Microsoft killed Rallisport Challenge. Panicked into releasing the game in the deluge of European Xbox launch titles, not only did it get lost in a ridiculously large swathe of games, but a total lack of marketing or pre-awareness effectively scuppered the game's chances. Some good reviews and word of mouth helped the title along, but the damage had already been done. Commercially it was a disaster for one of the best Xbox titles, eventually selling around 40,000 copies in the UK - about a one tenth of Halo and one eighth of Gotham.
Admitting it had drastically underperformed commercially, Swedish development maestros DICE was keen to make amends with a sequel so ambitious it could take the competition years to catch up. RSC 2 is not only one of the prettiest games ever made, but does for the Rally genre what Gotham 2 did for Street Racing games last Christmas with a quite stupendously brilliant Xbox Live mode.
Another Live killer app
Admittedly only just over 100,000 out of the millions of European Xbox owners are hooked up to Live at present, compared to around 650,000 Americans, but if ever there was a title sure to tempt driving fans to getting online, RSC 2 is definitely it. But don't imagine for one second that this is a game that is only worth getting if you're on Live - it's also far superior to the mighty Colin McRae in most areas.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of RSC2 is the sheer level of technical achievement. To say that DICE has set a new benchmark for driving games wouldn't be overstating quite how good this game looks and feels. In terms of the graphics alone, it’s easily one of the best looking games - the original was impressive, but the sequel more or less rewrites the rule book of how to create authentic, fun environments that cover all bases. You could practically write an entire review just detailing the nuances of each of the environments there's so many intricate touches - it makes you wonder how on earth the team managed to build 93 tracks to such an outstandingly accomplished level in just two years.
On a basic level RSC is set across eight different countries, with four variations of weather (sunny, foggy, rain, snow), plus each race takes part at all different times of the day or night so that a myriad of permutations are possible from the dazzling sunset in the Australian desert to the murky grey of an English rainy day to a bleak frozen Swedish deathtrap. Add to that five types of racing in which to place these conditions (Rally, Rally Cross, Hill Climb, Ice Racing and the new Crossover duel) and it's not hard to see how DICE has managed to come up with a brutally challenging 93 tracks.
For the lone driver there's an almost unfathomable challenge ahead that could keep you going for solid weeks at a time. The Single race or Time Attack modes allow you to brush up on any of the eight Rallycross, eight Crossover, 48 Rally, 21 Hill Climb, or eight Ice Racing tracks that you may have unlocked, but the real meat, as ever, lies in the Career mode.
Rather than have arbitrary skill levels, RSC 2 offers you three main championships to go for; Amateur, Pro and Champion, with a stupendously hard Super Rally for the true hardcore nutcases out there. Divided up into a progression tree of 21, 36, 48 and 16 events, each of these is often comprised of two or more races that either involves some sort of qualification (in the case of Rallycross or Ice Racing) or several legs of a race that contribute to an overall time. Suffice to say, it takes an absolute age to progress through any Championship, and you could conceivably be kept busy for weeks on the latter skill levels as you try and master some of the more fiendish events. Needless to say, Amateur will be an absolute walk in the park for the experienced racer, and we finished first in all 21 events at the first attempt without breaking sweat. Ramping up to Pro, things started off quite easy but became progressively more challenging up to the point where we'd have to repeat certain events to score a better rank. The latter point is one of the truly beautiful aspects of RSC 2 in that your efforts are never wasted. If you, like us, slumped to 16th place on one of the more stupendously hard night time races (which are all swines, incidentally), you don't have to restart your entire championship to improve upon that - you just repeat that race and try and improve your position on that one event. While the tension might be slightly reduced, so is the frustration of one slip up cocking up an entire championship a la Colin McRae. But seriously, each season is so bloody long (we’re talking well over 80 races in most cases) it couldn't work any other way.
Not for commitment phobes
Not only is each season a long hard test of commitment, some of the races clock in at over 10 miles - which makes it an even greater achievement for a) for you to learn it and b) for DICE to have built such intricate mammoths.
