only three cars and four tracks, it has never found its match in sheer excellence of game design. Until now.
Sega Rally 2 has emerged as one of the fledgling Dreamcast's most important titles for many reasons; it also has a lot weighing on its shoulders. For starters, the conversion quality of Sega Rally 2 was necessary to prove to people that the Power VR2-based guts of the Dreamcast could handle Model 3 arcade conversions. Second, after a poor first appearance at the Tokyo Game Show, where it was displayed on video only, many doubted that the conversion could be done, and fears started to spread that this would be similar to the Saturn version of Daytona USA. Last, with release dates for all sorts of Dreamcast games slipping on a daily basis, Sega desperately needed to shore up its thin launch lineup with another title - and fast. Fortunately for Sega and the state of the Dreamcast, Sega Rally 2 is crashing in like a thoroughbred - mowing down the crowd of doubting Thomases and establishing itself firmly at the forefront of the racing genre.
While most of the attention surrounding the Dreamcast Model 3 ports will invariably center on the faithfulness of the translation, average US gamers will most likely never have the chance to see an actual Sega Rally 2 arcade setup. If the gamers did, they would probably notice that the conversion, in this case, is close to the original. Conversions from Model 3 to the Dreamcast are always going to be tricky because of the differing hardware solutions. Currently, the tangible differences between arcade and home gamesare in color saturation, intensity of light sourcing, and the solidity of the polygonal models. The cars in Sega Rally 2 look remarkably similar to those in the arcade version, minus a few polygons. This results in slightly angular models, particularly where the wheels and any other round objects appear. Since Power VR2 renders only the polygons that are in view (to save processing power), and it renders them in triangles instead of in rectangles, this may help explain the discrepancies. Track draw-in is noticeable if you're looking, but it's handled gracefully so it's never blatant or distracting. Using a particularly effective method of MIP-mapping, the horizon fades in nicely and never becomes an eyesore, thanks to its excellent track design. Anyone familiar with the Sega Rally style of gameplay will be right at home here. The game makes use of the standard Dreamcast controller (which supports both the analog and digital D-pad). The main difference between Rally and Rally 2 is the addition of a hand brake for some crafty powersliding. The analog triggers on the standard DC controller can be set to control the gas and brakes, and performance is based on how hard you press down. While analog control is superb, D-pad tappers will find control just as responsive with the normal digital pad.
Of all the criticisms leveled at the first Rally, track selection was the main source of distress. Three tracks, and one bonus track wasn't enough by anyone's standards. While the game was relatively easy to complete, it took a while to master because of its stingy learning curve. It took a hard-core gamer to complete the fourth track, but once mastered, that was it. Another sore spot was the car selection. Two cars and one hidden one was pretty cheap, and while that may have been fine for the arcade, it certainly wasn't fine at home.
Thankfully, Sega has seen the light when it comes to home conversions. With Sega Rally 2, the company has left no stone unturned. It has given every indication that slowly but surely it's understanding how to add value to home versions. To begin with, there is the standard arcade mode, which is a straight run (in championship mode or practice mode) through the four basic courses found in the arcade. In addition, there's the predictable time attack mode, which lets you cruise through the tracks solo, in an attempt to beat the best times. However, the real meat and potatoes of the game is the ten-year championship mode. During the course of ten seasons, you will encounter a full rally, one per year, over six different courses with up to three variations per track (for at least 18 different looks, not counting varying weather effects like snow, rain, mud, gravel, etc.). By the time you finish the ten-year championship, you'll feel as if you've raced more than dozens of different tracks. Your success each year will depend on your ability to recognize the varying weather conditions and track layouts before the race and on how you compensate by adjusting the available car settings, like brakes, front and rear suspension, steering, gear ratio, tires, transmission, etc. You can even select the gender of the voice that tells you about impending turns. Should you race well enough to come in first (no easy task), you'll receive a secret car for your efforts. Not bad, considering you already start off with eight cars. If that isn't enough to quench your thirst, you can always take on a buddy via the two-player split-screen mode. For anyone curious about how the Dreamcast handles all the track detail and the high-poly-count models while pushing two players at once, the answer is: extremely well. Horizon draw-in is never a problem, and the action remains fast and fluid. A slower-car boost is also available if the skill level between gamers is disproportionate. Sadly, and this is disappointing, the Internet play has been removed entirely from the US version (booo!). Apparently, the decision was made to get the game out in time for the holiday season. The prevailing logic is that by the time the US Dreamcast Internet network is gaming-ready, newer and more technologically impressive games might be available (Daytona 2? Scud Racer?). So for the time being, multiplayer racing will be handled via a split screen, and, objectively, that's good enough.
If you have a VMU, you'll be able to save car settings (which you can adjust to your preference), records, and option settings. For every car you have and for others that you unlock, you'll be able to check out the specs via the car profiles option. Pick a car and watch as the disc puts the car through its paces in a real-time demonstration of its abilities, while a narrator expounds on the car's virtues and history.
One of the major gripes with the Japanese version of Rally 2 was the frame rate. At times, things would speed along at 60fps, then drop significantly to 30fps. While most games run at 30fps to begin with, the visual effect of such an inconsistent frame rate can be jarring at times. For the American release, instead of optimizing things for a full-on 60fps, Rally's frame rate has been evened out to around 30 to 40fps. While this is a little disappointing, it's a minor gripe, as the frame rate is still nice and smooth. Another issue, caused more by the nature of the sport than by the game itself, is the lack of real competition among the CPU-controlled cars. You're basically racing more against the clock than you are against the other cars in Sega Rally. Unlike in games like Ridge Racer 4, where CPU-controlled cars try to impede your progress, the competition in Rally 2 does little to hamper your progress. The greatest enemy in the game is the track design. Master the tracks and you'll master the game. As stated before, the graphics in Sega Rally 2, while more "arcade different" than "arcade perfect," are absolutely stunning. Trackside detail, mountain textures, and background elements are rendered with a very photo-realistic quality. Camera bulbs flash as you race, spectators run out of the way, and helicopters hover around the track as you whiz by. Also, the lighting effects are subtle and well done, while screeching tires leave rubber burns on the track. Little details, like the exhaust backfiring when you tap the brakes, are welcome and add to the realism, and some heavy-duty specular highlighting makes Gran Turismo's replay mode look like child's play. The music in the game is your typical Sega fare, which, while lively and similar to that of the original Sega Rally, is relatively nondescript and better left turned down. The voices of your copilots (male or female) are bright, vibrant, and clear. The sound effects of the cars, sampled from actual production models, are realistic and full of punch. It's a lively audio experience indeed.
While naysayers will gripe and pick on little details that are best left to anal-retentive chatmongers, the fact remains that Sega Rally 2 is an incredible conversion with considerable replay value. While neat little extras like customizable cars, and a sticker-edit palette (a la Rage Racer) would have been cool, especially with online racing just over the horizon, that's just being greedy. The gameplay is top-notch, offering tons of techniques you must master to finish in the front of the pack. The graphics are unsurpassed in both normal racing mode and replay. With an excellent two-player mode, and the extremely addictive ten-year championship, Sega Rally 2 is the new king of the hill. While Ridge Racer 4 has a more exotic lineup of fictional cars, and Gran Turismo has an extensive list of vehicular customizations, Sega Rally 2 marries the qualities of super-fun arcade racing, challenging track elements and design, grease-monkey tinkering, and unparalleled replay value. Meet the new supermodel of armchair racing.