28th Sep 2007 | 14:38
If you're one for reams of car-tweaking performance options and bodywork customisation, Sega Rally isn't for you. Sticking faithful to the long-running series, Sega Rally is as streamlined as they come - it's all about going fast.
It's great not being bogged down in the rigmarole of getting your head around a complex career mode or extensive modification system (unlike in Colin McRae: Dirt, which locks you into an infuriating two-minute tutorial lecture the first time you play).
Nope, here you'll simply find the basic selection of Championship, Quick Play, Time Attack and Multiplayer modes.
Championship mode is as old-school as it comes - there are three leagues; amateur, pro and expert, each one consisting of multiple rallies. A rally stretches over four events in which you race opponents (there are no timed checkpoints here) to earn points, which are totalled at the end.
You don't have to win every race, but your aim is to come out on top overall, and winning one rally simply opens up the next one, as well as unlocking a new car and a livery for your cars (a selection of three possible pre-set paint jobs per car is all the customisation you'll get).
This simplicity comes in stark contrast to the new surface deformation that Sega was so keen to show off in preview showings of the game. And it really is incredible to see it at work.
In case you missed all the hype, Sega Rally's surface deformation is an advanced physics system that lets the tyres have a physical effect on the ground. So you make deep tyre grooves in mud and snow, and the more the cars go over any one spot, the deeper the deformation becomes.
It looks incredible but it's not just decoration (like in Motorstorm) - it was intended to form part of the gameplay mechanics, too. For example, on the first lap of a race in a snow-covered mountain track the white powder will completely cover roads, but as the race goes on the deformation mechanic will see snow dispersed revealing hard tarmac underneath.
This also works on dirt tracks too, where loose mud and gravel is shifted revealing an all-round better surface along the racing line of the cars.
Now, Sega's proposal is that advanced players would use this to their advantage by keeping their car on the worn trail to benefit from the extra grip, but it doesn't really play out that way.
It turns out that the whole surface deformation bears far less prominence as a gameplay mechanic than was expected, mostly because these cars are tough to drive, and it'll take all your concentration just to keep your bloody car off the walls, much less following a thin path etched into the tracks for the sake of a barely-noticeable increase in traction.
The steering is twitchy - a little too over-responsive if anything - yet the car's light feeling and the rally game-style slippery nature of the physics makes the car feel rather floaty.
So, even when powering down straights, you find yourself making constant twitch-reaction corrections to the steering to keep the car on the road.
Now, it's not a bad thing - we cope with it just fine. But challenging handling is a strange trait for such an arcade franchise, where it's usually important that anyone and everyone can have a go. The perfect arcade racer - something Sega is known for producing - is usually easy to play, but tough to master.
Look at OutRun, Daytona, old school Sega Rally and even Crazy Taxi for example: with tight and concise handling, anyone can grab the pad and enjoy zooming around a few corners with a decent level of competency.
It's only when you start doing more advance techniques (like powerslides in Daytona and OutRun, or the gear-shift boost in Crazy Taxi) that any true skill is needed, providing that extra layer of depth for more hardcore gamers to tap into.
Conversely, new-age Sega Rally is tough from the word 'go'. For us, that's not so bad because we can handle it. But a less experienced gamer will spend more time bouncing off the walls and the no-mercy AI cars, even in earlier cups, will burn off into the distance. Yes, the computer cars are ruthless opponents that you won't have an easy time with, especially later in the game, and that can be frustrating.
On the other hand, the multiplayer racing is brilliant. With absolutely no car damage in the game at all to worry about, it's a great laugh to bounce around a course with six other human racers.
And if you're all about online racing, then you'll probably be looking towards getting the 360 version which will benefit from the superior Xbox Live. Of course, Achievements and a rumbling controller are other incentives to grab the Xbox game, but they are otherwise identical gameplay, graphics and content wise.
It's great that Sega kept things as traditionally arcade as it has done with Sega Rally. Some may view its simple selection of modes as a shortcoming, and while we'll admit that the fairly shallow package doesn't offer as much depth as games like Colin McRae, it really doesn't need to.
This is all about going fast in cars on mud, and that it does very well. You'll have to be very good at driving games, or the slightly twitchy handling and challenging AI opponents will leave you for dead, which is no fun at all.
But get to grips with this and you'll have a great time with its exhilarating sense of speed, twisting and varied courses and classic vivid Sega look.