The Sega Rally series has its origins in the arcades from the mid-1990s. You visited exotic locations and drove some of the world's most recognizable rally cars, but the emphasis was firmly on high-speed arcade thrills rather than simulation. Sega Rally Online Arcade is based on the most recent arcade version, Sega Rally 3, and drifts into view with all-new online modes and the responsive handling which made the series famous. Online Arcade is not a revolution for the series or its genre, but it does offer a good amount of content for a reasonable price on Xbox Live Arcade.
Whether you're new to Sega Rally or a returning veteran of the arcade games, you should be able to jump behind the wheel and quickly get up to speed. The cars in this game handle intuitively and are very responsive. If you're used to playing racing games on smooth asphalt, then you might find that rallying feels a little loose in the beginning, but on the casual difficulty setting, you should still be able to keep up with the AI cars and learn the game's five circuits. As far as driving goes, all of the cars feel quite similar, but some have slightly better acceleration and top speeds. In fact, the cars are so similar in performance that their characteristics are not even detailed on the select screen. Going fast in Sega Rally is less about the car and more about learning the circuits, corners, jumps, and puddles of water. The deformable terrain from 2007's Sega Rally Revo returns for this XBLA game, though its effect on the way your car handles is less pronounced. The only way to really increase the challenge is to use the manual gears option, but you spend so much time on full throttle that you very rarely have to change down a gear. The most satisfying aspect of the car handling comes from linking together corners by using controlled drifts, especially on the more difficult circuits. You can get a real thrill out of a perfectly timed handbrake turn.
The single-player mode closely follows the pattern of the Sega Rally 3 arcade game. In Championship Battle mode, you take on AI drivers in a sequence of themed stages, including tropical, canyon, alpine, and lakeside. At the beginning of the first stage, you start in 22nd place and your goal is to reach the front by the end of the final stage. The AI cars are tough to beat, thanks to the rubber-banding AI that is typical of arcade racing games. If you struggle, the AI will slow down a little to make sure that you stay competitive. Conversely, the faster you go, the more difficult the game gets as the AI adapts to your performance. This helps to keep the game interesting, especially if you're already familiar with the series. On the other hand, you might find that the rubber-banding AI causes frustration. Fans of arcade racing will appreciate the challenge that is created by this type of AI, but if you're not used to it then you may want to turn on Casual mode, which reduces the rubber-band effect.
In addition to Championship Battle, you can play each stage as a quick race and battle for fastest laps on the global leaderboards in Time Attack mode. These battles continue in Online Arcade's competitive multiplayer. Up to six players can take part in online races, with AI filling empty slots in races if you choose. Sadly, there is no continuity between events as there are no rankings, scores, or driver levels. This means you can't be sure of the other players' ability levels when you're joining a lobby, so it's not always easy to get into a match with a level of competition that suits you. That said, the online races run smoothly, and when you do get into close races, it is a ton of fun. Competing with other players from start to finish is a real challenge. There is a catch-up feature in multiplayer that helps to balance out the competition in some online races, but it doesn't always work perfectly, and if you're at the front, you will probably want it to be turned off. You can also fill in any gaps in the player line-up with computer-controlled cars. In addition to online racing, two players can battle head-to-head in split-screen. It's fun to jump into a quick race on the sofa with a friend, though it is not really compelling enough to keep you playing for more than a few races at a time.
Online Arcade's graphics are a good match for the arcade handling, with saturated colors and bright sunshine evoking the classic racing games of yesteryear. The graphics engine is based on elements from Sega Rally 3, as well as 2007's Sega Rally for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. As a result, the game offers cars that become dirty, plenty of trackside detail and a solid framerate. The car models aren't particularly detailed, but they are functional enough and convincingly get covered in dirt during races. You can even wash some of the mud, sand, and snow off your car by driving through puddles. There is plenty of trackside detail too, with spectators, dense foliage, and rows of buildings lining the various tracks. The music also suits the tone of the game well with some very cheesy rock songs. The cars don't make a lot of noise, but when you're trying to listen to your codriver's instructions, that's no bad thing.
Sega Rally Online Arcade is simple enough for newcomers to enjoy yet has enough thrills to satisfy fans of arcade racing. Once you've finished the Championship Battle mode, set some records in Time Attack mode, and taken the game online, there are still five cars and two tracks to unlock. The achievements also require some real effort to complete. This is not a game that revolutionizes arcade racing or even the Sega Rally series, but at 800 Microsoft points, it is good value. If you enjoy racing games but want to take a break from the serious world of simulation, or if you are a fan of arcade racing then you will really enjoy Sega Rally Online Arcade.