Americans seem to have a strange idea of motor racing, with most of their drivers spending half their lives driving round and round in circles very fast. In Europe, on the other hand, punters are more likely to be watching a Formula One car bumping through a chicane or some nutter flying down a narrow forest dirt track in the middle of the night amidst a cloud of gravel and dust. Which brings us to Rallisport Challenge, developed right here in Europe by Digital Illusions and cherry picked by Microsoft to help them launch the Xbox on this side of the pond. And what a catch it is. With its fast paced arcade-style action, stunning graphics and wide range of insane events to take part in, it is without doubt the single most entertaining title in the Xbox launch line-up. If you don't have a grin the size of a hairpin corner on your face after a couple of hours with this, you should have your pulse checked. The game's tracks are split between rally, rallycross, ice racing and hill climb events. The rally stages are traditional A to B affairs, spread over three locations - the sandy African Safari, winding Mediterranean stages with a mix of dirt and tarmac surfaces, and heavily forested Pacific mud tracks. Hill climbs are much the same, but take you anything up to 500m up the side of a mountain, with sheer drops and rocky cliffs on either side of the road. In both cases you will be racing against the clock, with only one car on track at a time. Rallycross events, on the other hand, involve four rally cars racing head-to-head around a dirt track, while ice racing takes this action out on to slippery snow and ice circuits. All of these tracks are purely fictional, but the design is mostly impeccable and they offer a wide range of challenges and experiences.
The game's real genius though is in the way the cars handle as you career at high speed over mud, sand, gravel and ice, giving you a feeling of being completely in control. There's nothing quite like speeding down a straight, slamming the brakes on, hurling the steering wheel to full lock and sliding flawlessly into the next straight, wheels spinning in a cloud of dust as the tires scramble to find some grip. That's not to say the game is easy - keeping all four wheels pointing in the right direction can be difficult at times - but the handling of your car is utterly consistent and the feedback the game constantly supplies leaves you in absolutely no doubt of what is happening at any given moment. Part of this is down to the continual throbbing of the Xbox controller in your hand, showing off the Xbox's superb force feedback hardware to great effect. As you speed down a stretch of tarmac the pad will gently vibrate in your hand, becoming a low rumbling as you sweep around a sandy corner, and then a violent shaking as you spin off the track and career through the bushes. If a stray traffic cone gets caught under the front of your car you will usually feel it before you see or hear it. If you're not entirely happy with the way your car is handling, you can always tweak your setup before the race begins. This isn't a hardcore sim so you won't be able to adjust your ride height to the nearest micrometer, but you do get some basic options. For example, you can trade off speed against acceleration by selecting short, medium or long gear ratios, change your brake and power distribution between front, medium and rear, and choose which kind of tyre you want. Usually the defaults will get you through a race without any problems, but you can often improve your performance by altering the setup to better suit your driving style or the circuit's characteristics.
If your choice of car just isn't working out for you though, you can always switch to another one. Rallisport Challenge features around thirty vehicles, from rally favourites like the Ford Focus Cosworth to wild customised cars, including the long sleek lines of the Toyota Tacoma Hill Climb special - a real handful, and a marvel to look at. Naturally not all of these vehicles are available from the outset, and in true Gran Turismo style you must unlock aditional tracks and cars by working your way through the Career Mode. This is a fairly straightforward affair in which you earn points to unlock the next tier of events, taking you from Pro through Skilled and Classic to Unlimited. Each tier has its own set of championships to complete, ranging from three to nine races long, and you will need to win most of these to accrue enough points to continue. It's at this point that you discover the game doesn't feature quite as many tracks as you initially believed, as higher level championships often share some of the stages that you cut your teeth on at Pro level. Don't let this worry you though - driving a much more powerful car down the same track can often prove to be a whole new experience, and sometimes the game will try to catch you out by sending you through a rally stage back to front. Some of the rallycross circuits also reappear with a thin coat of the white stuff in ice racing championships, but the change of surface makes for a radically different race.
Caution - Bumps
Every time you unlock a tier, all of the new tracks included in its championships also become available in single race and time attack modes. Single race does exactly what it says on the can, putting you and three other cars on any track (even normally solo rally stages) and leaving you to duke it out, while time attack allows you to hone your skills and work towards the perfect lap, with an optional ghost car showing your previous best lap as comparison. And you'll need all the practice you can get if you dare to take on the euphemistically named "Normal" difficulty level. It's not that the AI cars put up a stiff resistance (although they do), it's the unforgiving championship structure. You only have one chance to get each circuit right, and if you foul up it can ruin your entire championship, forcing you to start again from scratch. While this isn't too bad for a typical three or four race season, trying to master every circuit and consistently win every event through a nine race season is incredibly hard. Completing this epic Pro Rally World Cup is necessary to unlock the second tier, and it acts as a daunting learning cliff to less experienced racers. If you drop down to "Beginner" level you will discover that you can now restart races as often as you like. Sadly your rivals are also much slower on this skill level, leaving me finishing half a minute ahead of the rest of the pack in some events. Things do get much more challenging in later championships, but I found the balance a little uneven at times. Ideally Rallisport would have included an Easy level between Normal and Beginner, allowing you to restart races but with the same high quality of opposition found on the harder level. As it is your only choice is between bloody hard and rather easy.
Apart from this one fly in the ointment though, Rallisport Challenge is a stupendous game. Even when you're getting comprehensively beaten it's still a joy to play, and if you get bored of racing against the AI you can always indulge in some excellent four player splitscreen action with your friends. There's nary a slowdown in sight, no obvious scenery pop-up, and some spectacular scenery to take in. All in all one of the most entertaining motor racing games we've come across, and the shining star in the Xbox's launch line-up. What are you waiting for? Go out and buy a copy now. Get off couch, hairpin left, through door, hard right into hall, through door, over step into long straight, medium left opens into long straight, over street, twirl left...