Our verdict on the PSP version of Sega's racer.
PSP, Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Even when driving forward at breakneck speed, it pays to look in the mirror every once in a while. Not only for the schadenfreude-esque delight of seeing the look in other driver's faces after you have rear-ended them and then cut them up (which is an unfortunate impossibility in Sega Rally due to all the tinted windows) but also to keep an eye on what is coming up behind you and about to blow smoke in your tail-pipe.
Developers Bugbear Entertainment have done just that - metaphorically speaking of course. Well, perhaps literally too judging by how much fun it is in the handheld version of Sega Rally. Seemingly all too aware of other off-road and arcade-style racers that have closed the gap on the esteemed franchise and arguably even surpassed it - racers such as MotorStorm, Ridge Racer, Burnout, Colin McRae Rally (R.I.P.) and more recently DiRT - Bugbear and Sega have gone back to basics, to the back of the grid and started from scratch. All in an effort to stay ahead of the pack.
You'll first notice the draw distance; the sense of scale; the depth, stretching all the way to the mountains in the distance. This is partly achieved though by one of the oldest tricks in the book - a parallax scrolling, washed-out background. What once was old is now new again. Not that it matters much as there are no doubt many corners cut and shortcuts taken in order to keep the frame rate high and the game smooth and accomplished. Which is ironic in a number of ways. Why? Well, first of all is an annoyance and a cheat common to almost all non-progressive racers - starting at the back of the grid. Why do you always start in last place? Why do designers think this is a fair and balanced design decision? Is this the only way to provide a competent racing challenge? This might not be such a burden in the early Premier championship races but trying to finish first as soon as even the Modified leagues becomes an exercise in perfection.
This gives rise to another annoyance - the fact that the lead car shoots off into an often unassailable lead whilst you are still battling it out, trying to move up from a lowly sixth to slightly-less-lowly fifth place. Yet another annoyance is the effect of collisions on AI controlled cars - that being negligible. Sure, they deviate from their course, slow down and re-adjust but they do this so quick as to barely impact upon their performance. Even if they collide into you (a relatively common occurrence thanks to the aggressive AI) they are still able to compensate and accelerate away whilst you are still working out which is forward.
These faults are endemic in most racers though and putting the blame squarely on Sega Rally's shoulders is paramount to criticising it for only including cars that drive fast. So let's get one thing clear and set the record straight. This title contains a huge amount of off-road racing goodness. The tracks provide a more gritty feel than most other PSP racers, with combinations of mud, dust and even ice billowing up behind you and dirtying your car's decals. This is juxtapositioned amongst some sumptuous settings; the overflowing fauna of the jungle levels leaving you expecting Sonic and Tails to make an appearance, so reminiscent are they of Green Hill Zone.
In keeping with the arcade theme, there is no vehicle deformation, only the aforementioned grime accumulating on your cars. For the most part this is a shame, as a full-on session of bumper-cars whilst racing around the track could have been a killer feature. As it is, the collisions have no significant impact other than a temporary loss of speed. The same occurs when hitting the boundaries of the track, though there are also plenty of obstacles that can be rammed and scattered - oil drums, road signs, tyres and the like. It's the boundaries themselves that prove a chagrin though as despite the vast openness of the scenery, you'll find yourself enclosed by invisible walls, where even the slightest road-side incline can prove perversely insurmountable.
There are also no hidden routes to take, which is once again a shame. Given the occasional difficulty in separating the track itself from the surrounding areas, you often find yourself attempting to veer off the beaten path and into a hill, especially in the early stages when you are unfamiliar with the track layouts. How great it would have been to venture off, find a short-cut, catch-up and ram into the first place car, sending them spinning into last place.
Whilst it might sound petty to include only 5 CPU controlled cars, their skill and aggressiveness makes it more than enough of a challenge. Their AI when trying to pass in particular is worthy of note, leading to some heated battles and exchanges as you dodge from one side to the other, waiting for the right opening. As mentioned though, even on the Modified stages (the second racing league, after Premier) if you don't move up through the placings quick enough, you will often leave yourself too far behind the lead car. With seemingly no rubber-banding or slipstreaming to help either, winning feels like a far harder task than it should be.
All the game modes you'd expect are included on the UMD - quick race, championships and multiplayer. The time attack mode is a throwback to the arcade racers of yore, where you have to make it to the next checkpoint within the time limit in order for it to be extended. Championship mode is divided up into three speed classes - Premier, Modified and Masters. The progression is very well structured. To move from one class to the next you must complete a number of rally leagues, gaining enough points to unlock the next level. You don't need to come first in every single rally but should you perform well, then there are also extra cars to be unlocked.
Sega Rally has it faults but just as importantly it has as many, if not more, positives. The water puddles on the track, the racing duels, the replays, the track-side fixtures, the dust bowls, the mud pits, and much more. If this was an off-road race, you'd put money on Sega Rally finishing in pole position. However, when it comes to the current king of road, TOCA, then you just feel that it doesn't have quite enough gas in the tank to take first place.