Our verdict on the high-end version of Sega's racer.
Xbox 360, PS3
Sega Racing Studio
You'd think that your co-pilot would have learned his job by now, wouldn't you. I mean, it's been more than a decade since the original Sega Rally and the numpty still says "maybe" on some turns. His one job is to navigate so you can concentrate on keeping your car a ball of speeding, sliding fury. But the utter twit can't even decide if there's a jump coming up or not. See, I'd have sacked him. I mean, did his CV say: "I definitely know my left from right... Maybe," or something? You're hired! Useless. Bah. Etc.
Anyway, crap co-pilots aside: it's a new Sega Rally game, and it's not crap like that one the other year was! Rejoice, dance in the streets and set of fireworks in your neighbours' face. Those that have been waiting for a spangly new-looking version of their old favourite are sure to come away with at least a small grin on their weathered old faces - it's not as good as Sega Rally 2, but it looks really good. Like, really good at points. Those new to the series are presented with a rather individual experience - obviously it's rally, but it's nothing like the late Colin McRae's games, preferring a pure arcade approach: your car is invulnerable, there are some rotten catch-up mechanics in place and your co-pilot is seemingly brain dead.
Basically what we are presented with here is an updated version of the two original Sega Rallys/ies, and by updated I mean: it plays the same, just looks nicer. This is sure to cause no problems at all for most of the series' fans out there in Happyland, and it certainly doesn't make for a bad game. It does make for a shallow one though. But it looks pretty and plays how we all want it to. Good god I'm torn.
On one hand it's classic arcade fare through and through - simple, straightforward and easy to pick up. It has a racing model that -whilst not necessarily deep, per se - is one that demands you learn some of its subtleties before you can really bitch on the courses available. On the other hand, the courses available amount to about one* (*lie: there are more tracks available, but they are basically slight variations on a core few). On the mutant third hand, this lack of courses means the game rewards those that perfect their art and the repetition encourages you to learn where you're going, which helps with a stupid co-pilot. The bio-engineered fourth hand presents us with some ridiculous rubber-banding throughout, meaning no matter how bloody amazing you are at the game, you're going to be caught by the computer should you accidently smash into one of the many invisible barriers (probably by mistaking you co-pilot's 'directions' for truth).
There are more hands, but laws against stem cell research forbid me from letting them loose on humanity.
What I'm getting at, in the most succinct of manners, is that this is an arcade game, but only released in the home. Arcade games can be brilliant, and as an arcade game Sega Rally is utterly brilliant. But as a pure home release, it doesn't work as well - the shallow nature, so important in the arcade experience, hurts it over extended play. By no means does this indicate a bad game, it just serves to confuse my finely honed Good-O-Meter. I'm not convinced it's the second coming, nor am I sure it's worse than infanticide.
Aside from the new tracks and sexy looks, Sega Rally relies on one other gimmick for its NEXT GEN thrills - track deformation. And it actually works pretty well. As the game doesn't follow the traditional rally method and races are conducted in laps, as opposed to point-to-point, the racing line being chewed up actually matters. It doesn't change the game to an incredible extent and it really is no more than a gimmick, but it works nicely. Pools of water can be extended through the new gullies created by tires, meaning there are different places on every lap that the wet stuff can slow you down, and the undulating terrain created in the wake of a vehicle can make the best racing line a lot less tempting. It's minor strategy at best, but it is nice. Plus it looks really good, and we all like that.
The single player game can be finished pretty sharpish if you have the skill and patience - even the best players are sure to get pissed off with the catch-up mechanics (commonly known as 'providing a fake sense of challenge'). But the game does have a decent online mode to keep you playing once you've bested everything in one player mode, and catch up can be turned off in multiplayer. Much to everyone's delight. It never recreates the thrill of twatting someone in the arcades of yore, but competing against these so-called 'real people' always extends the lifespan of any game by a good few months. Which is nice.
My opinion on this one is all over the place - one second I was absolutely in love, willing to throw away everything I have in my life simply to play for another two races, the next I didn't play it for three days out of sheer rage at its cheating arsehole ways. But all in all this is a game that knows what it is and knows what it wants to do. It provides fans of the series a good update to what they hold dear, and though it hasn't changed the world of racing games as we know them, it is damn good fun while it lasts. The shallow nature of it does harm the experience, though, and this cannot be overlooked.