RalliSport Challenge 2 Review (Xbox)
When the original Rallisport shipped on Xbox, I was one of the many fans foaming at the mouth to get my hands on it. As many of you know, I’m an avid racing fan who sucks up any game that has an emphasis on getting from one point to another as fast as possible. Rallisport is widely considered one of the best racers on the Xbox, so naturally the arrival of its sequel was met with much hype and anticipation. As with all greatly anticipated titles, "Rallisport Challenge 2" manages to meet some of the hype, but drop the ball in other areas. With great graphics and precise control, coupled with Xbox Live and XSN support, "Rallisport Challenge 2" is poised to dominate the niche market of rally racing. Whether it can actually do so, of course, is something only time can answer. With an improved career mode, online play, and XSN support, is it the pick of the litter? For me, it’s not. For others, it very well could be. Confused yet? Good, because now you know how I feel as I played through this title.
One area that very few will find anything to complain about is the graphical detail in "Rallisport Challenge 2". Like its predecessor, it’s been built from the ground up to take advantage of the power of the Xbox, and it shows. Dust effects are beautiful, the rain splattering the windshield on a wet race is something to behold, and the car models themselves are drop-dead gorgeous. Once you get past the effects and the car models, you’ll see that a lot of the environments feel strangely familiar, however. If you remember some of the early tracks from the original Rallisport, you will instantly recognize the long straights through the desert, with much of the same shrubbery and textures. They might not be exactly the same, but they’re close. Then again, it’s a desert. How many ways are there to render dirt and cacti? Since the effects themselves are so good, you won’t be bothered by the backgrounds very often. You’ll find that you’ll have quite a bit of time to admire the trees up close, so it’s always a good thing to have tree trunks that actually look like bark. The only thing that hindered my enjoyment of the visuals was the amount of pop-up that seemed to occur. It’s almost as if the developers tried to pack too much detail into some tracks, requiring compromises of draw distance. Not the approach I would have taken, but not anything that will absolutely kill the game, either. It’s still a very pretty representation of rally racing.
Any time you try to take apart the sound department in a racing game, it always boils down to a few things: the engines, the effects, and the ambient sounds. Thankfully, the engine sounds in "Rallisport Challenge 2" are some of the best I’ve heard. Every car seems to have its own engine package in the game, and every camera view has a different sound filter. What this means is if you’re in the cockpit view, the engine will be muffled more than if you were in the hood cam (or chase camera, etc). It sounds like a minor thing, but it’s not. You’d be surprised how many racing games rehash their sound files…altering pitch, duration, and recycle time to create “different” sounds for cars. "Rallisport Challenge 2" seems to have genuinely captured separate sound bytes for each vehicle, effectively lending an aura of authenticity to each machine. Once you get past the wonderful engine sounds, you’ll be treated with some pretty raucous sounding crash effects (you’ll hear plenty of those at the start), as well as unique transmission effects for different rides. The music is forgettable, but anything with a custom soundtrack option makes that an afterthought. Personally, I shut off music during driving anyway. I’m one of those purists who never tires of hearing the whine of an engine over and over again as I blast through the gears. To each his own, I suppose.
No matter how you look at it, a racing game will live or die by the gameplay. Almost all releases boil down to being “sim” or “arcade”. You’ll have the obligatory followers of each screaming at the other side, as a quick visit to any internet forum on the web can attest to. For me, "Rallisport Challenge 2" definitely falls on the “arcade” side of things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that means that it will have less longevity in my household. The single biggest failing in the driving model is something I could nitpick to death as to why it makes something more arcade than sim…throttle control. In recent releases such as TOCA2, Project Gotham Racing 2, and Colin McRae 4, anybody who’s played them will notice that you must exercise precise throttle control to drop your lap times. In my first few sessions of "Rallisport Challenge 2", it was evident that throttle control was not something I needed to master to go fast. I could effectively use the trigger as a digital on/off switch and turn the same types of laps. The easiest way to tell whether a game has a good “throttle model”, for lack of a better phrase, is something like this: when you’re going through a nice, sweeping corner (or at the start of a race), apply almost no throttle and gradually increase. If it’s a good model, you will have the tachometer gradually increase (at the race starts), or if you’re going through a corner, the car will slowly approach the critical speed of losing traction. You’ll be able to “feel” it, so to speak. In "Rallisport Challenge 2", neither of these things happens. At the start, if you apply 10% throttle, the tach will bury itself at the red line…you literally have to feather the trigger like you’re gunning the clutch at a motocross race. It’s almost as if they cut the sensitivity of the trigger in half…meaning 50% is full, and gave it a 10% dead zone. What that translates to is having a trigger with 40% of its full range actually useful. Anytime you dumb something down like that, it’s built to just “go” without much thought to it. Is that a bad thing? Not for everybody.
Once you get past something like the throttle control (which I admit, not many people will care about), you’ll find a steering model that is so precise and quick to react, it’s almost funny. I could be flying along a gravel road at 90mph, but as soon as I flip that trigger over, it’s like I have the bite and downforce of an Indycar. The front end snaps and the car adjusts its nose to the new direction almost instantaneously. You’ll get treated to what I can only summarize as “over-powersliding” a lot of the time…you are on the gas at all, and the rear end breaks loose, putting you into a 4-wheel drift. I realize that you can’t expect everybody playing a game like this to know how to use throttle and steering to manually break traction when it’s desired, but there has to be a better way than what we are given here. As I played the title more, I began to understand exactly what the developers were shooting for; fast, mindless fun. It’s definitely a ‘twitch’ racer. You can mash the gas, flip the stick, and go. For a lot of gamers, that will suit their palette. It just doesn’t suit mine, but I certainly can’t completely knock the game for being what it is. There is some fun to be found here, even with a driving model that doesn’t suit my tastes.
