Publisher: Sega | Developer: Sega Racing Studio | System: Xbox 360 | Genre: Racing
I have this mantra that I like ‘racing’ games, but can’t stand ‘driving’ games. In other words I like to bomb around a track, preferably against some friends, maybe with koopa shells or maybe just with exaggerated power slides – so I like Mario Kart, PGR, and TrackMania – while I avoid like the plague anything that might want me to look at telemetry data, meaning Gran Turismo and Forza are right out.
Unsurprisingly, given its heritage, Sega Rally can be classed firmly in the former category. Despite the real cars and fastidious attention to detail in the physics and terrain deformation (more on those later), the game is proud of its arcade sensibility. Sliding around in the physically-accurate mud is fun and the game is aware enough of that fact not to punish you for doing so. I think everyone’s finished a race by skidding around and reversing over the finish line, but how many would give an achievement for it?
Further to the game’s position as an arcade racer, it’s really not even a simulation of the sport that is represents. Rally is one car against the clock, whereas Sega Rally has you and other drivers tussling for position like almost any other motorsport. What this approach loses in realism it makes up for in accessibility to the non-gearhead; nudging an opponent into touch and pulling ahead is just more fun than beating their time by a few milliseconds. Simple as.
What seems at odds with the arcade philosophy, but ultimately comes to serve its competitive nature, is the phenomenally detailed deformation model and the physics that use it. Sega Rally really makes what could be a bullet point on the box its unique selling point, making damage to the track persistent and affecting the racing lines throughout the entire race. While it can certainly throw your car around and affect lap times for those who are so inclined, and it does nothing if not make races more boisterous than asphalt ever could, I wouldn’t go as far as to call it revolutionary. That’s not to say that every off-road racer from now on won’t be following suit – because they will – it’s just that once you’re beyond the initial wow factor you’re likely to play it like any other rally game.
Something that should be noted is that normally I go straight to the behind car view, both because the car models in modern games are always the prettiest thing and because I enjoy the extra spatial awareness that it gives me, but to play Sega Rally from that view is like playing a different game. I know people who were put off the game based on the demo when they discovered that the handling really doesn’t translate too well to the chase cam. From behind it almost feels like you’re rotating the car around a pole driven through the middle rather than turning the wheels, whereas I found the in-car setup to both handle infinitely better and to just be more fun. That’s a first for me and worth bearing in mind if you play the game.
Graphically, Sega Rally is solid without ever being spectacular. The framerate has improved since I played a preview build and since the occasional dips in that were my only real complaint, I’m confident in saying that this is the best a Sega racing game has ever looked. And this is how a Sega racing game should look – impossibly blue skies, verdant trees, and little graphical flourishes to put you off like the one above. Alas the sound mixing is good (I like the sound of gravel being kicked up in the rear speakers), but the music style hasn’t aged well and ranges from passable to sending you grabbing for the custom soundtracks. Yes, this truly is an old school Sega racer.
Sega Rally is what it is. It has no pretensions of being a sim or even an accurate representation of the sport on which it is based, and it is all the better for it. While gearheads might enjoy it for the competitive side of things – multiplayer is a lot of fun and runs smoothly online – and you can’t fault the attention to detail on the technical side, it’s more accessible than most to us normal people. More games need to be as unapologetic about simply being arcade games, and while it’s unfortunate that Sega Rally is likely to get lost in the stampede for Christmas money, it deserves a look.