Test Drive V-Rally Preview

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The rally genre has been a crowded one recently. With tons of titles on the horizon like Test Drive Rally, Mobil 1 Rally Championship, 4 Wheel Thunder, Colin Mc Rae Rally 1 & 2, and many more, it seems as if the boom has only just started. But where does it all come from? Not even the developers of V-Rally know that. David Nadal of Eden Studios explains: "You know, in this industry if a company makes a game that has a huge success, you will automatically see other companies copying the game's style. Look at what happened with Doom. Besides, I think that this genre deals with the player's desire to drive powerful real cars on real roads, sliding around corners and dirtying their cars."

For sure, most of us can say that the next-generation rally fever started with V-Rally, at least in Europe, when it was launched in 1997. Although the game was mainly poorly received in the US, critical voices also arose in Europeans who thought that the handling of the cars was far too difficult to master.

It remains an open question why V-Rally was received so much better in Europe compared with the States. "I think it's because 'real' rallying is much more popular in Europe than in the US," explains David Nadal. "Maybe because rallying is not very TV- friendly and in US, if your are not on TV, then you're lost."

Two years later, Infogrames published the long-awaited sequel, V-Rally 2, in Europe, and it improved mainly the game's controls and graphics. Developer Eden Studios admitted that the controls were indeed a little tricky and that this also was the main issue that needed to be optimized. According to Eden Studios, the game was too realistic (the company had professional rally drivers consulting them) and thereby proved way too difficult to master for gamers who were not rally drivers in a former life.]

V-Rally 2 also had many other new features to offer on the PlayStation. A fine four-player split-screen mode for multiplayer action and the track generator, which already had been promised for the first V-Rally game, also finally made an appearance.

But let's talk some numbers here. The Dreamcast version of V-Rally 2 features some major improvements over the PlayStation version. In total there are 16 rally cars from the '99 season, as well as ten classic rally cars that can be unlocked as you progress through the game. As most of us can imagine, the DC version will sport some major graphical improvements. The car models, for example, will feature an impressive 2200 polygons compared with the usual 300-500 polygons of a PlayStation car. The cars all feature transparent windowswhich let you easily view the animated drivers and copilotsThe cars feature progressive graphics for car damage, as well as for dirt marksYou will have the ability to race 84 tracks or stages through 12 different countries. We have been talking to David Nadal from the French development company Eden Studios about the project. He's the lead programmer of the Dreamcast version of V-Rally 2, and he was so kind to give us an interesting view behind the scenes: "What I want to say is that VRally2 Dreamcast is not a simple port of the PlayStation version. Almost everything has been redone. The textures of the tracks have been re-created in 16 bits (65000 colors) compared to the four-bit (16 colors) PlayStation version. The size of those textures has been multiplied by four. Regarding the cars, they have been modeled with 2200 polygons, and one in-car view has been added. Special effects have also been changed with dust and mud settling progressively on the car, projections, and sparks.... Dynamics have been reprogrammed with floats instead of integer numbers (better precision). And all is now at 60 frames per second! In the end, only the game design is still the same."

For those of you who wondered why your car has been performing rollovers although you only lightly touched the rocks at the side of the road, it might come as a relief that the physics and collision detection have been redone too. Nadal explains: "One of the improvements of the game was to convert all the dynamic/collision codes to the floating points numbers. Floating points are more accurate than the integers used on the PlayStation. This has resulted in a smoother handling and higher speed impressions."Another Dreamcast-only feature will be that the replays can be saved to the VMU, the visual memory unit. Of course, the Dreamcast also would allow Internet play to be a major topic. David Nadal continues: "We have planned to store the scores, the ghosts, and the tracks created with the editor. We will open the possibility to upload or download ghosts and tracks from the Internet, but the game won't play via the Web. Today we don't have enough information to make an Internet version of the game. Libraries and documentations are far from being final, and even if we had them, making a playable racing game over the Internet at 60fps between the server and the player is very difficult to do. I think that at the beginning only strategy games will be playable on the Internet and later (depending on the time allowed to develop this single feature) real-time action games will come."

Of course taking a game from the PS to the Dreamcast leaves the developers with many problems too. One of them is that the Dreamcast hardware can deal with much more complexity within the tracks: more colors, more polygons, and more details. If the developers would just take the same track on the new platform, it would look rather dull compared with titles that have had the Dreamcast as the lead platform (for example, Hydro Thunder). Eden Studios had the same problem of reworking the tracks: "To achieve this work in such a short time we have worked with a lot of in-house and external artists, but one of our biggest problems was the frame rate. When you add so many 3D details at 60fps, even if the machine has more power, it's very difficult to keep the frame rate high. What we have done is that we've used the lowest programming level on the Dreamcast allowed by Sega, and we have converted all the time-consuming engine parts into assembler language." says Nadal.

The issue of realism is often being discussed between players and developers. How much realism does the gaming community want? It remains a very tricky area. "It's not an easy question," says David Nadal, lead programmer on the Dreamcast version of V-Rally 2. "It depends on what you mean by realism. If it's the dust moved by the car, the mud on its side, the photo-realism of the track, or everything related to special effects and graphics, my answer is yes, realism makes racing games more fun to play. If it's about the car dynamics, you have to be careful. You have to find the balance between realism and fun. Since the player is not really in the car, he can't drive like a real driver; the lack of vibrations, accelerations and all the sensual indications of driving in an actual car makes the game very difficult. That's what we have done with the first V-Rally; everything was dynamically exact with no compromise for the gameplay, and the result was that it was very difficult to master. For the sequel we have kept the dynamic engine and added some assistances to give the player more fun, and this works much better. At the end, what is important is that the player gets the feeling that he's driving a real car. It doesn't matter if you cheat to achieve this goal. If you have to be a rally driver to master the game, well, nobody will find it fun." It remains to be seen how "real" the Dreamcast version of the game will play, but who can really tell? None of us has ever been a rally driver, so it can be expected that the game will focus on gameplay instead of realism. New features, such as crossroads and bridges on which you will see other cars racing underneath, will add a lot to the fun feeling of the game.

In the end, we all wonder whether there will be a forthcoming PlayStation 2 version of the V-Rally series Eden Studios doesn't want to give away too many clues yet though. According to Nadal? "We have been working on PS2 since September '99 and it's a great console but I can't tell much about our future projects. What is sure is that Eden Studios will not develop only racing games."

Ben Stahl's Gameplay Impressions:

Let's face it, V-Rally just isn't all that popular here in the States. Infogrames knows this and has tweaked Test Drive V-Rally so it is more like an arcade racer that just happens to take place on V-Rally courses than the strict, totally realistic rally racers on the European market. As such, V-Rally has you racing opponents, it features completely unrealistic arcade-racing physics, and it's actually a whole lot of fun

The graphics are really clean, and the game looks good. One of the coolest views is an in-car camera, which actually shows your driver's hands turning the wheel and shifting, and it even features your navigator's arms flailing about if you happen to smash into anything.

If you're into arcade racing, and you liked Sega Rally 2, this might be the next big thing.

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