As with all such things, the key to making a good rally game is wedged in the door marked 'pub'. "You sit late in bars with drivers and co-drivers talking about how these things work," says SEGA Racing Studio boss Guy Wilday. Then you go home and do some programming. So what do rally drivers say? "It's all about tyres, and it's all about surfaces. That really is a key topic of conversation. The cars themselves are obviously very technically innovative, but the thing they focus on is the tyres and the surfaces - what tyres they need for a particular surface, how a car is going to behave on a particular surface, and how that surface is going to change."
It's ironic, in a way, because it was likely Wilday's success working on Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally series that led to his founding the Solihull-based SEGA Racing Studio in the first place, and yet he's just told us that the key to rally driving is changes to conditions that nothing he worked on there - prior to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and modern PC hardware - could hope to emulate. The technology simply wasn't around. Well, as they say, it is now. SEGA Rally demonstrates the difference that six rally cars can make tearing across a tightly wound circuit. In fact, surface deformation has such a pronounced effect on gameplay that the game's online, leaderboard-based Time Attack mode will require you to complete three laps and submit an averaged time. "The difference between laps one and three can just be huge."
All this talk of consultation, loose-surface racing, deformation technology and Colin McRae could well send a chill up the spines of SEGA Rally's old guard. As will Wilday's comment that "the remit behind this studio was always to develop content for the Western market". It's not hard to take the things he's saying, add them together and end up with a sort of SEGA Off-Road Gran Turismo. GT's turned into a sort of ASDA trolley dash for motorsport, and sales suggest it's what we want. But surely Racing Studio isn't just going to try and emulate GT's volume factor? "I think there's pressure to do that," he says. "I absolutely agree that Gran Turismo has become a content-based game. It's a fantastic visual showroom of content." But, (phew), "we've been concentrating on creating something very playable that people can latch onto, and not get caught up in the whole content battle."
Surface deformation might sound spoddy, then, but it's sailed in under the aegis of fun. "The original arcade game was groundbreaking; for me it was a milestone in off-road racing. It was really the first game where you really felt in control of a car off-road," Wilday explains. "What we wanted to do here was something else that was new and original that again was going to be another milestone; that was going to be the first game where you actually feel the surface changing and evolving underneath you, and across a number of laps the race is different." At this point it dawns on us that while SEGA Rally 12 years ago couldn't have dreamed of it, in a sense the essence of what surface deformation offers the 2007 vintage is the strongest link between the two games we could've hoped for: the desire to innovate rather than rehash.
Interpretation will only get you so far though (paragraph five, on this evidence). Strapping into a Force Feedback chair with a GT Force steering wheel hooked up to the PlayStation 3 version, and later settling in for a few hours learning each of the four demo circuits in more detail with an identical Xbox 360 build, now we get the chance to put our theories to the test.
Starting with the chair was a mistake, we realise a few hairpin catastrophes later, but SEGA's made few mistakes in the way it's harnessed the technology - something it will also do on the Xbox side with Microsoft's handsome steering wheel. The wheel response, the palpability of the surface changes, and the precarious feel of a rally race are all present and correct. But it's the more concerted exposure we get on the control pad that endears us. Racing against five other humans, or against a mixture of AI racers, we get to tour the three environments (Alpine, Canyon and Tropical - the latter having two tracks on display) and see how the experience develops.
To begin with you're all over the place. It's still fun, but as you clamber up mountain roads, transition into wading through slush and then skating across snow, or glide round sandy turns down by the beach, you throw the back end of the car out too far, you overcorrect on the steering and snag the sides of the track, and you regularly plough straight into the wall at the peak of a hairpin. As you get a better grasp of the relationship between braking, the accelerator, and powerslides, you're able to concentrate on keeping a good line and showing sharp turns a sensible amount of respect, rather than baring your arse to the spectators in blind fear and losing a couple of seconds in the process.
What's interesting though is that the most frustrating thing - smacking walls - starts to disappear from your laps quite quickly. You make mistakes, and they cost you, but the tracks seem to bulge in the places where you make them. It's subtle, and once you've graduated beyond learner lines and started rutting the optimal approach, you won't even notice the run-offs. We put it to Wilday that perhaps they've deliberately designed the tracks to catch newbies when they fall. He laughs. "Motivation from the start was that SEGA Rally's about throwing the car sideways and powersliding round corners, so having the ability to do that is enormously important, so it's quite forgiving. If you make a mistake and go wide on a corner, the penalty is that you've taken a longer line - you're not necessarily penalised by hitting a wall."
