The PC gaming industry hasn't always been dominated by modern-day megapublishers such as Electronic Arts and Microsoft. Before all the acquisitions and big-dollar bottom lines, the landscape was dotted with dozens of small, independent development houses that designed games in accordance with their own rules and guidelines. The results were often erratic, yet just as often exciting and original. Austrian-based publisher JoWood Productions takes us back to the best of those times with its first automobile racing game, Rally Trophy. Developed by Finland's Bugbear Entertainment, Rally Trophy is clearly designed to appeal to a niche market. The game focuses on the obscure discipline of solo rally racing, and from a historical perspective. If you enjoy this generally lonely style of driving and can appreciate the game's seriously challenging physics model and unique viewpoint, Rally Trophy will take you on a journey that ranks right up there with the best the genre has to offer.
Unlike most fender-banging PC racing games, Rally Trophy imitates the art of true European rallying. As such, it is essentially a series of perilous time trials in which competitors are released one at a time and asked to negotiate long and sometimes outrageously twisty bits of back road. Apart from a codriver, who incessantly conveys the direction and degree of upcoming turns, you're alone on the track and racing solely against the clock and the posted times of your peers. The game deviates from real-world rallying in that it always positions you as the final entrant and unfortunately doesn't actually let you encounter slower or faster competitors. Yet it is very real in almost ever other sense.
Most drivers will need only a few stints behind the wheel to realize that this Finnish import is one of the most demanding PC racing games currently in circulation. For starters, the courses are almost sadistic in nature. Even with your codriver advising on the degree and proximity of the next turn, you'll never really know exactly what to expect until you get there. Drive a given segment a dozen times, and the game's collection of twists, combinations, elevation changes, and surface variations will keep you guessing. And if you do venture off the beaten path, you may well encounter any number of roadside hazards. Trees and boulders stop you dead in your tracks, ditches suck you in and then spit you up into the air if you exit too quickly, and various forms of smaller hazards wreak havoc with your traction. Sometimes you may even find yourself driving across a great open plain with nary an obstacle in sight. It is important to note that despite their generally unforgiving nature, all of the courses mimic real-life terrain and never feel awkward or artificially cramped or exaggerated. Bugbear has also fashioned enough drivable run-off space on either side of the roadway--space where you can quite easily turn around or go for a little off-road jaunt without ever contacting that final off-limits boundary.
As unpredictable as they are, the courses are also very, very long. Rallies are typically driven in stages, several of which make up each event. In Rally Trophy, much like in last year's Mobil 1 Rally Championship, each segment can eat up several minutes. With 42 total stages and a good chance you'll need dozens of attempts to nail each one, campaigning the full championship is truly a grueling exercise. Add to this the frequent night and rain stages, each of which impacts your top speed and handling in a variety of ways. Even die-hard rally enthusiasts will find the going tough.
Between stages, you'll be compelled to repair the various bumps and bruises that your car has accrued. Although Rally Trophy vehicles somehow emerge relatively unscathed from full end-overs and never shed parts or morph into the tangled hunks of wreckage seen in that other rally favorite, Colin McRae Rally 2.0, they do suffer a variety of bent bumpers, buckled hoods, cracked windshields, dinged fenders, and broken headlights and taillights. Various mechanical characteristics are also affected by abuse, so it is strongly recommended to keep your car safe and far away from ruts and hazards if you don't want to spend precious postevent repair time fixing equipment that shouldn't have been damaged in the first place. And remember, though your tires never detach or pop and always seem to look in good working order, they too will degrade with time and mistreatment.
Yet it is the distinctive appearance and performance attributes of its wonderful vintage automobiles that truly distinguish this from every other rally game. Instead of the contemporary high-tech animals found elsewhere, Rally Trophy takes its drivers back to the '60s and early '70s, when cars were more mechanical than electronic. The game features 11 classic real-life rallying veterans, including such notables as the Mini Cooper S, Ford Cortina and Escort, Volvo Amazon, and Lancia Sratos and Fulvia. Seven of these are kept locked away along with many of the tracks for those who can prove their driving worth, yet each is eventually presented in intricate detail, right on down to the taillights. Bugbear has recorded actual engine notes to go along with each car and obviously worked hard to re-create an astonishingly distinct physics model for each, as well as a seat-of-the-pants feel that today's state-of-the-art machines simply cannot deliver. The sensation of a controlled two- and four-wheel drift is particularly satisfying, as is the willy-nilly feel of such raw, primitive suspension systems. Just try driving one of these little devils with a force feedback stick, and you'll know it's fighting you through every rut and corner. This will be the first chance that PC drivers will have to drive many of these classic sportsters, and it proves to be a thoroughly engrossing and extremely taxing experience that's sure to please serious car buffs.
Nonetheless, Rally Trophy wouldn't be so inherently difficult if it were not for the incredibly fast times posted by the seemingly superhuman computer competitors. This may be the game's biggest flaw, because only the most patient and skillful wheelmen stand a chance of emerging victorious--unless they're unnaturally skilled or completely versed in every segment of every circuit. Hiking the difficulty level to intermediate and above serves only to make them drive even faster than they already do in novice mode, so that won't be an option for anyone but the absolute best. The optional arcade mode does offer several less-strenuous closed courses--and the only opportunity to drive head-to-head with computer-controlled cars--but this certainly doesn't ease the physics model. Nor will it sport a drivable frame rate unless you first detune the resolution to 640x480 and reduce most of the graphics options to their minimums. Nevertheless, the arcade experience is a tremendous amount of fun and thereby should not be glossed over lightly even by the most hard-core traditionalists. Even the multiplayer component, again supporting several cars on the track simultaneously, proves that Rally Trophy can be just as much fun when running fender-to-fender.
Graphically, the game is often stunning and sometimes outrageous. Each wonderfully detailed vehicle sports real-time shadows that vary with the shifting position of the sun. Each little translucent window features real-time reflections. Spinning tires emit twirling dust clouds, and sudden stops produce dirt shards. Whether on the track or off, all driving surfaces are richly textured and filled with interesting details and subtle variations. Bugbear did a good job camouflaging its 2D trees and vegetation but did an unremarkable job depicting various forms of wildlife, which gallop across the road in front of you. Yet the game's most impressive graphical element is its depiction of that glowing orb in the sky we call the sun. Undoubtedly, these are the most complex and dynamic sun flares and effects ever seen in any racing game. Words simply do not do it justice.
Speaking of words, you may want to have a few with the belligerent oaf handling your codriving duties. While he capably communicates upcoming turns and hazards, he is a most annoying sort when you've committed any sort of gaffe. Witticisms such as "OK, this time use your eyes. They'll help. Trust me" and "How did you ever get your license?" may sound amusing in the context of this review but are far less so when barked with such frequency and at such a fevered pitch. Sadly, his speech patterns cannot be customized. Otherwise, the game is alive with distinct engine notes, tire-to-surface noises, and a variety of only semibelievable crash effects that sometimes may not occur when they should. Birds tweet in the background, and the roadside audience roars their approval in what quickly becomes a repetitive audio loop.
It's true that Rally Trophy simply does not offer some of the high-end perks you might have come to expect from racing games. Your car can't be painted, your replays can't be saved, and you won't find the menu interfaces to be quite as polished as those of the Microsofts or the EAs of the world. However, you will find in Rally Trophy a game that clearly comes from the heart and enthusiastically displays the talents of its designers. Imagine Papyrus' classic Grand Prix Legends on dirt, and you have a pretty clear picture of this, one of the great pure driving games of the new millennium.