Rallisport Challenge 2

Sam urges Xbox owners to take a test drive...

Many years from now how will people look back on the first 25 years of computer and video gaming? Will it have morphed so well into people's day to day experiences in the digitised world that gaming will be looked at as an anomalous early attempt at cyberspace? Similar to the way we would now view the kinetographs from seaside piers of old in comparison to the blockbusters at the multiplexes of today? Or will it be viewed as so important to the development of the world of the future that professors will pore over old gaming zines and try to resuscitate ancient hard drives so as to have a look at Half-Life 2 for themselves? If gaming becomes an academic subject in the future then its archaeologists will peer at unearthed Dancemats and scratch their heads, while the palaeontologists will wonder at the extinctions in gaming genres that have occurred over the years. With only a quarter a century of gaming under our collective belts we have already witnessed the death of the space-combat sim and the adventure game, while the RPG flails around like a drowning man and the 2D platformer is but a wisp of memory. One genre that has been there since the beginning and which continues to thrive is the racing game. Its sub-species, the rally game, has been around for around two decades, and with the arrival of Rallisport Challenge 2 we have a specimen that is so strong that the survival of this species is practically guaranteed.

The original Rallisport Challenge was a quality title that helped the fledgling Xbox assert its author-i-tie. Its sequel is another tour-de-force, boasting some of the very best graphics yet seen on any console, and some of the most enjoyable racing this side of a monster-truck Pop Idol contestants squish-a-thon. The controls are next to perfect. It's one of those games where you can switch off the conscious part of your brain that manipulates the controls, and just let your mind do the driving. It's a Zen like experience, and shows just how good a grasp of the Xbox controller system that DICE now have. There are seven preset configurations to choose from, but you won't be making your own set-ups. The rumble effects are consistently solid, with acceleration conveyed accurately and failing tyres indicated.

Driving these cars is a lot of fun. When you have an accident you almost always know, and acknowledge, that it was you rather then the game that was at fault. Some of the more intense courses, especially those at night and in the rain, can get frustrating, but the overall pleasure to be had from playing RC2 is so great that you will keep on working the course until you get it sorted. The car's handling is definitely more 'arcadey' than anything else, but that is the nature of the game, and at no point does RC2 really try to pretend that it is a sim. The best way I can put it is that RC2 is an arcade version of a rally sim game. You can fiddle with the set up of the cars, but this doesn't have a profound effect. There is a damage model, and while you can feel things get harder to control the damage system is really there for aesthetic purposes, especially as damage isn't carried over from one race to the next. The variety and number of courses should satisfy all but the most spoilt of gamers. With over 90 tracks and five different event types - Rallycross, Crossover, Rally, Hill Climb and Ice Racing - you won't get bored in a hurry. And while the earlier courses are fun and a right joy to drive, the later stages of the game throw some really twisted tracks at you. But the feeling of mastering and then dominating these exhilarating roads is, divine.

The game is a visual feast. The car models themselves may not have as many polygons as say Colin McRae 4, but they all look great anyway. And not only do the cars get good and dirty after a run the damage model can provide for some hilarious sights as well. Just be sure not to smash your headlights in a night race. The replays are not only instructive as to where the road has a nasty bump or where the best line to the apex lies, but they are entertaining to watch and full of the action and camera styles that we expect to see. The rain effects on the windscreen are more than a little good, which sadly can't be said for the fog and dust effects, which just seem to scroll down the screen. Otherwise, RC2 is not only great to look at it runs super-fast. The speed is almost scary. All in all, the developers DICE really have gone to town on this game.

An example of this artistry is the seconds delay before racing resumes after un-pausing the game, giving drivers enough time to brace for that hairpin corner they were fast approaching. Another is the functioning odometer nestled in the speedometer. The more miles you drive in a car the more skins for that vehicle you can unlock. Just don't try to see if the dial gradually rotates or clicks into place. I tried, and it doesn't. While the race loads you can even tinker with all of the games options, from your car's set-up to the loudness of your co-driver's instructions.