Past the mechanics themselves, you’ll find the almost required modes in any racing game: a lengthy career mode, single races, time attack, and multiplayer. The career mode itself isn’t truly a “career”, however. More like a ladder. You can choose one of 4 difficulties and conquer different rallies; beating one section of rallies unlocks the next, and so on and so forth. Pro mode was a breeze (frequently beating 2nd place by 40 seconds or more), but moving up forces you to jump into the garage and tune your car a bit to suit your driving style more. The garage options all have the expected results, but for me, that part wasn’t interesting. Why? It all comes back to the driving model. If I have a car that feels “real”, then I can go in and tune it to my liking. If I know I can just throw the stick around and not really worry about the handling, then I’ll adjust and go as fast as possible with what I have. I found in the vast majority of the races in "Rallisport Challenge 2", you never have to touch the garage. You might want to give yourself more traction here or there, but for the most part, you can drop the hammer and win.
In a nutshell: if you don’t mind a driving model that is considerably “less than realistic”, you’ll have a lot of fun with "Rallisport Challenge 2". I had a ton of fun with Project Gotham Racing 2, and that one isn’t exactly the most realistic rendition of road racing around, is it? The only thing that bugged me so much about "Rallisport Challenge 2" is the lack of throttle control and almost forced powersliding. Contrary to popular belief, powersliding will not guarantee a faster lap or segment time in real life, but then again…I’m confusing real life with what "Rallisport Challenge 2" tries to be. Notice a pattern here? If you just want to drop the hammer and have some fun, "Rallisport Challenge 2" is your title. If you’re one who will pick apart trailing throttle and an accurate over/understeering model, you might want to rent first.
MULTIPLAYER & XSN
The last area, and quite possibly the one of most importance, is the multiplayer modes. The original Rallisport lacked any Xbox Live play (since it didn’t exist), so "Rallisport Challenge 2" makes up for this by allowing up to 16 racers to compete online on any of the tracks and modes. While that sounds like great fun, let me just get the odd part out of the way up front: any more than 4, and you’re dealing with wireframe cars, no collision detection, and a lot of draw-in and pop-up. Rally racing is by its very nature a solo-car event. Throw 16 of them together and you get mass confusion. Tracks are narrow, and cliffs abound. If they did include collision detection, you’d have a lot of irate drivers screaming into the communicator after they got “cornholed” (as my online racing brethren and I refer to it) off of a cliff. When you drop that number to 4, the racing gets much better. Since it’s Xbox Live, there isn’t any lag or warping to be found (in my experience, at least), and the voice communication is crystal clear. But no matter how you slice it, you’re still trying to funnel 4 cars down a section of track that was designed to test a single car. I just can’t get past the fact that a game would find it mandatory that you had to turn off collision detection. That should be a pretty big hint right there.
When you look at multiplayer for "Rallisport Challenge 2", however, the focus will definitely be on XSN. You have 3 primary modes on XSN: tournament, season, and team season. In tournament mode, you race 1-on-1 against other drivers in your tournament, and the drivers with the best records go head to head at the end to determine a winner. Season mode is pretty straightforward: a sequence of races that can be run as many times as you like until the deadline passes. The most curious mode is the team season, where four drivers race as a team, and their points are pooled together for a “team total”. XSN, as always, keeps track of your overall wins and losses, race times, sportsmanship racing, and practically anything else you can think of.
The best part is that you can run any race type online. Rally, cross over, rally cross, ice racing, you name it. They’re all available. XSN competitions even let you run a tournament or season with up to sixty-four players! You can also set it up to have light, medium, or heavy car damage. As you run more and more competitions over XSN, your user profile gets updated with a lot of stats: best ever rally time, number of competitions won, number of competitions entered, total distance traveled, and even your overall time on the track in XSN competition. If you’re a stat hound, you will definitely find something to love about the XSN integration.
The bottom line is as plain as day: do you like your racing games with a heavy dose of simulation or arcade? If you’re a sim nut, avoid "Rallisport Challenge 2" like the plague. After this review, I seriously can’t see myself ever wanting to play this title again. XSN made it almost worth it, but if you’re not having fun with the driving model, then you won’t care about the stats. If you’re a huge fan of fast and fun (I use the term loosely) arcade driving, then you will probably absolutely flip over "Rallisport Challenge 2". Keep in mind this score is coming from somebody who was weaned on Papyrus simulations on PC, spends an absurd amount of money on steering wheel controllers (on PC and all consoles), and drove a sprint car in real life on the California dirt tracks. I’m not going to enjoy very many games where I am not punished for racing like a moron (or making silly racing decisions, forcing a bad position, etc), even though I know many people don’t mind. I actually wanted to post double scores for this title, but that didn’t fly either. For somebody like me, this game gets a 2/5. If you like mindless trigger mashing and insane powerslides (even if they’re artificially forced), then it’s probably a 4/5 for you. There’s definitely a market for it, but it’s not a crowd that I’d be found racing online with very often, that’s for sure. Since this is just one reviewer’s opinion, I can’t see myself ever popping this one in my Xbox again. If you’re a sim-head, chances are you wouldn’t either.