Those of you who were lucky enough to own a Sega Saturn during its relatively brief life span may remember a stellar racing title called Sega Rally Championship. I had played most of the next-generation racers circa 1995, when 3D graphics were the next big thing, and my experience with Sega Rally is what showed me that indeed a new era of gaming had arrived. The speed, the amazing graphics and sound, the precise controls—I had never seen or played anything like it. The years passed, and although Ive played my share of great racing games including F355 Challenge and Gran Turismo 3 (which, incidentally, came complete with a show-stealing rally mode), nothing I played recaptured the sheer visceral thrill of Segas arcade classic. Nothing could possibly be as amazing as seeing a full 3D racer for the first time, right? Or could it? As I was playing Rallisport Challenge, weaving and sliding through tight turns at ridiculous speeds—trying my best to pay attention to my navigator as he rapidly fires information, warnings and advice as I narrowly avoid flying off a cliff or slamming into a tree at 100 miles per hour—I experienced that intangible sensation of awe-inspiring disbelief for the first time since I plugged in my Sega Saturn.
Rallisport Challenge fires up with an amazing in-engine cutscene, and screams quality from the first press of a button. From the start-up screen to the breathtaking in-game graphics, developer Digital Illusions attention to detail is prevalent every step of the way. The menus are easy to navigate and have a slick look to them; the cars are meticulously detailed, right down to reflective surfaces and visible drivers; the graphical quality of the tracks is fit for a first-person shooter, with tons of bump-mapping, debris, realistic lighting, weather effects even individually rendered blades of grass. The sensation of speed is incredible, and the game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second without a hitch. But Rallisport doesnt stand out so much for one feature or another, as everything fits together so seamlessly. The amazing visuals create a captivating framework to immerse the gamer—debris will fly as a car power-slides through mud or gravel—while precise physics make the game both accessible and exciting.
Rallisport strikes a unique balance between arcade-like accessibility (in the vein of the aforementioned Sega Rally Championship) and sim-like complexity. Make no mistake about it: Rallisport Challenge is not a sim—a job better left to the Colin McCrae or Gran Turismo games. However, it provides far more options than most arcade racers. Customizations are very straightforward (tires, gear ratio, brake balance, etc.) and never approach the complexity of a true sim, but there are enough options to add depth without seeming overbearing. Such a streamlined approach may seem watered-down compared to a true rally simulator, but clearly Digital Illusions are not concerned with appeasing a niche audience. I have never believed enjoyment and complexity to be mutually exclusive, but Rallisports compromise between accessibility and detail give it a light-hearted feel that makes it more appealing than complicated simulators that wade through endless steps to accomplish similar goals. Rallisport Challenge is the arcade racer, evolved.
The physics, like the customizations, are somewhat of a give-and-take. The driving itself is exceptionally tight and responsive, and feels very realistic. Most impressively, the cars react appropriately for a given surface such as gravel, dirt, or ice. Weather effects are not just cosmetic—rain will make gravel slick and mud sticky. Such a fine attention to detail is a real first in video racing. A sudden change from tarmac to gravel, for example will require a hasty adjustment. The cars take damage realistically and enough damage in the right places will result in decreased performance. Nevertheless, the games acrobatic crashes are clearly intended to be comical, and the cars can take a good thrashing before performance begins to suffer.
Rallisport offers a nice range of options, including a career mode, single races, time attack, and multiplayer (the comical crashes make for a great multiplayer game). Unique features include ice racing and a point-to-point hill climb. A diverse lineup of impressive licensed cars from Audi, Saab, Toyota, Subaru, Mitsubishi, and others are available for play. As with most racing games, only a fraction of the total tracks and cars are available from the start; the rest are unlocked as the game progresses. Although whopping 41 tracks are available, the career mode lacks the depth of kin such as Gran Turismo.
Its been literally years since a great arcade-style rally racer has hit the shelves, and Rallisport Challenge takes the crown as the most polished, appealingly unique racer of its kind. The graphical detail, smooth performance and exceptional sound really bring the game to life, and the physics and responsiveness are second to none. Since I parted with my dying Sega Saturn in 1996, I have quietly but anxiously awaited a game that would capture the pure adrenaline of racing the way Sega Rally Championship had. Rallisport lives up to the challenge.