RalliSport Challenge Preview

Digital Illusions' excellent Xbox racing game is headed for a computer near you. Find out what you can expect from the PC version.

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A distinctive vehicular discipline that has long garnered more critical praise than consumer support, rally racing has blossomed from a quirky sideshow into a major player in the world of PC motorsports since the turn of the millennium. Today, computer rallying is dressed up in a number of guises, from BugBear's ultrarealistic yet remarkably unhyped Rally Trophy to Infogrames' action-packed Master Rallye and the sophisticated Colin McRae Rally 2. Simply put, rallying is everywhere. Into this suddenly crowded subgenre wades Microsoft with its own take on the subject, Rallisport Challenge. Initially developed for the Xbox video game console, where it continues to be exceptionally popular, Rallisport Challenge will come to a PC near you early this fall.

Equipped with an assortment of ground effects, a race-ready Audi streaks through a mountainous Rallisport Challenge environment.
Equipped with an assortment of ground effects, a race-ready Audi streaks through a mountainous Rallisport Challenge environment.

If you've played the Xbox version of Rallisport, you'll know just what to expect from its computerized compatriot. Well, almost. Microsoft has opted to deviate only slightly from its triumphant Xbox formula, adding just a few PC-only modifications but otherwise remaining true to the original concept. As the old adage goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Back for another go in the designer's chair is the Swedish wing of game development studio Digital Illusions, which in addition to Rallisport has fashioned such driving-oriented titles as Motorhead, Rally Masters and the successful PlayStation adaptation of NASCAR Heat. The company is also busy honing the next installment in Microsoft's wacky Midtown Madness series, Midtown Madness 3. Clearly an experienced developer of racing games, Digital Illusions is curtailing its creativity somewhat in order to exactingly reconstruct the Xbox Rallisport experience for PC drivers.

According to returning Rallisport program manager Peter Wong, the company has " done a faithful port of the title, using nearly all the same code that shipped with the Xbox version. While we initially thought about doing new things in the PC version, we felt it best to focus on ensuring fans had the same experience on the PC and Xbox. We wanted to maintain the same gameplay balance and features...so that fans on both platforms can faithfully compare their times with each other and switch between platforms without having to learn new physics, cars, and tracks. The main difference is the addition of network play. The PC version will also support higher resolutions and a broader set of input devices including force feedback, but otherwise, all the features are the same."

But while Rallisport was able to charge to the front of the pack on a platform relatively free of competing rallying titles, it won't have nearly the same opportunity in the already rally-crazed world of computer gaming. In this respect, the game's biggest draw may well be its seemingly unending diversity. Like its Xbox precursor, Rallisport for the PC will have nearly 50 separate circuits--most of which will remain locked until you prove you're talented enough to take them on. During their travels, players may just as easily find themselves tearing through the deserts of East Africa as sliding along a frozen Nordic road or grinding up a paved hill climb in the Pacific Northwest.

A pretty blue Subaru grapples with the slippery surfaces of an ice-encrusted rally circuit.
A pretty blue Subaru grapples with the slippery surfaces of an ice-encrusted rally circuit.

Xbox Rallisport veterans will have seen all the tracks before, but that won't stop experienced players and newcomers alike from enjoying the game's wonderful depictions of varying geography and environmental conditions at the much higher resolutions supported by a PC. "The PC version will feature the exact same circuits as the Xbox version--a great mix of multiple surfaces like tarmac, dirt, mud, snow, gravel, and ice in regions around the world," Wong said. "We have weather variability on some tracks but the weather conditions and time of day are preset for each track. This allows us to focus on making the tracks look as real as possible."

Furthermore, says Wong, most every critical element in the game will be rendered in three-dimensional space. "With the Xbox we had the opportunity to really bring to life most of the environment," he said. "You see that with the use of more 3D objects and more dynamic/moving objects. While we use billboards for certain faraway objects, nearly every tree, rock, bush, person, animal, and other trackside object in the game is 3D." And if four dozen or so wild and woolly tracks aren't enough to keep you playing for a good long time, Rallisport will also include a total of 29 unique automobiles, each a licensed replica of a real-world rallying car from manufacturers such as Audi, Citroen, Lancia, Ford, Subaru, and Mitsubishi. From modern-day rally and high-powered "unlimited" vehicles through to group B cars and dedicated hill climbers, the authentic assortment is sure to please car buffs. So will the game's extraordinary versatility. Again like the Xbox original, the PC version will sport four disciplines--traditional staged rallying, hill climbs, ice racing, and rallycross--and a variety of racing styles, including time attack, single race, multiplayer, and career.

