Driving games have really evolved in the past few years. Aside from looking much better than ever before, driving games have managed to achieve an exceptional level of realism in a genre that was once extremely simple. Now many driving games attempt to include real-world physics that end up making high-speed races more of a challenge, requiring you to really know the limits of your vehicle and the value of what a little tuning in the garage might bring. Considering that the current generation of driving games is largely made possible by the processing power of today's game systems, you probably wouldn't expect a Game Boy Advance driving game to be on par with the titles on standard consoles. Yet a handful of GBA driving games have excelled, and one of them is V-Rally 3, which features exceptional graphics and great handling.
V-Rally 3 looks amazing. All the tracks are rendered in fully textured 3D. The polygons are prelit, and while the textures aren't of the highest resolution and have a tendency to swim when viewed up close, the effect is still really beautiful to behold. The use of sprite-based elements for the cars, backgrounds, and scenery fits in well with the 3D presentation, making for some great-looking tracks. Relatively speaking, the game looks even better than its PlayStation 2 counterpart. Of course, the graphics aren't without a few flaws. One bug appears in the rally cross mod--when cars ahead of you round a sharp corner, you'll sometimes see them through the hillside. Also, there's a noticeably short draw distance, and you'll see pop-up on the horizon fairly regularly. But these things don't really detract from the gameplay, and they're forgivable considering the platform the game is running on. What's most important is that the game keeps a rapid pace throughout and never drops a frame.
Good looks aren't the only thing that the GBA version of V-Rally 3 brings to the table. While the physics engine isn't exactly the most advanced, it certainly serves the game well. Simply put, the cars in the game behave like cars. They have a noticeable mass to them, and the traction of their tires is easy to understand and predict. The grade of a hill has a significant effect on the tires' hold on the road, as does the driving surface itself, from asphalt to wet gravel to fresh snow. The various cars in the game have different masses, horsepower, and torque ratings, but they don't have unique tendencies to understeer or oversteer, and they don't have noticeably different centers of gravity. But they still behave pretty well--certainly well enough to appeal to gamers from both the arcade racing and simulation racing genres.
V-Rally 3 offers a number of different racing modes in which to take its lifelike cars for a spin, the crowning jewel of which is the V-Rally mode. This mode simulates a rally driver's career. At the beginning, you'll be offered contracts with two different car companies, Volkswagen and Renault, and accepting one will enter you into a championship. Each championship consists of between five and seven races in locations such as Portugal, Kenya, Germany, France, and Great Britain, and each race is divided into five legs. The races themselves are held in the traditional rally style, with one car on the road racing against the clock. At the beginning of each race, you're given a preview of the first two legs, with information on weather, driving surface, and length and a rough map of the course. At this point, you can make modifications to your vehicle to prepare it for the road ahead. Modifications can be made to the car's tires, suspension, brakes, gearbox, and steering. Over the course of the race, the car can sustain damage to the body, suspension, brakes, steering, and turbocharger. You're allowed stops like this every two legs.
When the season is complete, you may be offered contracts with other rally teams if you've performed well enough. There are nine in total, including recognizable names such as Subaru, Mitsubishi, Ford, Fiat, Peugeot, Renault, and Opel. Their cars are broken down into two distinct classes: 1.6 liter and 2.0 liter. The 1.6-liter class, which the V-Rally mode starts in, is incredibly forgiving and really quite easy. However, once you're offered contracts in the 2.0-liter class, the game gets much tougher and ultimately provides a very satisfying challenge that forces you to fight hard for a win and really hone your skills to get first place.
The other gameplay modes V-Rally 3 offers are time trial and V-Rally cross, as well as two-player variants of these (for which you'll need a link cable and two copies of the game). Time trial offers players a chance to practice on each rally course, though without the damage modeling or adverse weather. V-Rally cross allows you to race against three other cars in your class on a three-lap closed circuit. Two runs are made for each race. The first is a practice run that gives you a chance to gain boost by being the first person into the first turn or placing first in a lap. Then you make the final run, where you can use the extra boost to your advantage.
Unfortunately, collisions between cars are handled rather poorly in V-Rally cross: When a car collides with yours, the game will always act as if you rear-ended the other vehicle, in that you'll slow down and your opponent will speed up. While this makes sense when you do hit an opponent from behind, it gets a little frustrating when he or she taps you from the side or even rear-ends you. The time trial and V-Rally cross modes are really best for those who want some quick on-the-go racing action, because the races last only a few minutes each, and you're given a chance to save after each one. Meanwhile, in the V-Rally mode, games can be saved only between each race, and some of the races take as long as 15 minutes to complete--not too bad, but a sleep feature would have been welcome.
Sound is V-Rally 3's weakest point. The game has a fairly good soundtrack when you're looking at the menus, but the audio during the races is mostly limited to engine noise and the sound of gears shifting. All the cars sound the same, though the tires have different sounds depending on the surface they're on. The sounds are all fairly abrasive and tinny, instead of the throaty engine roar or the satisfying tire squeal you'd hope for, and in the end, they don't lend much to the actual gameplay.
Nevertheless, with its incredible graphics, convincing handling, and satisfying challenge, V-Rally 3 for the Game Boy Advance is a very solid racing game. Regardless of whether you prefer arcade-style racing games or more-realistic simulations, the game has a lot to offer. So if you're looking for a great driving game for the Game Boy Advance, do yourself a favor and give V-Rally 3 a try.