One area where RC2 displays an uncustomary weakness is in the sound department. The actual effects aren't too shabby, with the obligatory tortured dolphin noises and crashes and thunks. The engines all sound very reedy: although they do get better as the car's power improves even the top end motors sound more like a recording of a swarm of angry bee's coming off a helium high - originally captured on what is now a scratched vinyl LP then re-mastered onto a C90 cassette purchased in 1986 - than you would hope for. There's no effect for gravel smacking into the underside of the car, and the only environmental sound comes from the occasional waterfall. The soundtrack is even poorer, with all the tracks sounding like they were done on a cheap version of Cubase, circa 1997 version. Some of the tunes themselves are rather good, with a large influence of Ministry being plainly audible. There are some dancier numbers as well, but the poor quality of the instruments is a real shame.

The meat and veg of the game lies in the Career mode. There are three that you can pick from at the start; Amateur, Pro and Champion. The first two are stupid easy, and the third, while it does become a challenge, isn't going to keep you for all that long. The final SuperRally career is a good challenge, but I estimate a competent player could get their way through all the career modes in, oooh, let's say 15-20 hours. Now if you like your rally games rock hard this may disappoint you, but as far as I was concerned I was having too much fun driving around the wide variety of almost uniformly splendid tracks to give too much of a damn whether I was creaming the opposition. I breezed through the Amateur career, without losing a race, in a few hours. This meant I had a bunch of new cars and tracks to play with, a roster increased even more once the Pro career was under my belt. Nailing the Champion career will unlock the very best vehicles, and you will really want these for the part of RC2 that really is the shiznit.

But before we get to Live multiplayer mention must be given to the net-free multiplayer options. Like Live, you can race with up to 16 players through system-link, an experience I have yet to enjoy, but one I am looking forward to once my other Xbox owning friends can get their hands on the game. The split-screen mode allows four people to race, and while there is definitely some slowdown and a loss of visual quality with four racers on the one screen my friends and I paid no attention to these issues and concentrated on having a fun time. With just two players things look and run perfectly, so as far as localised multiplayer gaming goes RC2 has it all sown up.

If you have Live then you are in for a real treat if you get this game. After selecting your profile it logs into your Live account. Once this is done RC2 takes on a new form, the best way to describe which is 'distributed gaming'. You see, not only can you try to beat your own lap and race times but you can pit yourself against the best the world has to offer. Without even joining a Live race you can go to the leader board menu, pick a track, and then load up the ghost of any player in the ranking and race against them. So maybe you thought your time on that crazy Argentinean hill-climb summit was the bomb, only to find out that the best time in the world is a full 45 seconds better. Then, like me, the hours will just fly away as you try your hand at getting as close to the top twenty as you can, (there are special bronze, silver and gold skins depending on how far up the rankings you can progress). Not only is this a great way of improving your times and hence your skills, but it really gives the impression that you are playing in one giant virtual living room with people from all around the world. The Live integration in RC2 is really one of the most impressive aspects of the title, and it really indicates the way that the Live service has the potential to radically change the way people play their games.

The actual races on Live are just as fun, although some may bemoan the lack of collisions in the larger challenges. RC2 uses coloured wireframe models for most of its Live events. These are not only initially distracting, but they effectively mean you are only racing against the clock times of the other players. The option to set up a season of rallies is also missing, but if you get involved with the well integrated XSN Sports service then this side of things is well catered for. It's a shame there aren't a few more options as far as race set-ups are concerned, but then we need some things to justify Rallisport Challenge 3.

Okay, so the AI doesn't time consistently, the fact you can just restart a race to ensure maximum scoring may be off-putting to some, (not me, I have other things to do than re-race 10 sections just because the cat jumped on my lap during a tight corner), and the handling ignores body-roll and other factors, and the lame sounds, and the ease of the career mode eventually leading you to realise that the game is all about beating the record times, whether your own or from Live, and.. no that's it. You see, Rallisport Challenge 2 is as near to perfect as you could wish for. It has a few flaws, but all of these crumble into dust when the sheer engrossing playability of the game asserts its impressive authority. I haven't had this much fun playing a racer in a long time. Heck, my flatmate and I enjoyed it so much we went off and bought a new Xbox rather than be separated from the game when it came to time to return the box I'd borrowed to review this game on. It's that good. If that doesn't convince you, then maybe mentioning the contortions and impressions of someone getting mild electric shocks that everyone who plays this game gets, their physical reactions to the intense, seat-of-your-pants driving experience, the laughter and immediate restarts after a failed attempt all attest to the level of enjoyment that this game can provide. Do yourself a favour and go for a spin.

E3 Trailer