Rally racing is starting to catch fire over here. The genre has been popular in Europe for some time, but the US market is just starting to realize how exciting the multiterrain-racing format can be. But while more and more games are being made to cater to the growing rally-racing audience, none of the racers to hit the N64 have been of landmark quality. And although Top Gear Rally 2 isn't the perfect rally racing game, it's a big step in the right direction.
Unlike more-realistic games that take a grossly technical approach to rally racing, Top Gear Rally focuses more on the fun of the driving itself by setting the game in a fictional environment. All the cars, tracks, and upgrades are only loosely based on their real rally counterparts. Surprisingly, there's a large Gran Turismo influence in TGR2, from the license tests - which you must accomplish to move forward in different competitions - to the money and points system you'll use to purchase cars. Unlike the strict stock regulations of actual rally racing, Top Gear Rally features a fairly comprehensive upgrade system, also similar to Gran Turismo's. Each vehicle features a completely different list of upgradable parts, from turbochargers to radiators. But even though there are some extreme differences between the game and actual rally racing, the driving in Top Gear Rally is true to form. Racing takes place on conventional roads and paths throughout the country, and you race against a clock, instead of directly against a grid of opponents, although you do share the road with other racers. It's not uncommon for a track to start on a windy mountain road and end on a dusty trail paralleling a river.
Top Gear Rally 2's graphics are quite different from other rally games on the N64. Accenting the unreal premise of the game, the graphics have a definite cartoon feel to them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the vivid use of color keeps the backgrounds interesting, and the tracks themselves easily stand out against the hills and valleys they run through. Your car also features a cool HUD showing the current condition of all your mechanical systems. The simplistic graphical design proves that in some cases, less is more. Pop-up is present, but it isn't as much an issue as it is in other rally games. The only problem the graphics suffer from is that you never really get any feel for speed. Even when your speedometer claims you're doing upward of 100mph, you feel as though you're drudging along at 40.Consider yourself warned - the soundtrack of this game is awfully catchy. From the cool techno-pop of the main menu to the foot-tapping beats on the racing tracks, the songs are heavy in the funk department. Another surprise is the voice of your navigator. It's actually bearable, and what proved to be more of a surprise, you can get different voices as you move up in the game. The sound effects aren't too bad, and are easily forgotten as you pump up the jam.
The control department suffers from what plagues most N64 racers - overly touchy control. Moving your analog stick more than a degree or two in either direction will cause your car to get almost horizontal on the road, and staying on the track seems to be a lifelong struggle. This does get better as you improve your tires or car, but the control never seems to reach the level of control offered by games like Beetle Adventure Racing.
Top Gear Rally 2 makes some definite improvements over the original, and while it doesn't cater to all the realism that hard-core rally fans expect, it certainly proves to be a good little racer. Casual fans of multiterrain racing will be pleased with the simplistic layout and complete upgrade system, but those looking for a fully licensed and realistic rally racer might wish to look elsewhere.