In the eight years since the last Sega Rally came out, driving games have changed quite a bit, embracing a vast improvement in technology. Complex physics models and customisable cars are now central components of simulations like Forza, while truly arcade-style racers are few and far between. Sega Rally, then, is all about nostalgia. It’s about those days spent in the arcade at the bowling alley, racing friends around pixelated tracks in cars that could do nothing but powerslide. It’s about remembering when ‘sandbox’ meant a container full of granular sediment and when you didn’t have to worry about tire wear and pit strategies. Most of all though, it’s about having fun.
Having been in hibernation all these years, Sega Rally is quite a shock to the system. Fans of the series will be delighted to find that the core gameplay is very much the same as it used to be, but it certainly takes some getting used to. Anyone who’s been playing other racing games will quickly find themselves disorientated in a what feels like an alien environment.
Like a long-lost relative suddenly reunited with their family, Sega Rally needs time for you to get to know it again. The handling is focused on sheer speed and the inertia that your car builds up has a huge effect on its direction. and you’ll rarely be facing in the direction that you’re travelling. Clipping into barriers is a frequently used technique, with the over-zealous brakes only needed for the tightest of turns. If you do spin out, the game cleverly overrides your steering and points you in the right direction. Pre-empting corners and timing your turns far earlier than you’re used to is perhaps the key to success and once you figure this out, Sega Rally begins to make sense.
“Having been in hibernation all these years, Sega Rally is quite a shock to the system”Each of the tracks are designed with this driving style in mind, with corner after corner, rarely pausing with a straight. An invisible barrier runs along either side of the track, preventing you from escaping from what is fundamentally a bumper car circuit. These are often in obvious places like along a wall, although sometimes it’s not entirely clear where it is when the road isn’t bordered by a solid object. That said, the game does well to protect you from any awkward rocks which would halt you completely.
One of the game’s much trumpeted features is its track deformation technology, which changes the road surface in real time as cars drive over it. As each race progresses, ruts begin to form along the racing line, making it harder to navigate. Although you can essentially ignore this effect, some advantage can be gained by carefully choosing between the faster but more broken up racing line and the undamaged wider areas. The Xbox 360 controller also does a great job of indicating this by rumbling whenever your wheels hit a rut in the road.
However, Sega Rally‘s three modes are nothing new. There’s the obligatory Quick Race and Time Attack, plus Championship where you’ll spend most of your time. Here there are three car classes, within which are several rallies of three races each. As you progress and earn points to unlock new classes, cars and tracks, you’ll quickly realise that the game becomes increasingly repetitive and this is where Sega Rally stumbles.
Although there are 33 rallies, there are only 6 environments to make up the total of 16 tracks and some of these are simply the original in reverse. Every single race is a circuit too, so for a game with ‘rally’ in its title, it has none to speak of. Being an arcade game with no tangible progression, there’s little to keep you hooked apart from the gameplay itself.
“Whatever the road surface, powersliding is essentially the only way to corner”Sega Rally‘s longevity also takes a hit from the flimsy and predictable A.I., which adds to the game’s repetitive nature. Each of your five opponents follows an invisible racing line, rarely straying off course or making mistakes. At times it feels like you’re in two separate races, with overtaking being more of a matter of going up the inside of the A.I. cars’ procession.
Without the A.I., Sega Rally is distinctly more interesting and this is where the multiplayer comes in. Aside from the split screen mode, you can race up to five other people online via Xbox Live. The no frills implementation works well and the game proceeds at the same blistering pace online as it does offline.
Whilst it might not last forever, Sega Rally certainly looks pretty while it does. The environments are spectacular, from alpine vistas to tropical jungles, all with their own distinct visual style. Each one feels like an event too, with helicopters buzzing overhead and the crowd cheering you on from behind their impenetrable barriers. The cars also look fantastic and although they don’t take any damage, their appearance changes just like the track does during each race. Mud and snow gets stuck to the bodywork, then washes off as you go through puddles. It’s so good that you can almost smell it.
Sega Rally hasn’t come an awfully long way in the last eight years, but this latest incarnation certainly does justice to what made the games before it so much fun to play. It may take a while to get used to and not have the longevity that other racing games offer, but its frenetic arcade gameplay is a blast to play and makes a change from the simulations on the market. Sega have done a good job of updating their vintage racer for the modern age, with a solid online mode and sublime graphics, but its repetition holds it back from true greatness. For fans of the series this is a must buy, but for everyone else, it’s a case of try before you buy.