Rallisport Challenge is the kind of game that you will show off to impress all your friends and family members--it looks and plays that good. Developed by Sweden-based Digital Illusions, the game has what's arguably some of the best graphics yet to grace the Xbox since Halo and Dead or Alive 3, and even if you're not particularly interested in driving games, you should own Rallisport Challenge just for the sake of marveling at its visual splendor. But underneath its layer of graphics is an equally impressive driving game that re-creates the sheer thrill of driving a 450-horsepower rally car in a way that few other games have in the past. To be clear, Rallisport Challenge is by no means a simulation, and the only part of the sport that the game truly captures is the actual driving; other aspects of rally racing have been left out in favor of making the game accessible to a wider range of people than those who have bumper stickers that read "My other car is a Lancia Stratos." Still, fans of the world rally championship league--and those who aren't--will greatly appreciate Rallisport Challenge.
Rallisport Challenge is actually four different rally games in one. There are a total of 41 tracks spread across 12 different environments, and each one of these falls under one of four unique rally types. There are the traditional rally races, wherein you race against the clock throughout a series of checkpoints; ice racing, which involves competing against three other opponents on ice-slicked roads; hill climbs, which are similar to rally races, but your overall objective is to scale a mountain as fast as possible; and rally cross events, which are circuit-based races against other drivers on tracks that have several different types of terrain, like mud, gravel, or asphalt. To be precise, the tracks in the game are made up of one of six different terrain types, and each one has a dramatic effect on the way your car handles. Tarmac, for example, provides for extraordinary grip but makes it somewhat difficult for you to powerslide through corners, a technique that's a staple of rally racing. Gravel and mud, on the other hand, will affect how fast you accelerate in a straight line, but the relative lack of traction makes it easier to push your car around turns. Before every race, you're given the option of choosing a tire compound that's best suited for the current track conditions, but things such as changing weather conditions (a light drizzle at the start of a race might clear up by the time you cross the finish line) and multiple surface types (some tracks consist of mud and gravel or tarmac and sand) will add a bit of challenge to this selection process.
As you'd probably expect from a racing game, Rallisport Challenge is split up between a persistent career mode and a quick race mode designed to get you in and out of a race as fast as possible. A third option, a time attack mode, is also available. Time attack is similar to quick race, but in it, you compete against the clock, not other cars. Obviously, the game's core lies in the career mode. Here, you'll create a persona and compete in a series of 19 events that are split up across four difficulty levels. Each of these events is made up of anywhere from three to nine individual rally, hill climb, rally cross, or ice races, and you'll get points for driving each course faster than the posted times for first, second, and third place. Initially, only the easiest series of races are available to you, but as you rack up enough points, you'll unlock subsequent events. If you didn't think you gave a certain series of races your best shot, you can go back and try it again, though you'll lose all the points that you had previously gained, so there's a bit of risk involved in reattempting old races. Interestingly enough, you also get points for completing each race with as little damage to your car as possible. If you aren't careful, your car can end up with broken taillights, shattered windows, and bent fenders, and the more cuts and bruises that your car accrues, the fewer points you'll get at the end of each race. No matter how much you bang up your car, though, damage has no effect on its handling or performance. As you unlock tracks in the career mode, they'll be made available for you in the time attack and quick race modes.
You'll also unlock a new batch of cars after qualifying for a new difficulty level. In all, there are 25 real-world cars from manufacturers such as Audi, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Lancia, Opel, and others, and each controls in a unique manner. The front-wheel-drive Citroen cars, for example, will understeer dramatically during cornering while you're on the gas--lift your foot off the throttle (or your thumb off the controller), and the car's rear will snap to the outside. All-wheel-drive cars in the game behave markedly differently and are decidedly more balanced in turns, even though some of the more powerful vehicles do tend to oversteer a bit. While some cars are more suited to certain environments than others, you'll probably choose a favorite and stick with it for the majority of your career. You can't buy any upgrades for your cars in Rallisport Challenge, though you can tweak several of their handling characteristics, such as the steering speed, gear ratio, suspension stiffness, and brake balance. All these changes make a significant change in your car's performance--a change that you'll easily be able to feel while driving.