It really isn't exaggerating to come away from some of the most aesthetically pleasing tracks literally in awe of the scenery. Many of the trackside objects you only ever see once in the entire game and are built with such attention to detail it has to be seen to be believed. Check out the autumnal trees in the Great Britain tracks and just dare not to be stunned at how incredibly real they look, with yellowing fallen leaves forming mulch on the road and scattering in your wake. Other tiny touches such as birds flailing away as you approach and the way your car gradually gets filthier just create an unmatched sense of realism that carries on throughout the entire game. How on earth DICE managed to get all this running at 60FPS with no slowdown and almost imperceptible 'fade in' pop up is a question we're sure many developers are currently trying to work out.
Perhaps best of all, in gameplay terms, is the way your car interacts with the track. Visual details such as soggy mud and sparking ice aren't mere graphical trickery, but bona fide clues to how you should drive, and immediately have a dramatic affect on the way you car handles. To state that this is the most convincing car handling in any game wouldn't even come close to describing how incredible DICE's achievements are. Anyone expecting this to be leaning towards unrealistic arcade-style handling will be in for a shock once it’s apparent just how solid the physics modelling is in relation to the road and its ever-changing surfaces.
Think and drive
And it’s not just about learning how to cope with the massive changes in surfacing either - every car in the game feels totally different to the last - and with over 40 of those to eventually unlock, there's always the carrot of finally bagging that one with the great handling you've been hankering after. Even the track architecture will have a big impact on what you decide to drive, with some tracks as windy as hell (and hence benefiting from better handling), and others benefiting from better acceleration if they're full of nasty inclines. It's almost exhausting to play in long sessions, because you literally have to concentrate so hard just to stay on the track. But that's not to say it's one of those driving experiences where you'll constantly be swerving off the track. Not at all. DICE recognises that driving games should be fun first and foremost, and the handling for the most part feels utterly assured and natural, rather than being ridiculously twitchy like some supposedly realistic attempts at the genre.
One anomaly though, is why DICE didn't make more of the damage modelling system. For a start it's one of the best around in terms of what you can actually break off the car, but unlike CMR's brilliantly implemented system, you don't carry that damage into the next race, so there's never any sense of having to be careful. One of the highlights of CMR 4 was the way you had a finite amount of time to carry out you repairs in between every other race, and often this had a dramatic bearing on how well you'd fare in the next. In RSC 2 there's no tension in this respect, and it's actually hard to feel any real difference in the handling even when you do completely trash your car. In CMR 4 you really knew when you'd knackered your car, and in a way this made it more fun.
Another thing that slightly annoyed us was the severity of the night time races. To put it bluntly, they're a pain in the arse. As good as the headlight effects are, they simply don't illuminate the road well enough to be able to drive properly, and as a result the bloody AI drones end up with unrealistically good times. It's jarring to be competing in the top three places for two races and then your final race to hang on a night time race and realise you'll get a kicking. Turning up the brightness didn’t help, either, before you make that 'helpful' suggestion.
Who are you?
If we wanted to be really picky, we'd mention the lack of licensed driver names, and the fact that it's nearly always the same drivers in the top three every race - so as soon as you slip up they take advantage every time. Perhaps DICE could have also included a more realistic season mode alongside the exhausting slew of races - as it stands the single player mode is a little overwhelming for long periods. It would have been nice to have a mode that doesn't last as long but forces you to consider the damage you've done to you car.
But as we’ve mentioned, multiplayer, be it online, system link or split screen is just great. Depending on lag (which we can't really be 100 per cent sure of, not having played the boxed retail code), the chance to finally play this awesome array of tracks nose to nose with other players is a great feeling, and arguably better than Gotham 2 in many respects. It's a shame to only have the chance to race against three other humans with a solid car, but 16 players with wireframe ghosts still delivers that same sense of tension, so it’s not a major issue - you just can't actually crash into them, that's the only difference.
I am Car
There's no denying that RSC 2 is a benchmark product in virtually every area, perhaps just lacking in one or two areas that some may take minor exception to. But, honestly, if you come away unimpressed from playing RSC 2, we'd advise you to seek medical attention, because in 25 years of playing driving games no other title comes close to its startlingly lifelike environments, its impressively realistic yet fun handling system nor the overwhelming sense of fun that permeates the single player and most of all the multiplayer. Just buy it; it’s as simple as that.