How a game of the quality of Rallisport Challenge managed to only sell a pitiful 40,000 copies in the UK is beyond my poor shrivelled brain. Released during the same week that the Xbox was launched here back in March 2002, it got completely swept aside by the likes of Halo and Project Gotham Racing (in the former case being outsold by almost ten to one) but in my humble opinion deserves to be held up alongside these undoubted greats, boasting unmatched visuals, superb gameplay and the level of all round quality that leaves others in the genre trailing in its dust.
On the line
Naturally, when playable code of the forthcoming sequel arrived in the post last week, it was greeted with the kind of fervour normally reserved for goal celebrations at Carrow Road. Suffice to say this Live-enabled sequel is one of the key Xbox titles for the early part of this year, and exactly the kind of two pronged game Microsoft needs to sell both the Xbox to the millions of stubborn unbelievers and also one to truly push the thus-far underperforming Xbox Live service. I mean, 35,000 Live subscribers in the UK out of over a million owners isn't much to shout about is it?
Much like Gotham 2, the key draw of Rallisport Challenge 2 is its Live capabilities. As with all the other XSN Sports branded titles, you get the chance to race over 40 cars, compare all your times on all the tracks (over 90) on the Leaderboard, as well as set up a League. 16 players can race against each other at any one time, although the game only support four 'solid' cars online if smashing into each other is your thing.
As with the previous version, a plethora of game styles figure; Rallycross (closed circuit arenas), Crossover (figure of eight dual), Rally (point to point), Hill Climb (point to point steep tracks) and Ice Racing (ice based circuits). As with just about every Rally game ever, the standard Time Attack, Single Race, Career and Multiplayer (split screen, four player) modes all make an appearance.
A Rallisporting chance
In order to get anywhere, though, the Career mode has to be tackled head on at its various difficulty levels. Playable at four degrees of skill (Amateur, Pro, Champion and SuperRally) this hugely involving mode presents you with a progression tree, which you must ultimately work your way through and win in order to unlock more tracks, better cars and, with a fair bit of practise, triumph in the gruelling league.
At the gentler end of the scale, Amateur offers you a chance to get to grips with all the various game modes, with most of the 21 events winnable at the first or second attempt. Most events are split into two or three races; for example the Rallies almost always take part over three races, with the time at the end added up to determine the winner. Others, such as the Rallycross and Crossover races start off with a qualifying lap, followed by a face off to determine your overall position, but if you end up finishing way down the pack, you can go back to any stage at any time and improve on your performance to boost your overall ranking.
Most Rally games would demand you play your championship season sequentially, with no room to go back and improve other than starting all over again, but RSC 2 helps keep the frustration level down by always offering you another chance to prove yourself - without the unnecessary hassle of replaying all those tracks you're already good at.
Although you'd imagine this might mean that Career mode is all over before you know it, it's worth bearing in mind how many events there are to play through. As we mentioned, Amateur includes 21 events (with each split into multiple races), Pro features 36, Champion 48, while SuperRally has a further 16. That's a lot of racing, so it's no surprise DICE opted for this progression system. Each stage has a whole pile of unlockables - Amateur alone has 46, Pro 84, Champion 134 and SuperRally 48, so even before you go online there's a massive amount to last you several weeks' solid play.
And we're still not done with the features. Although it doesn't quite straddle the world like WRC and Colin McRae, RSC 2 still manages to take in Sweden, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Argentina, and Monte Carlo, and the settings are easily the most breathtaking yet seen in a Rally game. The first RSC was impressive enough in its own right, but DICE has really pulled a selection of graphical effects right out of the top drawer that make you realise just what the Xbox is capable of when put to the task, which in this era of PS2-lead development isn't that often.
This early preview build may have dreadfully slow loading, and a occasional frame rate issues, but the latter is rare enough for us to believe the claims that these will be well and truly ironed out by the time the game arrives in finished form in a couple of month's time. Take those out of the equation and it's by some distance the most impressive looking racing game ever, with glorious views, stunning weather effects, the most bone-crunching damage effects seen since Burnout 2, and a long list of incidental effects that leave bystanders open mouthed at the spectacle burning along at 60 frames per second.
Some of the effects deserve a sentence to themselves such is their beauty. The rain, first of all, has to be the most impressive ever achieved, with an almost blinding spray rendering even the most straightforward course a major challenge, affecting not only your vision, but the traction to such an extent it's almost harrowing to drive at speed in these conditions. The ubiquitous sunset effects are frankly astonishing, not only looking the part but actually getting in your eyes so much that you're more or less reaching for the sun visor. Throw in the dust, mud and snow spray effects, the splash of individual puddles as you scream through them, the headlight glow, and the gradual deterioration of your cars as you drive through all the filth and you're left with what amounts to a staggering technical achievement.
And we haven't even mentioned the handling or damage model yet. On the former, I have to confess that I haven't quite adapted to the rather slippy model used in RSC 2 just yet, but I haven't managed to unlock some of the more impressive cars as yet, so it'd be unwise to prejudge how the game feels just yet. Right now, though, it feels rather too much like the car constantly wants to spin out, with the back end swinging way too much whenever you go into a bend. Obviously it'll take time to learn the nuances of each course and car, but the reaction to the more slippery courses, such as ice and gravel, make driving rather more of a challenge than you'd perhaps expect. If you were to rank the handling against CMR04's, it's a more slippery version of that, with the likes of WRC3's well over in the sticky camp. More on this in the review, naturally.
Damage model wise, RSC 2 is firmly in the arcade camp of providing visual pyrotechnics that don't necessarily affect your driving ability. As a spectacle it's immensely impressive, with just about every part of your hapless car able to fly off with a bit of rough handling. Unlike, say, CMR04, the consequences of such rough handling don't really amount to much, with the performance seemingly unaffected, and certainly not carried forward to later races within the same stage - certainly on Amateur mode. We've yet to fully explore whether damaging your car has consequences on the latter difficulty levels, but thus far it appears not.
Initial impressions put RSC 2 firmly in the arcade camp, although there are plenty of sim-style options to tweak almost every aspect of the car's performance should you wish to. On the whole I'd argue that it appears to have achieved a sensible balance between the two. Whether it will unite both camps remains to be seen, and there will undoubtedly be those who prefer elements of other games, but one thing you definitely can't argue with is the online play, and I can see this being a major lure for many rally heads out there wanting to show off their skills. Definitely one to watch for anyone with a vague interest in racing games, which judging by Need For Speed Underground's performance appears to be rather a lot...