Rallisport Challenge Updated Preview
It's half Gran Turismo, half arcade racer. Read our hands-on report of this promising dirt-bound driving game for the Xbox.
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The Gran Turismo series has proven over time that if you build a great driving simulation, people will line up in droves to buy it. Since its introduction in 1998, every competing console manufacturer has tried to provide a "Gran Turismo killer" for its platform in hopes of snaring some of the older players from Sony's camp. Many have tried and many have failed. Enter Rallisport Challenge for the Xbox. While it's not as steeped in realism as Sony's driving simulation, it strikes a nice balance between playability and customization that should appeal to a wide range of players.
There aren't anywhere near as many cars in Rallisport Challenge as there are in the average Gran Turismo game, but the selection is impressive nevertheless. There are almost 30 different licensed cars in the game from companies like Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, and more. Cars are rated for speed, handling, and acceleration, and at the game's outset you'll be driving cars like the Ford Escort or Toyota Corolla. But you'll eventually be strapped into kit cars and more exotic varieties of rally cars like Peugeot after logging in some time with the game. Before each race you can adjust your car's suspension, gear ratio, power ratio, brake balance, steering, and tires. It's not as in-depth as the garage in Gran Turismo, and there are no parts to buy to upgrade your cars in Rallisport Challenge, but for those who find the GT series to be a bit much, Rallisport is a perfect compromise.
The primary gameplay mode in Rallisport Challenge is the career mode. You'll begin with a stock vehicle and start climbing the ranks and unlocking new cars. There are 17 total events to tackle in the career mode, with each one containing several races. Initially you race each lap by yourself without the interference of other cars to clog the corners. It can make the game seem like a solitary experience at times, but there's no excuse for not improving on your previous times. After you get a few events under your belt you'll start competing against three other cars. Computer drivers can be nasty at times, but it's not too difficult to leave them in the dust once you've come to grips with the controls. If you finish a series at a respectable position, you'll unlock the next series and possibly some new cars as well. Smaller events such as rallies and opens will consist of just a few races, but the cup races are the final events in each difficulty setting and can consist of up to nine grueling challenges apiece. Aside from the career mode, there's also a single race option so you can jump into the action quickly and a time attack mode that lets you practice any unlocked courses and improve on your best lap time. Surprisingly, the multiplayer modes are almost as extensive as the single-player experience. Up to four players can race at once using any of the cars and tracks that have been unlocked in the career mode. The roster of events includes rally, hill climb, ice racing, and rallycross.
Rallisport Challenge controls very similarly to Project Gotham Racing. The right shoulder button acts as the gas, the left shoulder button is the brake, and the A button is the emergency brake. Feathering the gas and brake quickly becomes second nature, and in less than an hour you'll be taking turns at top speed and shooting out the other side. If your car heads more than 30 virtual feet off the road, it will disappear and the computer will reset it in the center of the track. It certainly cuts into the exploration value of the game, but it also forces you to learn the intricacies of each turn. If you find yourself stuck on some rocks off-course, you can always press the white button to reset your vehicle. There are eight different camera angles to choose from, and they're split evenly between out-of-car and in-car perspectives. You may cycle through them using the Y button. If you'd like to get a look at the competition behind you, you can press the black button. The control in Rallisport Challenge is already excellent. You can really feel the differences between each car in the game, and when you finally come to grips with each car's capabilities, you'll get a feeling of satisfaction.
Gran Turismo 3 has remained the most visually impressive driving game available much longer than anticipated, but this streak could come to an end when Rallisport Challenge is released. Calling it visually stunning would be an understatement. The car models look great, and even the smallest details, such as door handles, are rendered. There are even two fully modeled passengers in each car. In the single-player modes, the list of effects being pulled off at once is amazing. Particle effects are put to good use to show grass and dirt being kicked up, and the smoke bellowing from screeching tires doesn't look too bad either. The windows of each car and the icy road surfaces are fully environment-mapped, and cars will accumulate dirt as the race wears on, but the most impressive visual aspect of the cars is that they will take damage after accidents. It's rare that car manufacturers will allow their machines to take damage in driving games, but that's exactly what happens in Rallisport Challenge. There appear to be only a few varieties of damage for each car, but it's still a welcome addition. Other small details that round out the graphical package are spurts of flame that jump out of the exhaust while shifting gears and shocks that can be seen working during the game's impressive replays. There are around 50 tracks included in the game, but most of them are based on just a handful of different texture sets. This causes many tracks to look similar. Another issue that will hopefully be addressed is aliasing. There are just a few jagged edges in the single-player modes, but when playing multiplayer races with more than two players things can get a bit ugly. Other effects, such as environmental mapping, have been removed from the multiplayer races to keep the frame rates up, and you won't see drivers in the cars either. These sacrifices are well worth it because even with four players playing at once the frame rates stay the course. In the single-player modes, the game runs about as smoothly as possible, which helps to give Rallisport Challenge an excellent sensation of speed.
The sound in this preview build is right on par with the rest of the game's technical achievements. An announcer will quickly and succinctly inform you of the course layout. His commentary is so detailed and timely that you will find yourself struggling to keep up. He'll mention if it's all right to cut a turn tight or will warn you if trees or rocks will keep you from doing so. The music in the game is of the techno variety and fits the bill quite well. Engine sounds are different for each vehicle, and they aid in letting you know whether your wheels are about to break loose from the pavement. There are a myriad of environmental sound effects already included in the game, and there must be dozens of different sounds that are triggered depending on the terrain your car is riding over.
While it's nowhere near as deep a simulation as the Gran Turismo series, Rallisport Challenge is looking to make its claim as the most realistic Xbox driving game available. Realism can sometimes translate into a lack of fun where video games are concerned, but the sense of speed is impressive, the controls are tight and fun to master, and the selection of cars and tracks should keep things interesting for quite some time. Rallisport Challenge is currently scheduled for release in mid-March. We'll have more information when it becomes available.