When SEGA set up its new driving studio dream team in Solihull in the West Midlands of the UK, it made it pretty clear what the plan was from the word go. Straight away it put a recruitment advert in the UK trade press asking for applicants, with no effort made to disguise that it was aiming to revive classic SEGA driving franchises for the next generation. Most of us twigged that could include the likes of SEGA Rally, Crazy Taxi and Daytona, and so it proved with the announcement of SEGA Rally - a true re-invention of a much-loved rally franchise.
We say 'true re-invention' on the basis that SEGA Japan did actually release a PS2-only SEGA Rally last year, but lukewarm reviews everywhere ensured that it will remain a curio, only to be discovered by true hardcore aficionados determined to eke out every release no matter what. Assuming SEGA Europe doesn't go all weird on us and release it here anyway. They'd probably rather we just brushed it under the carpet and swiftly moved on so we can fully focus on a title the company is justifiably excited about.
Due for release next spring on PS3, 360 and PC, SEGA's Guy Wilday (formerly of Codemasters and behind the Colin McRae series) reckons his newly-formed studio will be "taking the game that defined the off-road genre to the next level". Currently only being shown off behind closed doors in tech demo form, it's far too early to even remotely judge such claims, but there were enough glimpses of what's to come to suggest that it's well worth paying attention to them.
"We've taken this project very seriously," he assures us, giving us a quick close-up tour of a typical car model. "The cars are actually self shadowing and cast off themselves," he says, giving the car a little spin around a tropical island track to demonstrate the point. Instantly, it's evident how natural it all looks now. The paintwork reflects the sunshine-laden environment exactly as you'd expect, with everything within the proximity of the car instantly caught by the body. Everything down to the rims and tyres does the same - there's really not much to do but admire the fact it looks so bloody real. "We're also doing these neat soft particle effects now, with dust effects that wrap around buildings and trees, then kick up polygon particles that bounce off other objects."
Later he zooms past the delightful water effects to really show off the "full next gen environment" where "everything is pixel lit". Oooh look, there's Sonic doing a spot of fishing while watching the race. Reflections. Particles. Sonic. Very cool, but we're kind of used to this stuff now, and because it's so obviously right Wilday moves swiftly on.
Much like Evolution's PS3 launch title MotorStorm, clearly one of the next generation driving game differentiators will be the level of persistence in the dynamic road surfaces. We're all used to near realistic cars that look amazing and handle convincingly, but one thing that's never been possible until now is the ability to make the road surface adapt to wear and tear. It goes without saying that this is clearly a massive part of driving in real-life, and Wilday is excited by the implications it will have on gameplay.
"We want a road surface that wears just as it would do in real life, where you're wearing the road surface away as the wheels drive over it. In the game we're literally moving the polygons so you have different car behaviour and a groove in the road that your car is going to have to drive over," he says, arcing one through the dusty surface.
Slowing down to a wider part of the track, he starts slowly driving around in the circle to prove the point. "After multiple passes it's getting very deep, and we're literally moving all the polys on the track, which is a next gen feature for sure."
To make sure we can see exactly how detailed the process is Wilday continues to zoom in the camera so that we can see the car suspension responding exactly to the changes to the track, with the tyres moving into each groove and the suspension and positioning of the car lurching gently in response. It's as close to real car movement behaviour as you've ever seen in a videogame. It no longer looks like a fudge or an approximation, and one that could make a big difference to the way we drive in videogames.
As Wilday insists, "[Persistent track deformation] is not just a gimmick. We want the handling to change, we want a variant and for you to have to drive with that. For example, if the track is smooth you get great performance, but not if there are grooves. You look for the lines ahead, and try to stick to the clean parts.
"Arcade-style multiplayer racing game are based on laps, and by the time you're in the third lap the track has changed significantly, so it creates some interesting gameplay possibilities," he asserts.
But at the same time, the 'racing line' might dictate that you'll follow these anyway, so there's an interesting gamble to be taken by trying to keep performance high at the expense of easy cornering.
As you might expect, the type of car and type of surface play just as important a part. So, for a serious off-road car, these grooves will be far more significant to the handling. Depending on things like the suspension settings and tyre choice you'll find yourself potentially churning much bigger grooves in the track. Not only that, the crud you churn up will completely obscure the vision of those behind you, so there's an advantage to being in front. But Wilday suggests, on the other hand, that driving in other driver's grooves might actually be easier than being the one that's ploughing the road surface up, which is an interesting dynamic all of its own.
So, okay. It's SEGA Rally, now with added track voodoo that makes race progression a little less straightforward than we're used to. What about multiplayer? "There's split screen, full online for up to eight players" Car types? "Traditional rally cars, classics, as well as a broad number of bonus ones like dune buggies, 4x4, and wacky off the wall stuff."
Beyond that details are scant: there will be a range of modes including the obligatory Championship to aim for. Yes, we can expect the usual selection of snow/ice/rocky/muddy tracks. No they haven't decided what camera angles they're going to stick with ("a good selection" was the best answer we got), and yes "more than a handful" of this 30-strong 'dream team' worked alongside Wilday on Colin McRae, not to mention others recruited from Rockstar and Reflections.
There's a decent pedigree and no mistake, but as Wilday is keen to point out when asked why SEGA elected to shift development from Japan "There's so much driving talent in Europe". Whether this talented bunch can make the SEGA Rally game we all crave is another matter, but we won't have too long to wait, with the first playable likely to appear around the time of Leipzig.
SEGA Rally is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in April 2007.