Powerslides. From that very first game when you realised you could take a corner by sliding around it, a la Rally style, no other aspect of a racing game has emitted such adrenaline, excitement and just downright enjoyment than the art of the powerslide.
Starting, for this reviewer, with Daytona USA in the arcades, the true impact of a good slide makes an arcade racer great, and the easier it is, the better. The technicalities hold no interest, it’s just the thrill of controlling the car whilst drifting sideways through a corner where all the fun stems from. Win or lose, it makes no difference, so long as the car can powerslide when and for as long as required.
So it’s with some trepidation that Rallisport Challenge 2 was inserted into the Xbox’s drive tray. The original game, whilst being an early graphical accomplishment, just didn’t slide as well as it should. It was stifled when compared to previous games in the genre, even though it met all the expected quota’s in terms of polygons, cars and tracks.
The game loaded, and career mode was chosen. With five different varieties of race available, ranging from normal rallying to ice-racing, with hill-climb, rally cross and crossover in between, the only one immediately on offer was a rally set in Australia. The obligatory loading screen was sat through before the first race. A new addition to this waiting period was the ability to change car settings, as well as sound and gameplay settings, whilst the game loaded, something which is hoped becomes more common place. Finally the first race was ready to start.
Immediately, the graphical quality which Dice has once again managed to force out of the Xbox is beyond stunning. In a genre in which polygon count for the car models have become a PR by-word, the trackside detail is what takes the breath away. Everything looks solid, and the view distance appears to stretch for mile upon mile. Full polygonal spectators, individual grass stalks and leaves which get blown into your cars back draft all go to make locales which look believable.
But the graphical splendour was considered a given. The first game was also a graphical tour de force, anything less would be extremely poor coding on behalf of Dice. It was how the game played which was giving the reviewer a tight knot in his stomach, or more accurately just how well they had nailed the powerslide.
Accelerating away from the start line, it was time to test just how much of an improvement this game was over its predecessor. Control felt much more instinctive, the car moving around the track without much thought. When a game can achieve a minuscule gap between brain pattern and on-screen action, with little to no interference from worrying about just what your fingers and thumbs are doing, then the end result is sheer joy. Designed solely around the pad, due to Microsoft’s negligent refusal to include true force feedback steering wheel support in the Xbox architecture, what Dice have accomplished is a control system which gives the gamer a precise driving model without over reliance on technical matters. You don’t need to know how rally cars perform in real life, you just need to know that the car will react how you want it to, when you want it to.
On into the first bend, which was a gentle bend which needed no application of brake or easing off the accelerator. A nice, long stretch followed, with a slight bump in the middle which resulted in a few milliseconds of ‘air’ time. Listening intently to the co-driver read out pace notes, another easy bend was taken before he said the words which filled the reviewer with a visceral thrill. “Nine right”. A corner was coming up which could be used to test just how much improvement Dice had made on that elusive slide. One thing which needs to be said here, the co-driver can be next to useless. Only appearing sonically during the rally stages, the words that are being read out are drowned out by engine noise, sound track and ambient background noise. Setting the soundtrack to off is a must, especially considering the quality of the in-game soundtrack on offer. A custom soundtrack option is available, but this still makes the value of the co-driver non-existent. The co-driver also gets it wrong on a regular basis which is annoying to say the least. Giving you inaccurate pace notes on the odd occasion could be construed to be a human error which Dice have intentionally coded into the game, but giving you directions after you have passed corners, giving wrong directions and incorrect distances, calling a corner a three when it’s really a nine for instance, takes away some of the enjoyment found in this game. Rally games, as is real life rallying, is reliant on good pace notes due to the sheer number of corners in each track, of which there are simply too many to memorise with any hope of success or fast lap times. Allowing gamers to make their own pace notes, via Xbox Live headsets and hard-drive storage, could provide a possible solution.
The moment of truth was here, the exact moment when the game would be deemed a success or a failure in the eyes of the reviewer. Good graphics and tight controls go a long way to making a good arcade racer but to make it stand out it needs that extra humph, that icing on the cake. Tapping the brake and turning sharply into the corner resulted in the cars backend drifting out nicely. Counter-steering through the bend, the backend still pointing perpendicularly away from the direction the car was actually travelling, it felt as though Dice had achieved just what the reviewer hoped they would, a powerslide system which worked as well as the original game looked. A large smile spread on the reviewers face, and a slight flick of the control stick to put the car’s momentum back into driving’s missionary position, again with little to no thought about just what the thumb was doing.
But no, the smile faded as the car refused to go into the direction intended. The slide continued on and on until the car hit a rock and flipped over and over and over. A spectacular damage model where slight bangs will damage bumpers and spoilers whilst heavier crashes will result in windows smashing, bonnets flying off and doors bursting open, meant that the outcome of this crash was a car which limped home at the end of the rally with all the windows smashed, and bodywork which would require some serious repair work by imaginary mechanics.
The next race, and the car was back to looking brand new. This time the track was set in Britain, so intruding rocks at the side of the track would be at a minimum, but the weather was a typical British affair meaning that it was raining heavily. A ground mist and driving rain that made the surface treacherous, whilst raindrops rolling down the screen, obscuring the view, all combined to give the reviewer a sense of unease. The feeling that this track would not be fun, added with the results from the attempted powerslide the previous lap, transformed itself into a metaphysical weight which settled at the base of the reviewer’s skull. It was going to be another case of close, but no cigar whilst searching for that elusive powerslide.
As the race progressed, and the wonderment of the control combined with the overall beauty of the visuals on display, that weight started to subside. The colours on display, from the different shades of green in the overhanging foliage, to the dusty brown of the scattered leaves, all made the reviewer think that the developers had travelled around the countryside during a rain storm and taken samples of each colour, the way you would take samples to an hardware store when matching new paint with furniture. The feeling of stopping the car and just letting the vivid colours embrace the reviewer was strong.
And then it happened. Travelling at high speed down an avenue of trees, with sunlight filtering through the upper branches, and a sharp corner was here. Without thought, a quick tap of the brake was enough to send the car sideways. Engine revolutions screaming at the maximum, the feeling of grip transferred from the wheels to the hands via rumble feedback which was nigh on perfection. The car continued sideways through the apex of the corner, but now came the tricky part. It’s all good to send the car sideways but the exit is just as important a feature of a good powerslide – it’s pointless to execute if the end result is crashing or clipping roadside objects. Then the corner was gone, and the car was still under perfect control. They had done it, they had managed to capture the powerslide.
Review by John Beaulieu