On a console as rife with quality racing games as the Xbox, it's tough to really pick a standout, top dog among the bunch. However, many would argue that if you were to pick one, Digital Illusions' 2002 arcade rally racer Rallisport Challenge would be the one to take the title. For all the good that comes with such a distinction, it's also a pretty tough title to live down when trying to create a sequel to such a distinguished game. However, Digital Illusions has proven that it was up to the task of creating a game that is just as meaningful in this era of the Xbox's lifespan as the original Rallisport Challenge was in its time. Rallisport Challenge 2 has everything you loved about its predecessor and then some, such as better handling and superb visuals and sound. Rallisport Challenge 2 isn't just a sequel--it is easily one of the most purely pleasurable driving experiences you're likely to encounter on any platform.
In any good racing title, it all comes down to the driving mechanics, and Rallisport Challenge 2 is no exception. The first Rallisport game was very arcade-inspired in its methodology, going heavy on the exaggerated physics and crashes. Rallisport 2 is still very much an arcade racer, but a higher emphasis has been put on realism. The game's primary racing controls are simply relegated to the two trigger buttons and the left analog stick. You accelerate with the right trigger, brake with the left, and steer with the stick. You can use the emergency brake by pushing the A button, though in most instances the regular brake works fine for sliding around corners without causing you to spin out too ridiculously. You will still skate around the track a bit more than you would in a more realistic racer like Colin McRae Rally 04, for instance; but all told, the driving controls in Rallisport 2 handle superbly.
Adding to the more realistic elements of the game are the various cars themselves. There are more than 40 licensed cars in the game, and each one drives just a bit differently. Some are more sluggish, some handle better, and others are higher in durability. You can definitely feel the differences in each car, and you will probably be able to pick out specific cars that perform best to your style of driving. You also have the ability to tune your car's performance before every race. Multiple tuning categories are at your fingertips, ranging from tire type, to gear ratio, to brake stiffness--to almost every aspect of your suspension you would want to tweak. Not all of these adjustments are immediately noticeable, but over time you'll become more aware of the differences these changes really can make in your driving ability.
Of course, no driving game would be fully complete without the ability to wreck, break, and otherwise maim your car in all kinds of crazy ways. There is simply no greater mix of agony and ecstasy than to be able to crash your car spectacularly--and Rallisport 2 does not disappoint in this regard. The game's basic crash physics are more than just sound. Smaller objects like signs and loose barriers go flying when you slam into them, and larger obstacles will appropriately cause your car to give under the pressure if you crash into a large building or tree going 90mph, for instance. Cars will roll for quite a distance given the right circumstances, and usually your car will go flying when sent off a cliff, crevice, or any other kind of drop. Occasional hiccups in the feasibility of crashing will present themselves--such as the ability to simply drive up certain walls, rather than crash into them, and instances where your car will be oddly unscathed after a fairly nasty wreck--but these instances are quite few and far between.
To match with these excellent crash physics, Digital Illusions has taken damage modeling pretty much to the hilt of what we've seen thus far in console driving games. Every piece of your car can be destroyed in one way or another. Windows crack and break; car bodies will dent, crack, and occasionally be sheared right off; spoilers and bumpers will partially come off, dangling for dear life as you bounce around a track; and, if you screw up badly enough, tires will even be sent flying. The one real downside to the game's excellent damage modeling is that only in rare instances will this damage ever really affect your driving. Losing tires and rolling your car to the point of losing nearly every removable piece of your vehicle creates some issues with controlling your vehicle, but there's never really a time where you can't drive the car at all unless you turn on a heavy damage option, which is only available outside of career mode. While these sorts of things certainly lend themselves to the more arcade nature of the game's style of driving, it is a bit disappointing in the wake of a game like Colin McRae 04, which lets you destroy a car so it's not even driveable.
Rallisport 2's damage modeling is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the graphical improvements made over the previous Rallisport game. One needs to only look at the difference between the car models in the first Rallisport and Rallisport 2, and an immense difference can be seen. Not only are the cars polished to near photo-realism, they also feature beautiful reflective surfaces as well as degradable dirt and dust cover, dependant on what type of track you're driving on. Every visual effect associated with the cars, from the kicking up of dirt on a dusty road, to the sparks that fly as you scrape along a barrier, look absolutely great. There just aren't better car models available in any game currently on the console racing market.
