The last time Eurogamer looked at SEGA Rally it was little more than a tech demo. This time around it looked a bit more like a fully-fledged game. That's partly because this time they were showing off the game's 'adaptive AI' and 'bumper to bumper close competitive racing'. Along with the persistent track deformation that they wowed us with the last time, the super-detailed, lushly tropical visuals, and a physics engine that's been developed internally from the ground up, it's a mix that SEGA's new Racing Studio hopes will capture the arcade essence of the 12-year-old original.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start where SEGA started its presentation: with a little bit of history. Well, a pretty sizeable portion of history really, or a pretty sizeable portion of SEGA's history at least. Because the original SEGA Rally Championship is still the most successful arcade cabinet in SEGA's illustrious arcade-cabinet-making history. In fact it's so successful that, according to SEGA, there's one machine out there that's made over Ł750,000 in the 12 years since it was released in 1995. Which, if my maths are correct, means that it has made about seven pounds an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 12 years. That's a lot of history.
The original game was created by SEGA's internal AM5 division, on SEGA's Model 2 arcade board, which was capable of pushing an amazing 150 polygons per car. Over the intervening years, it spawned a Saturn version and a sequel that was also available on Dreamcast. Nowadays you won't even have to leave your house to watch your PS3 or Xbox 360 shifting a rather more remarkable 65,000 polygons per vehicle.
But who cares about polygons? The original SEGA Rally was undoubtedly technically impressive in its day, and the updated SEGA Rally arguably even more so, but this is a game that's about exaggerated handling and taking corners like a lunatic. A bit like a muddy version of the recently remade OutRun. Indeed, SEGA is keen to stress that the game was born of a desire to capture the essence of the original, hence the extravagant back-end-out handling and an almost-overcrowded head-to-head showdown with other cars. And from the voice-over man to the helicopter flying overhead, there's a lot here to suggest that the new Racing Studio will succeed in turning out an update that's as impeccably faithful and inspired as its Sumo Digital-developed stable-mate - most noticeably the racing itself.
The new Racing Studio has been formed by around 50 racing game veterans drawn from the likes of Codemasters, Rare, Criterion and Rockstar, which, to judge by the demo, provides a perfect balance. It's a perfect balance for creating a game that combines the sort of anally realistic physics that characterise all modern racing games, with the 'Hollywood realism' (as SEGA calls it) of the handling. The game's creators are emphatic that they don't want the next-gen obsession with realistic detail to overshadow the essence of the original SEGA Rally, so damage won't affect your handling, and you'll spend more time powersliding round corners than worrying about what gear you should be in.
The finished game will include over 30 cars: four-wheel drive, two-wheel drive, classic cars, and some bonus cars. But each one will be available in various different liveries, and most will have different variants (set up for driving on tarmac, or gravel, or safari, for example). Although SEGA remains coy on the subject, judging by the demonstration, you'll be able to relive the boxy glamour of the original vehicles, and as you'll know if you've been following Eurogamer's previous coverage, races will take place across various videogamey environments, from deserts to arctic wastes, with each environment home to three courses.
The course in the demo looks lovely. Taking place in a tropical idyll, it boasts swaying scenery, lush palm trees, lagoons with boats bobbing on the surface, and the occasional local villager cycling around. And the detail is staggering: the engine throb is the dictionary definition of throaty; all the environments and vehicles are self-shadowing; you can see the suspension of each wheel bouncing independently; and the dust haze and mud that splatters the cars matches the surfaces that they're driving through - which means they'll even wash off when you splash through puddles.
Apart from the up to date visuals, the major innovation over the original game is in the persistent surface deformation - but this will surely bring it closer to what AM5 was trying to achieve all those years ago. What it basically means is that when you drive around on surfaces, they deform, pretty much as they would in real life. And they stay deformed, pretty much as they would in real life. In fact, they tested it by setting up six AI cars to drive around a track for 12 hours: they left behind a quarry. So when you drive through wet mud, you'll make thick trenches. Drive across more solid surfaces and you'll leave shallower skid marks. You can even go down to the water table, creating puddles that weren't there before.
Interestingly, this makes it possible to get your best lap times on the last lap of races, as the newly carved out racing line will help your car stick to it, since unlike the competition (such as MotorStorm), the surface deformation actually affects the physics and handling. And, of course, it'll affect all the other cars on the track too, and the AI is another of the game's strengths, with your computer-controlled rivals adopting realistic behaviours, like hanging back and over-taking on corners, or swerving to block you off.
Even though it's not quite finished, and even though the motor racing genre has recently rediscovered its sense of fun (in the shape of titles like MotorStorm and OutRun 2), watching SEGA Rally in action is an exhilarating and uplifting experience. And that, really, is pretty much the arcade essence of the 12-year-old original.