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art of rally review - a slight yet stylish take on off-road driving

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Like a playable poster for an iconic rally event, funselektor's top-down racer is a blast.

If there's one image that gets to the heart of the madness of rally driving - and of rally in its purest, rawest and most outrageous form - it's of one of the Group B monsters soaring over a crest, parting a densely packed crowd and skimming their slacks as it speeds by. Here's the motorsport of the gods condensed into one bedroom-wall friendly image.

And in art of rally, here's the motorsport of the gods distilled into one brilliantly playable, arrestingly stylish little game. At first glance I thought funselektor's follow-up to Absolute Drift might be an arcade affair - that view from the heavens and the silhouettes of iconic machinery puts 90s classics such as Thrash Rally and Neo Drift-Out to mind - but the handling here has more in common with Dirt Rally than Sega Rally. There's more nuance than you might expect.

Crowds jostle along stages, parting way as you arrive (though I do worry that I might have taken a few out by mistake - sorry about that).

But you probably suspected as much if you're familiar with Absolute Drift, another stylish little driving game with surprising depths. There are similarities, but things have come on a fair way - just as in Codemasters' epic off-roaders, it's about poise and momentum, and learning how best to maintain that in a diverse roster of some 50 plus cars. They might not boast any official likenesses, but that hasn't stopped funselektor from dipping into rally's rich history with a selection of silhouettes and liveries - there are facsimiles of Toyotas old and not so old, Sierra Cosworths, Renault 5 Turbos and so much more besides (including some fun unlockables such as Dakar trucks and three-wheelers).

The audio's spot on, capturing the hisses and wheezes of classic rally machinery as well as the whine of their brakes. Oh, and the soundtrack's decent too.

They look fantastic and feel distinct, too, the shorter wheelbase of something like the Renault 5-a-like much more compliant under the thumbs than the Escort-Mk2-a-like that just wants to live its life in one long, languorous slide. You might think there's a disconnect between such authenticity and the arcade-like sensibilities shown elsewhere in art of rally, but it comes together well: the viewpoint is top down and mostly affixed on your car's derriere, a smart camera shifting its way out of obstacles and making sure you can always see what's coming ahead - a vital touch, seeing as this is one rally game without a co-driver.

There's more than one free roam map, and they provide a surprisingly entertaining diversion.

If art of rally breaks from tradition in that way, it's more traditional in many others. Its career guides you through the various categories, taking a selection of short stages from one of its broad selection (there's the cracked tarmac of Germany, the tricky tundra of Norway, Finland's famously fast forests plus Japan's blossoms and Sardinia's beaches) and speeding from point to point. There's the option for repairs, though damage is only lightly implemented, while timing details are kept sparse. You might call it bare bones, though I prefer to be more generous and think it's in keeping with art of rally's more minimalist style.

The cars look familiar but aren't quite the real thing - and you'll also spot a fair few familiar names in the AI you go up against in stages.

There's more besides, such as a free roam which gives you a generous little open world to drift around in whatever car you may have unlocked, complete with a handful of secrets and collectibles to find. And of course there's an online mode with daily events, where art of rally is whittled down to the essentials and it's just you, an impossibly narrow road and an improbably powerful car and a ticking clock - which is all you need, really.

And it's not so much about how much art of rally does but rather how it does it. It's as graceful and poised as Michèle Mouton holding a Quattro S2 at an impossible angle, and as stylish as any driving game I've played. There might be more complex takes than art of rally on the discipline out there, but none of them is as quick to get to the appeal of off-roading as this.

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