The same could easily be said for the different tracks in the game as well. From the bumpy desert roads of Australia to the tarmac-covered tracks of the USA to the snowy ice courses of Canada--every track looks flat-out awesome. The road and track textures look absolutely perfect, and nearly every background piece, from trees to buildings to distant hills, all look excellent. Little touches really make the difference here too, such as the subtle clouds of dust and fog that hover and swirl around certain tracks, and the game's truly superb rain effects, including the admittedly played out, but still well-done water-on-the-screen effect. Of course, none of this is to say that Rallisport 2's graphics are flawless. The draw distance for many background objects--especially trees and shrubbery--is rather short, and pop-up is readily apparent on most tracks. Also, you will note occasional jaggy textures on some cars, as well as a distinct lack of particle effects for breaking windows and for any other type of car damage. None of these issues take anything away from the game, but when you consider how fantastic the game as a whole looks, they stick out a bit more than usual. All things considered, however, the game looks incredible, and is as much of a pleasure to watch as it is to play.
In terms of features, Rallisport Challenge 2 easily outshines its predecessor. Five different race types are available in the game, including traditional rally races, ice racing, rallycross, crossover, and hill climb. For every type of race, there is more than your typical share of available courses. Though some fall under the category of being a slight variation of an existing track, the number of possible tracks is just over 90, and by any measurement, that's a whole lot. In terms of gameplay modes, the game has the typical single-race and time-trial modes as well as the career mode. The career mode features four different difficulties: amateur, pro, champion, and super-rally. Within each career, you are given a certain number of rallies to participate in, with anywhere from two to four different races in each rally. Depending on your placement in a rally, you'll earn points which go toward your career standing, as well as toward unlocking new rallies within that particular career.
The career mode is also your primary source of regular unlockables. Granted, you can unlock new skins for your cars simply by reaching certain mileage points on each car, but to actually unlock new cars and tracks, you'll have to play through each version of the career mode (most of the tracks and cars are locked at the outset of the game, so it's pretty much a requirement that you play through it). While getting through the four different careers is a time-consuming affair, it isn't always a challenging one. Predictably, the amateur level career is very easy, but it's almost easy to a fault, as it is quite a simple task to just blast through every race in that career. Pro is actually only slightly more difficult, and it only takes longer because it features more races. The champion and super-rally careers are far more difficult than what the amateur and pro careers have to offer, so at least the mode isn't totally devoid of challenge. Still, the shift between difficulty levels is poorly balanced.
Rallisport Challenge 2, like nearly every Microsoft-published game at this point, features Xbox Live to the full extent that you would expect. Players can host their own races or simply search for race lobbies. Hosts can adjust any number of things, like default camera types, whether or not manual gear shifting is required or not, and whether or not collision is turned on. Collision is the most intriguing aspect of the game's online play, as it actually seems to have a hand in the number of cars you can have in a specific race. With collision turned on, the maximum to a race is four cars; with it off, the maximum is 16. Also, with collision turned off, you don't actually see the full car models of your opponents; rather, you're given colored outlines of the cars. This isn't really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is a little bizarre that the ability to collide with other cars actually determines the number of cars in a race. Rallisport Challenge 2 also includes XSN support, featuring individual and team-based seasons as well as tournaments and trackable stats via the XSN Web site. In terms of online performance, little, if any lag was apparent in any of the matches we played. Occasionally, cars would jump and skip around tracks a bit, but it never really affected anything beyond the visual presentation, and it was more of a minor nuisance than anything else.
Rounding out the game is Rallisport Challenge 2's excellent audio presentation. From an in-game perspective, everything that makes for great racing audio is front and center. Nearly every car type has distinct engine sounds, and the various in-race sound effects, like crashes, slideouts, tires screeching, and even the sounds of tires bouncing over the different driving surfaces--it all sounds just right; though, just right turns a whole lot better when you take advantage of the game's excellent Dolby Digital support. The game's soundtrack is made up entirely of licensed music--albeit instrumental versions of the licensed songs. Most of it falls under the category of typical nu-metal and electronica, and it works well as background ambience. If the soundtrack isn't your cup of tea, however, Rallisport 2 thankfully provides you with custom soundtrack support.
When you add up the sum of Rallisport Challenge 2's parts, what you get is a fantastic rally racing game from top to bottom. The game may have a few minor blemishes, but few, if any of them do much of anything to undermine the game's accomplishments. Rallisport Challenge 2 provides an incredibly deep and enjoyable racing experience in every facet of its gameplay, and the presentational and feature upgrades give the game a huge boost of replay value over its predecessor. It is a wonderful sequel, as well as a wonderful stand-alone racer, and if you have any interest in the rally racing or arcade racing genres, Rallisport Challenge 2 should not be passed up.