So you've finally clambered up the near-vertical learning curve of Grand Prix Legends, and you've moved to the head of the pack in NASCAR Racing 3. You've even found time to master the bump-and-grind action of touring-car racing in TOCA 2. Feeling pretty proud of your racing-sim expertise? Well don't get cocky just yet, because Mobil 1 Rally Championship takes all the skills you've mastered for those games and tosses a bunch of them right out the window. Mobil 1 Rally Championship is minimalist, simple, and brutally challenging. Rally racing is quite possibly the most complete test of driving skills ever devised - and Mobil 1 Rally Championship puts you as close to the action as you could ever hope to get. Once you become accustomed to some of the game's quirky control issues, you'll find yourself drawn to it time and time again.
In real-life British rallying, each rally championship (of which there are several in addition to the one simulated in Mobil 1) comprises a series of individual rallies. A single rally consists of a course divided into several stages, some of which have service areas where damage that a car's taken can be repaired. But these stations aren't like pit stops in a Formula 1 or NASCAR race, where a pit crew's sheer speed can give the driver an advantage; instead, each car is allotted the same amount of time to fix everything that's been damaged over the previous stage or two.
As such, strategy plays a pivotal role: You may have four, five, or more items in need of repair but only enough time allotted to work on only two or three, so your decisions at a service area can have a drastic effect on whether you'll finish the next stage, not to mention the rest of the race. And when you see the types of roads that make up the 36 stages of the Mobil 1 British Rally Championship - imagine the back roads you'd expect a Tennessee moonshiner to use in trying get his weekly load to Knoxville, then add rain, snow, and ice - you'll get a real appreciation for just how much damage your car is liable to take.
The slate of cars in Mobile 1 Rally Championship is both accurate and exhaustive. Not counting the "secret cars" promised in the latest patch, you'll find more than 20 autos divided into four classes based on engine size, and all of the cars have taken part in various British Rallies. Cars from Ford, Nissan, Honda, Skoda, Peugeot, Citroën, Renault, Proton, Vauxhall, Hyundai, VW, Mitsubishi, Seat, and Subaru are available, though the cream of the crop, the 4WD vehicles, can't be accessed until you win the Mobil 1 Championship and move on to the A8 series.
Because rally cars are all basically production cars souped up for rallying, you won't find the sort of mind-numbing array of setup options in the game as you would in sims like NASCAR Racing 3 or Grand Prix Legends. In Mobil 1, you have a choice of tire types, suspension height and stiffness, rudimentary gear differential settings, transmissions (auto, semiauto, and manual), brake balance, and steering sensitivity. Although it might take a few races for you to fully appreciate the differences between the handling and performance of vehicles in the same class, rest assured that these vehicles do indeed have distinct characteristics. I shaved nearly a full minute off my time on the rugged first stage at Vauxhall just by switching from a Nissan Almera to a Renault Megane.
While the game's handful of setup options might leave some motorheads aching for more to do before hitting the course, the truth is that such micro-tinkering isn't part of the real deal. And the adjustments in all the available categories do have a forceful impact on how your car responds, even though you might not realize it at first as you bounce down a rocky gully frantically trying to stay as close to the middle of the path as possible. Many roads are bounded by banks, which are essentially launching ramps for drivers unlucky enough to hit them at high speeds, and by a slew of hairpin curves, 90-degree turns, and wicked chicanes. And obstacles, like the hay bales and logs that litter the road, make things even more difficult. Thankfully, the game's damage model is toned down a bit from what you'd expect in real life, so slamming sideways into a pine at 60mph doesn't automatically result in a DNF; in fact, you'll have to beat up your car really badly before it'll finally give up the ghost.But you won't notice such details right away because you'll be too busy pinching yourself to make sure you aren't dreaming once you get an eyeful of the brilliant terrain and scenery that developer Magnetic Fields created for the game. Some of the forests farther from the track are rendered in 2D, but the trees near the course are actual 3D models, complete with limbs hanging low enough for your car to brush against as you careen down the road. It's true that the spectators along the track are rather few in number, quite unlike the rallies I've seen on Speedvision where bystanders line entire stretches of each stage.
Still, your eyes will bug out when you see the photo-realistic quality of everything from the dirt and rocks to the fences, boulders, sheep, cattle, grass, clouds, and mountains. You name it, and it's probably on one of these courses. What qualifies as photo-realistic may be subject to change over the years, but until further notice, the terrain, the scenery, and the car graphics in Mobil 1 Rally Championship come closer to reality than those in any other driving game.
Although the heart and soul of Mobil 1 is the championship mode, which consists of all six rallies in the Mobil 1 Championship, you can also race on a single stage, advance through an arcade mode, and run time trials on single stages. Unfortunately, the arcade and single-rally modes offer little in the way of interest or excitement. You'd think the single-rally mode would be a great way to practice an entire rally before signing up for the season, but the lack of car setup options means that about all it's good for is memorizing the pretzel-like courses that make up each stage. You can memorize them just as easily in the time-trial mode, where you also have the advantage of being able to set up your car the way you like it.
Then there's the arcade mode, which at first seems to be a good way to relax from the rigors of the championship mode, but actually falls short of delivering any sort of enjoyment. It's the only mode where other cars are on the track, which could have made for some nice bumping and tapping to gain an advantage, and also for a fun multiplayer game. Too bad that a multiplayer option isn't even available for the arcade mode, probably because the game's frame rate drops by nearly 50 percent compared with the relatively smooth animation of the other modes, where you're the only vehicle on the road.
Mobil 1 has a few other problems. The game has fairly steep system requirements and awkward default controls. In addition, more than a few racing-sim fans have complained that the physics and handling in Mobil 1 are flawed, and after my first few wretched runs, I felt the same way. Yet by adjusting the steering sensitivity and setting up the dead zones to accommodate my driving style, I soon found myself logging respectable if not great times. Even if you still don't like the handling after a lot of practice, you can opt to create a configuration file that affects all sorts of things, such as gravity, the "stickiness" of gravel, tarmac, grass, braking distances, and so forth. With just a little work, I not only wound up making the driving seem a bit more realistic but also a lot more fun.
Mobil 1 has options for multiplayer support over Mplayer and HEAT.net. Although you never race directly against opponents in rallies, it'd still be a blast if there were an option to start a rally that competing drivers could join all day long. But until such a matchmaking service is created, the rabid fan base that the game will surely garner will certainly come up with its own multiplayer events. Make no mistake: If you're into racing sims and have the patience to get used to this wild motorsport, then you can't do any better than Mobil 1 Rally Championship.