Even though Top Gear Rally isn't the be-all and end-all of racing games, it is a huge step in the right direction.
With every successive project, Australian developer Tantalus raises the bar as to what we can expect from the Game Boy Advance in terms of graphics. Top Gear Rally, commissioned by Kemco Games and published in North America by Nintendo, is the third game to take advantage of the developer's proprietary CRIS graphics engine. The lengthy texture-mapped courses and polygon-rich vehicles look like the sorts of things you'd see in a racing game made for the PlayStation console, not the Game Boy Advance. In addition to having incredible visuals, Top Gear Rally duplicates the slip-slide nature of rally racing fairly well. The game is easy to dive into, and there are plenty of tracks and adjustment options to keep you busy for a long time.
From the main menu, you have access to championship, quick race, time trial, practice, and link-play modes. The championship mode is where most of the action is. Here, you can participate in three different cup championships and add additional cars to your garage by racking up first-place finishes. Even though the same set of 30 courses is used for each cup, weather conditions and obstacles (such as parking cones) become more challenging as you work your way up the ladder. The quick race mode is somewhat of a misnomer. While there are only 10 races to complete, each course is three times as long as its championship counterpart. Between the championship and quick race modes, there are 11 different vehicles to unlock--although the total climbs to 22 when you take into account GT class upgrades. Surprisingly, Top Gear Rally also has an online component. For every race you complete in the time trial mode, you'll earn a password that you can input at the Kemco Web site in order to compare your times with players from around the world. The cartridge records all of your best times in every mode, and this added bit of human competition is a nice bonus.
After you choose a play mode and pick a car, the goal is to take first place against a field of seven other drivers. Racing surfaces include concrete, dirt, gravel, mud, and snow, and weather conditions can vary from clear and sunny to rainy or snowy. AI-controlled drivers don't do much in the way of nudging or blocking, but they also don't make many mistakes. The only way to overtake your competitors is to figure out how to speed through each turn and over each hill without spending too much time on the roadside--which isn't always easy considering how quickly you can go into a skid on wet or muddy roads. Each vehicle has its own speed, handling, and weight characteristics, and some cars perform better on mud or snow than others. Before the race, you can make adjustments to your car's tires, transmission type, exhaust type, steering sensitivity, and braking sensitivity.
Top Gear Rally captures the slippery and bouncy nature of rally racing so well that its controls do come with a mild learning curve. Cars tend to fishtail around corners, which means you need to slow down and let the weight of the vehicle take you through the turn. If you just mash the gas, you'll skid right into the underbrush. The steering is extremely responsive, but this has a downside as well. If you hold left or right too long, you'll turn onto the inside shoulder or induce a spinout. The game also doesn't re-center the steering wheel as quickly as other racing games tend to, so you'll need to countersteer after sharp turns in order to avoid smacking into the guardrail. Taken together, these nuances force players to work harder than they're otherwise accustomed to in a portable racer, but the trade-off is an immense sense of control over the vehicle. When you've got the steering down and understand how the car's weight interacts with the road surface, you can perform all sorts of spectacular slides and skids.
Spectacular is the right word to use to describe the graphics in Top Gear Rally. The game's three-dimensional courses are put together using a combination of textured surfaces and sprite-based objects. Each course has its own set of hills, curves, and drop-offs, all of varying steepness and incline. The draw distance is wonderful. Most of the time, you can see obstructions, curves, hills, and other vehicles coming a few seconds before you need to deal with them. Once in a while, a fence post or boulder seems to pop up out of nowhere, but these occasions are rare. Compared to other racing games on the GBA, the car models in Top Gear Rally are fairly complex. Each vehicle has somewhere around 200 polygons that make up its body shape and paint job, and there are all sorts of little details, like rotating tires, popping exhausts, and reflective windshields. As you drive along, your tires will kick up gravel, mud, grass, or sand, depending on the composition of the surrounding environment. When you leap off a hilltop, you can actually see the underside of the vehicle as it leaves the ground and crashes back to earth with a dirty thud.
Admittedly, if you put your mind to it, you can easily discover some of the shortcuts the developers took in order to make the graphics engine work. Take a close look at the reflection in the windshield, and you'll realize that it's a canned sequence that loops frequently. While driving behind CPU cars, you'll notice that they can drive right through signs and trees that would stop your car dead in its tracks. If you manage to turn around after a spinout or rollover, the game won't show you a rear view of the track regardless of the fact that you're driving in reverse. The presence of eight cars on the track is also a little misleading. Only four cars total can be visible at any given time, so if you join up into a pack with three other cars, you'll never overtake the leaders and no one else will pass you. While these nitpicks are good to keep in mind, they really are just nitpicks, and as such, they don't affect the game's graphical quality all that much.
The audio isn't necessarily on the same level as the graphics, but it gets the job done just the same. Engines vary from car to car, and skids sound differently depending on the surface underneath the tires. The radio copilot does an excellent job of counting off the various turns and hills, and his voice is crystal clear.
Even though Top Gear Rally isn't the be-all and end-all of racing games, it is a huge step in the right direction. The CPU opponents are lifeless, and the number of handling adjustments isn't enough, but these are the most significant complaints toward a game that plays smoothly and looks superb. Any racing fan will be pleased to add Top Gear Rally to his or her collection.