Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Game Over (Yeah!) for Sega Rally

I don't have masses of spare time to devote to gameplay these days (unless I'm being paid for it) but one title I was dying to try out was the brand new Sega Rally, which seems to have attracted some positive press.
Sega Rally was the finest racing game ever made on Saturn, a perfect symbiosis of brilliant track design and an utterly sublime feeling of driving over dirt and gravel. Along with Virtua Fighter 2, it's the zenith of Saturn gaming. Despite the temptation to knock out a basic arcade port, Tetsuya Mizuguchi and his AM3 team completely rewrote the handling system as the original coin-op version (which updated at 60Hz) simply didn’t translate into the 30fps Saturn game well enough – such was the level of dedication in getting the very best rallying experience possible out of the limited console hardware.
Sega Rally has a lot to live up to, and certainly, in terms of its graphics, it's a beautiful game. Realtime deformation on the tracks as you race over them is also extremely impressive and does make a subtle impact on the handling. The amount of content in the game also appears to be very impressive, as is the user interface – clean and easy to navigate with no loading, if somewhat bereft of important information.
It's just a shame that so much is wrong with the game – beginning with the plain and simple fact that it has barely anything in common with its illustrious arcade heritage. There's nothing I've seen so far that makes it a true Sega Rally game, as opposed to say, V-Rally: The Next Generation. More than that, inexplicably, two different handling systems have been included (neither of them feeling right), and the inclusion of bouncy invisible walls trackside feels like a relic from the PS2 generation - and the arbitrary positioning of those 'walls' with little in the way of visual cues is terrible.
Other major irritations could've easily been fixed: no restart option in the pause menu – do I really have to play through every event in a championship if I make an error in the last race? And what's with the car select screen – why no stats on each car? How am I supposed to know which suits my driving style, or why one is better than the other, or why I should really want to get enough points to unlock the next car? And what on Earth does that music sound like?
Gameplay itself is also too difficult to begin with – even on the very first race, which you'd think should ease you into the game. But no, one big prang and you may as well restart (after quitting back to the main menu of course and going through all the options again as there is no restart option).
Fixing all of this stuff wouldn't have been too difficult (invisible walls aside) but the bottom line is that the mindset behind this game is just not quite right. If AM3 were starting out on Sega Rally now with today's console hardware, I can't imagine they'd hand in software like this. While the graphics are undoubtedly superb, the dedication to the player, to the sheer gameplay experience, just isn't there. It's a serviceable enough rally game if you can overcome its shortcomings, but it's not Sega Rally.
Game Over? Alas, 'Yeah!'. I'm off to play PGR4 and The Orange Box.

UPDATE: I'm currently back on Sega Rally having finished Half-Life 2 on 360 as I'm covering this in the next Eurogamer 360 vs PS3 face-off. Progressed through the first wave of rallies and opened up the modified championship. Have lost the will to play on. There is a restart option in the other game modes, but not in championship. Why exactly? There can be only one explanation - it is an artificial way of prolonging the time the player spends in the Championship mode. Handling still doesn't feel good to me and the option of not being able to switch between the two handling models between championship rallies boggles the mind. Different terrain requires different handling - this is what the game is telling me. Yet it won't let you swap between stages. I'm just bewildered as to why a game that has so much attention to detail elsewhere frustrates me so much in terms of the basics.

Most HD games, including Sega Rally Revo, top out at 29.97fps with a 720p resolution. Digital Foundry HD's precision 24-bit mode captures every single byte of pixel info output over HDMI to the point where even v-lock tear issues (shot right) can be easily identified and picked out. Click for full-size images.