After a few minutes behind the wheel of this game, you'll quickly realize that it's not really a rally simulator per se. Its slightly exaggerated sense of speed is designed to give the game a little excitement, and certainly, you'll feel a rush as you blast down winding mountain roads at 140kph, with a solid wall of trees and boulders on one side of your car and a sharp cliff on the other. The physics model is also a little forgiving, letting you do things like get a little more hang time off jumps than would have been possible in real life or power through a turn using nothing more than your handbrake. Still, Rallisport Challenge isn't easy. At first, you'll often find yourself sliding off the road after applying a little too much of the brakes or flipping end over end after colliding with a tree. There isn't a tutorial in the game, but you'll learn an important lesson very quickly: speed kills. Staying on the gas, braking too late, and not turning early enough are sure ways of crashing. And while the spectacular accidents in the game are a sight to behold, it takes only a couple of crashes in any given race to put you out of contention. Still, the game's well-balanced mix of slightly liberal physics and the realistic handling properties of the cars make for a driving experience that few racing games can match. You'll have a blast driving each course, and you'll find that there's no better feeling than finally nailing every turn of a course you've been trying to master for a while.
Adding to this driving experience are the game's amazing graphics. Nothing brings a game to life better than great visuals, and such is the case with Rallisport Challenge. The environments are spectacularly detailed--a subtle amount of bump mapping on the terrain adds a three-dimensional texture to the different driving surfaces. The icy roads, for example, have a slick sheen of water visible under the sunlight, and you can easily make out the individual indentations in the gravel. Level design is usually an important consideration for shooters, not driving games--but not so with Rallisport. Every turn, every tree, and every rock is deliberately placed to keep you challenged. Many of the blind corners in the game, for example, will dump you smack into the trunk of a solitary tree--or off a cliff! Many open turns have a rock or two hidden underneath a thick patch of grass, making cutting some corners a risky proposition. Rallisport Challenge really lets the Xbox flex its muscles--the game has no clipping plane to speak of, the lighting is subtle and not overpowering, and vegetation such as long grass and trees look incredibly realistic. The cars themselves are also modeled with an eye for detail. Cars reflect the sun and their environments realistically without looking like they're made of chrome. What's more, the more you drive your car, the dirtier it gets. By the end of each race, the bottom half of your car will be caked with a nice layer of dirt, mud, or dust, depending on the kind of track you were driving on. You'll be hard pressed to find any clipping problems between the cars and the terrain, and the collision detection is exact--you'll never wonder in frustration why one of your wheels clipped a rock.
For the most part, the game's sound effects are on par with its visual prowess. Each of the 25 cars has a distinct engine noise that varies realistically as you row through the gears, as well as a unique exhaust note that changes depending on your perspective to the car. You can even make out the whiny blow-off valve when you lift off the throttle of some of the turbo cars. Likewise, each of the different terrain types sounds different. Driving over mud leaves somewhat of a wet sound, for example. Your navigator's voice never seems to get repetitive or annoying either, despite the British accent. The game's music is composed mostly of electronic tunes from the likes of Dub Pistols, Soundmine, and Fear Factory. You can add and remove tracks from the game's playlist in the options menu and add any additional tracks that you may have sitting on your Xbox hard drive. As is to be expected, Rallisport Challenge supports up to four players via a split screen, though you can enter only the events and drive only the cars that you've unlocked in the career mode.
It's somewhat noteworthy that the Xbox is only a few months old, and yet, it already has no fewer than 10 driving games available for it. However, none of those games deserve your attention as much as Rallisport Challenge does. This is easily the best driving game currently available for the Xbox, and no Xbox owner should be caught without it.