It sure is a great time to be a rally racing fan and an Xbox owner. We've already been treated to games like Rallisport Challenge and, more recently, Colin McRae Rally 3, both great games that re-create the thrills of rally racing in their own ways. With V-Rally 3, developer Eden Studios has added another impressive rally game to that mix, one that boasts exciting action, a strong career mode, and attractive graphics.
Unlike Rallisport Challenge, with its fictional racing modes, V-Rally 3 keeps a generally realistic focus. Just like real rally racing, all the game modes pit you against time and the terrain; you won't be racing directly against other cars here. In V-Rally 3, you'll find two different types of quick races: one featuring single rally stages and the other featuring groups of multiple stages. Either mode can be played alone or with up to four players, where you try to beat your friends' times. While most tracks are initially locked, you'll still find a good number of them open for racing immediately, so you'll be roaring across colorful landscapes in Finland, France, England, Sweden, Germany, and Africa right from the start. Regardless of the locale, the racing stages tend to be unrealistically short, usually lasting about two to four minutes each, though they typically don't feel too short in practice.
You'll find the heart of V-Rally 3 in its relatively deep career mode. Unlike in Colin McRae Rally 3, which focused on its namesake driver and his Ford Focus, you'll have broader options here. First, you'll get to name your driver and choose his nationality and appearance. Then, from an office you visit between races, you'll get to check e-mail on your computer to learn of offers to join different teams--provided you can prove you have the right stuff. As your career progresses from season to season, you'll get the opportunity to drive all sorts of 1.6-liter front-wheel-drive cars and 2.0-liter four-wheel-drive cars for different teams. The cars are based on real ones, so you'll blast down straights and whip through turns in a Subaru Impreza, Ford Focus RS, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII, and other well-known vehicles.
What's nice about the career mode is the many choices it offers you as you proceed. When you start out, you'll receive offers to try out for a few different teams, each rated for morale, reliability, and budget, all of which affect how well your car will perform and how thoroughly it can be repaired between race stages. It's easy to ink a contract with a weak team mired in the bottom of the standings, and the season goals they set for you will be relatively easy. The teams with more money and skill at repairing and maintaining cars will be harder to join and will require more of you if you want to remain in their good graces. Either way, the better you perform over the course of a season, the better your team will become, which in turn makes winning easier.
Winning is always a challenge in V-Rally 3 since your competition will post some really impressive times. If you want to beat them, you'll need to drive superbly. That's no easy task when you're zooming across the countryside in a downpour on a narrow, muddy road lined with menacing trees and boulders. V-Rally 3 offers a thrilling sense of speed, and when you couple that with the treacherous rural terrain and frequently nasty weather, it means you'll need to maintain laserlike focus if you want to succeed. The slightest slipups cost you valuable time at best. At worst, you'll end up with your car upside down in a ditch or flying off a cliff into the abyss. If nothing else, V-Rally 3 really gets your adrenaline surging.
V-Rally 3 tends more toward simulation than arcade-style action, so you'll need a steady hand to drive effectively and post really good times. One of the big complaints about V-Rally 3 when it was initially released on the PlayStation 2 last October was that the controls were extremely twitchy. Eden Studios made an effort to improve the controls for the Xbox version, though it has only partially succeeded. You'll need a subtle touch to keep the cars under control, but you should be able to pick up a good feel for them after just a couple of races--at least with the 1.6-liter cars. The faster 2.0-liter cars take more effort to control, not so much because of controller sensitivity, but because of some questionable physics modeling that makes the cars seem too light. They just spin and flip too easily.
To get the most out of your car, you'll find fairly extensive car setup screens. The default setups usually work well enough, but if you want, you can choose from multiple tire types and then adjust their pressure for more grip or more speed. You can tweak the suspension, ride height, and stabilizers, and you can alter the gearbox ratio, differentials, and brake bias.
In keeping with its relatively realistic focus, V-Rally 3 pays a lot of attention to damage modeling. Slipups will result in damage to headlights, suspension, the gearbox, and more. In the career mode, you'll usually only get to service your car after every two rally stages, and even then you'll have to select carefully what you want your crew to fix in the limited time allotted them. So, a little damage can go a long way toward putting you out of the running. Fortunately, the damage model is relaxed to where a bashed-up car will definitely create real problems for you, but you'll have to truly total your vehicle to suffer a breakdown. On top of that, the game lets you put your car back on the track with the press of a button without hurting your time much, which actually seems too forgiving.
One of the most impressive things about V-Rally 3 is how it models the damage visually. When you switch to an external camera view or watch a race replay, you'll see a dead taillight where your car banged into a tree, or you'll spot missing bodywork, holes in the windows, a mangled hood, and more. If your bumper flies off, you can even smack into it as it tumbles out in front of your car. Sustain too much damage to your front end, and you'll notice the hood start to vibrate violently as you drive over ruts and bumps in the road. Even if you somehow manage to keep your car scratch-free, you'll notice that it gets progressively dirtier, with dust and grime coating the bodywork and windshield.
The visuals overall really shine in V-Rally 3. It's true that the graphics won't make you forget the visually stunning Rallisport Challenge. It's true, too, that some textures seem a little simplistic or washed out, and the character models certainly need more work. But V-Rally 3's cars are wonderfully detailed, and the terrain is genuinely varied to reflect the dense pine forests of Finland or the reddish plains of Africa, for example. The weather effects look outstanding. Realistic fog will turn to rain, with water pooling on the road and droplets beading on your windshield. On the icy roads of Sweden, you'll notice frost collecting on your headlight shrouds. The glare from the setting sun looks wonderfully convincing, and it's not just for show either, but has a real effect on your racing as you try to spot upcoming turns amid the dazzling light. Along with the weather effects, clever little trackside details help bring the locales to life, too. As you race around a turn, you might see a small herd of deer desperately scrambling across the road, or you might spot a helicopter hovering nearby to film the race.
V-Rally 3's audio isn't as good as the visuals, but it generally succeeds nicely. Engine noises, slipping tires, gear shifting, and other driving sounds seem convincing. Your navigator's voice is clear as he reads off the pace notes to you, though some warnings come later than they should. On the downside, the game's lame menu soundtrack is forgettable at best and downright annoying at worst. Fortunately, you can turn this music off.
Weaknesses like that usually don't hurt V-Rally 3 too much in the end. It's true that the gameplay modes might not be varied enough for some tastes, and controlling some cars can be quite tough, at least at first. Still, the driving is genuinely challenging and exciting, and the game features just the right level of realism to keep things fun for fans of real rally racing without getting too frustrating. Combine that with real-world cars and a solid career mode, and you get an impressive rally racing game.