By spending about 40 minutes on each track, over and over, I'm able to refine what I'm doing to the degree that only the hairiest sections cause problems - a hairpin on the Canyon track, and sharp, muddy turns in the Tropical stages, for example. But the fun remains, and it's largely down to three things: the "Hollywood realism" handling model, the five other cars, and the surface deformation. When your opposition's human, it can be hair-raising. Adjusting your position on the track is rarely easy; loose-surface racing has always emphasised that, and when your opponent ahead clips the inside on a set of very long opposing turns in an attempt to ride through them in near-enough a straight line, his desperate attempt to hold momentum while he fishtails left and right is going to cause you problems. If you smack into him, who knows to what extent? There's no damage modelling in the game (it wouldn't be very SEGA Rally), but getting stopped hurts.
Playing against the AI isn't so different. "One of the key things is that they've got to adapt to what's happening with the track; the track's changing, you're having to drive differently because of that, and they're going to have to do exactly the same thing," Wilday observes. "We've got a fairly sophisticated AI system that is adapting to how the race is changing." In practice they have a tendency to roar off at the start and then need to be pegged back while you're getting to grips (apologies) with the surface. But they pay their AI colleagues the same sort of attention you might expect to see reserved for you; on one occasion I entered a tunnel glancing nervously at a Peugeot and a SKODA in my rear-view, and upon exiting they were both gone - victims of a tightening bend and their own mutual stubbornness. Even over the course of a few hours it's hard to confirm Wilday's comments about their adaptiveness, but they certainly put up a good fight.
Which, when you put it in the context of my rising stock, ought to suggest they are as he says. By hour three I'm good enough to win most, if not all the races I start. The skill is in adjusting without overcorrecting, powersliding efficiently, staying out of the way of other racers, and - as SEGA Racing Studio hoped would be the case - mastering the way the surface changes. Some of it's laid out when you start - ruts through snow and mud point to the racing line - and these are then augmented on laps two and three as further ruts are born and harden under the sun. Riding across them subsequently is like driving over a rumble strip.
Wilday says his goal for each environment is "basically to have extremes of surfaces and extremes of gameplay"; for them to be characteristic both in terms of the make-up of their surfaces and the distribution and transitions between them, as well as aesthetically. There's plenty of evidence of that already: Alpine's gradual ascent into slush and then snow forces you to brake sooner, reconsider the apex and be more mindful of those around you; and probably the most satisfying part of the entire game can be found in Canyon, as you powerslide through a 90-degree right-hander that leads onto a bridge and the dust transitions to tarmac, with the sudden burst of friction wrenching you forward and saving you from crashing into the barrier. It makes me smile every time.
The sense is that SEGA's approach to the Western market is actually the sort of approach that Japanese companies are now taking: to treat the world as a single market, and design games with broader appeal. Wilday admits that gamers seem to want tighter games these days. Their reaction, on the evidence of our hours with SEGA Rally, is a game that concentrates a greater density of content into a smaller package, boring layers of potential into each track that you're able to unlock as you graduate from slippery idiot to confident driver to rally supremo. I've hardly exhausted each track either - I've not had a chance to experiment with the difference it makes using Road tyre settings over Rally; I've not mastered hairpins; I've only seen one class of car; I've not even had a chance to test all my ideas.
One of these is that as you're approaching a corner with a racing line in mind, and you see an area that's off the optimal line but well worn, you might almost do better by following that instead, such is the speed benefit you get from following the deformed areas. "Obviously taking a shorter line is the shortest route round the corner, but you're absolutely right - if it's not a worn part of the track you're not going to get much grip and traction and therefore speed, so there is a trade-off there," says Wilday. In other words, churning sand on the optimal line may be no better than braking harder on the worn one. "Yep, it may be evens - it may be that a shorter line on a less worn piece of track will work out exactly the same as a more worn line. That's almost like a driver choice as you go around - you can decide which path you want to take. And again, it might be determined by whether there's a car around you."
As you've gathered, it left us very upbeat as we exited Blythe Business Park at the end of the day. We wanted to see more. We wanted to see the other environments (they won't tell us what they are, but we spot "Coastal" and "Arctic" mood-boards lying around the studio), we wanted to check out the other car classes (there'll be more than 30 vehicles - including "Classic" and "Bonus" ones, with new liveries unlocked by accumulating mileage), and of course we wanted to go online. Both PS3 and 360 will offer 6-player competitive racing, with Time Attack as mentioned and downloadable ghosts to go with each leaderboard. In fact, Wilday says the two versions are identical in every respect, and they seem to be. The Xbox 360 version might end up with PC-Xbox cross-play on Vista ("I'm not sure that's going to make it in. We'll see."), but apart from that and the lack of rumble in the PS3 pad, "you'd be hard-pushed to tell them apart". So that's nice then, and in deference to the developer, the best way to celebrate this seems to be downing tools and heading off to the Quack & Pheasant.
SEGA Rally is due out on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PSP and mobile this September, or thereabouts.