Working With the Pros

In RalliSport Challenge, three-dimensional trees will bend and sway with the prevailing breeze.
In RalliSport Challenge, three-dimensional trees will bend and sway with the prevailing breeze.

As for the age-old simulation vs. arcade distinction, Rallisport looks to be a little of both. Certainly the game won't offer separate sim and arcade modes. Nor will any of its events ever exceed three minutes. Instead, the design team has attempted to keep things accessible enough for beginners while at the same time ramping up the difficulty as the career mode progresses and ultimately rewarding only those who prove they can drive both skillfully and carefully.

Much as it did when it formulated the original RalliSport, Digital Illusions has equipped each car with a physics model that mimics the characteristics of its real life equivalent but doesn't dwell on the more demanding intricacies. According to Wong, "We've taken a realistic driving physics model and worked on the control input tuning to make it easy for both hardcore racers and novices to be able to pick up the game, drive well, and have a lot of fun."

Racers will also be forced to minimize their aggression and drive with some degree of moderation or face the very real possibility of sustaining a wide range of bumps and nicks and bent fenders. Although even a severely bruised vehicle will be able to finish a race, the likelihood of a victory or even a halfway decent result will decrease proportionally with the more damage it incurs. That would seem to dictate the need for some form of repair facility or parts shop, but once again RalliSport will stay the course of its Xbox predecessor. "Points are deducted for damage and while the player doesn't actively participate in the repair process, cars are returned to 'new' before each stage or race," said Wong. "RalliSport Challenge is not about tinkering in the garage or buying and selling cars and parts. RalliSport Challenge is focused on the on-track racing."

"We've taken a realistic driving physics model and worked on the control input tuning to make it easy for both hardcore racers and novices to be able to pick up the game, drive well, and have a lot of fun."--Peter Wong, program manager

And certainly Digital Illusions would seem to know how to make a virtual vehicle feel and behave like the real thing, having worked closely with both the Mitsubishi and Subaru teams and tagging along for numerous high-speed racing stints. "We worked with drivers from different rally sports such as Rhys Millen, Per Eklund, and Kenneth Hansen to ensure their personal cars (which are in the game) are tuned properly and behave as they expect," said Wong. "And several of us do race cars and motorcycles in various types of motorsports so we understand the physics of real-world racing. However, the behavior of a car in any game comes down ultimately to gameplay balancing with hundreds of hours of play-testing with gamers to make the game both realistic and fun."

Physics modeling aside, however, RalliSport promises to be a highly impressive visual spectacle built to take advantage of all a fast computer can offer. Wong advises that in order to recreate an Xbox-type graphical experience, players will need near-Xbox level processing and video muscle. Fortunately, all video cards that offer hardware transform & lighting--such as most recent high-end products from GeForce and Radeon--will be supported.

If you do have the right equipment, you can expect to enjoy graphical perks such as real-time shadowing and pseudo-real time dynamic reflections, cumulative dirt and dust and particle effects, animated crowds and roadside animals, swaying trees and much more. Furthermore, you'll witness all your most glorious (and inglorious) moments over and over again from an assortment of camera positions via the game's replay suite.

Thankfully, realistic audio will also play an important role in the RalliSport world. Unlike many racing titles, each of the game's vehicles will sport a unique sequence of sounds, much of which has been captured and enhanced from actual recordings of their real life counterparts. And in the few cases where a particular car was unavailable for recording, the production team gathered and modified the sounds and engine notes from a similar vehicle.

Although RalliSport will offer LAN and Internet racing to a maximum of four players, Wong cautions that multiplayer support is "fairly basic", thus leaving each racer to dream up interesting online challenges and championships. Hardcore drivers may wish to note that the game will not support independent clutch operation.

When released, RalliSport Challenge will join a burgeoning field of rally racing titles that includes Digital Illusions' own Rally Masters. The game is a natural evolution of that product, says Wong, most closely resembling both it and Colin McRae Rally 2 but offering "a good balance between arcade fun and sim challenge". Race fans and rally nuts alike will get to check out the many cars, tracks and gameplay modes of RalliSport Challenge firsthand this October.

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