Sega Rally

Posted on 06 May 2010 by Fahad Majidi

Videogames are unique compared to other entertainment media in that they are, almost exclusively, the only art form in which each sequel improves on the last. This is probably because the ever-evolving technology of home consoles and computers allows for greater advancements. The Sega Rally series, however, is one of the few exceptions. The 1995 coin-op original is still widely regarded as one of the finest arcade racers ever produced but each subsequent follow up, despite appearing on much more advanced hardware, has been considerably worse than the one before it.

So, Sega must be really rather pleased with itself right now, because its next generation re-invention of Sega Rally has finally reversed the franchise’s spiral of decline. While handing over one of the publisher’s most cherished series to a start up British developer may have seemed like a mammoth risk a few months ago, that risk has paid off with a game that, while not the best racer of the year, is definitely the most forward thinking.

It’s the track deformation that elevates Sega Rally above both its predecessors and its peers. The brainchild of Sega's new Racing Studio, the deformation system is much more than a residual texture change: it’s a real time polygonal shift of the tracks that affects the cars of both the players and the NPCs. This makes the game less about following a racing line more a test of the driver’s reactions. Staying within the tire tracks carved by those ahead is essential for maximizing speed, but with those cars taking slightly different routes every time, the player will have to keep a keen eye on the road ahead.

Racing Studio has broken new ground in surface physics too. The difference between driving on sand or snow, for example, is incomparably tangible in Sega Rally. Each affects car traction in a noticeably different that’s augmented by well used rumble and sound effects. And with both surface details and tracks deformation combined. Sega Rally really begins to impress as heavy wheels cut through one surface and into another, ensuring that car handling radically changes with each lap.

The best, and in our view most enjoyable examples of these occur during the transitions between the most contrasting surfaces. On the Alpine tracks, for example, the bumpy, densely packed snowy surfaces put considerable strain on the suspension but soon give way to reveal sturdy yet wet and slippery tarmac. This unprecedented use of the technology is a revolutionary feature for sure but its also one that perfectly complements Sega Rally’s esteemed heritage. The vintage racer has always favored mastery of the uneven surface, with jumps, puddles and steep inclines all requiring you to think on your feet. The track deformations are as perfectly natural evolution of those intentions.

Sega Rally also spends as much time looking back as it does moving forward. For a game made just outside Birmingham, by a team more used to working on simulations than arcade racers, it’s astonishing just how much this back to the classic values of Japanese videogame design. Though the track deformations suggest a sense of realism, Sega Rally is tinged with hints of convenient fantasy at every corner. Bright blue skies hover over lush greenery as giraffes roam the backgrounds. Cars joyfully bounce over humps and splash through puddles only to pass the finish line just as low flying jet plane soars overhead. Every race on ever track is as dreamy as the last, perfectly assembled to feel like the ride of your life, each and every time.

But all is not as perfect as it might at first seem as in rather ironic twist of fate; it feels as though Racing Studio may have over focused on the arcade feel of Sega Rally, to the point where it almost unravels the entire game. The problem is most pronounced in the lower rung championships, which are so easy to handle that it’s possible to complete most tracks while the accelerator almost permanently held down.

This wouldn’t be a problem in itself – there’s nothing wrong with being a little forgiving – but, as is the tradition with Sega Rally, when a corner is preceded by the warning of a 90 degree turn, your natural instinct is to brake before turning which usually result in at least one of your rivals overtaking at the same time. It’s a tragic case of the difficulty level not actually reflecting the represented reality of the game world and it’s one that also tarnishes an otherwise exemplary racing game.

Such problems practically disappear by the time you have qualified for the Modified Championship, however. Featuring performance rally cars, this second series of tracks rewards conservative play but also delivers bigger thrills. Power slides are more dramatic, jumps are longer and higher and the effects of the surface details are more pronounced. It’s in this mode that Sega Rally lives up to its weighty expectations and makes its mark as one of the most playable racing games of the generation

And while Sega Rally is admittedly held back by its bizarre difficulty balance, as well as some very occasional pop-up that affects the track deformations, that shouldn’t stop us from congratulating Racing Studio on a traffic debut title. Sega Rally is the most ambitious racing game in some time and a brilliant return to form for the series. Overlook it at your own risk.

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