Tracks of my gears
To dwell on the tracks a little more (did we mention the tracks?), it's important to emphasise just how well designed they feel, which is why you won't mind the repeat play. Each one has so many environmental factors to take into account, such as contrasting surfaces and variable conditions. Sometimes you'll go from loose, uneven country lane surfaces to smooth city tarmac and back, or icy, treacherous slush, to sheet ice, to wet mountain roads, to muddy off-road lanes. It's no longer just about memorising one set course layout, with all its twists, turns and slopes, but where the ever-changing hazards are. One minute a perfectly drivable section will become a quagmire of criss-crossing tyre tracks, leaving you with split second decisions over whether to go for the racing line, or avoid the mulch and gain traction over a the path least travelled - but with the penalty of a less efficient racing line. Motorstorm debuted this approach, but with far less success - the tighter, more focused tracks on show in SEGA Rally have a much more profound effect on how you actually race. Without a doubt, the deformable track feature revolutionises how you race, and in that respect, yes, that makes this SEGA Rally remake a worthy update, and in many respects a true next generation racing game. Finally, we can talk about something more meaningful than a bigger poly count and better lighting.
While we're on the subject, one thing we haven't really focused too much on yet is how incredible the game looks, and throws out more detail than pretty much any driving game to date. Ok, so it's only running at 30 frames per second, but it's an absolutely rock-solid 30 frames per second. Despite that rather irksome fact, it's the first time in ages that a developer has really transmitted that blistering arcade sensation that old hands constantly go on about.
It's hard to believe how quickly SEGA's new racing studio has put this game together, to such a high standard. Every track, and every location is stuffed to the gills with staggering levels of incidental detail - all rendered in the same rich colour palette that is synonymous with SEGA driving games. Possibly the best tribute we can pay them is you wouldn't know it wasn't made by the Japanese, such is the attention to detail, and how well observed the style of the game is - from the stylish, minimalist front end to the one-off in-game moments where planes fly overhead in formation. Needless to say, the best way to truly appreciate this superb spectacle is in the game's bumper cam - which not only gives you a closer inspection of the tracks, but a far better sense of speed. Curiously, I'm one of those people who finds it easier to control in that view, too, but on the downside you miss out on the excellent gloopy mud effects that cake the car - not to mention the way the mud's washed off if you drive through a puddle.
And just to add to the fun, SEGA have thrown in online multiplayer and leaderboards as well. Needless to say, a game like this lends itself exceptionally well to both elements, with Time Attack boards for every single track in all three classes, and downloadable ghost cars to race against. While there's nothing particularly flash or unique about SEGA Rally's online execution to comment about, the important thing to note is that it has pretty much all the basics ticked off, with ranked and player matches, custom matches where you can define which car classes can or can't be included, AI racers, AI difficulty, and even invite-only matches. The main point to stress is that lag (in my somewhat limited experience) wasn't an issue, and that people will have an awful lot of fun using their intimate offline knowledge of certain tracks against one another.
The only lingering doubts about SEGA Rally is whether it really has enough staying power, but that's something we'll only know a month or two down the line. Like any arcade style game, your love for it might initially be very intense, but there's a suspicion that its appeal will only stretch so far. That said, does it matter? There are more than enough championships on offer to justify a purchase, in any case, and the lure of online play, achievements and leaderboards really ought to keep you coming back long after the novelty value has worn off. All we can say is, right now, 15, 20 hours in we can't stop playing it. As they say, it's a buy.
But enough of the predictions and doubts. SEGA Rally is easily the freshest arcade driving experiences to have emerged in years, providing more wide-eyed excitement in five minutes than most games manage in five hours. Not since Burnout 2 has a driving game stood out as so completely different to everything else, and provided so much instant, moreish entertainment to such a high technical standard. To find a game that strips out the pointless and unnecessary padding and gets back to, you know, making the actual racing the fun bit is worthy of celebration on its own, but to then underpin the whole thing with deformable tracks is a masterstroke. As one of the most important and well-realised ideas to hit the racing genre, it's something I'd urge any racing game fan to try out. SEGA Rally isn't just a nostalgic remake, but a genuinely revolutionary twist that takes arcade racing in a new direction.