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SEGA Rally

A rallying call for racing fans everywhere.

Here's the answer to perhaps the most important question anyone could ask about SEGA Rally on the PSP: yes. Yes they have. They have absolutely nailed the handling. Triumphantly. Sublimely. Simply, yes. SEGA Rally on the PSP is all about controlling the powerslide - about finding your flow state and sticking with it as you course round one long easy curve after another, nudging your nose into the optimum position to maintain your speed around the apex of each successive bend. Well, the nose of your car, anyway.

The essence of SEGA Rally's appeal is its simplicity: pick a car, pick your tyres, pick from manual or automatic transmission, and then powerslide round the racetrack three times. The game is divided up into Championship or Time Attack modes, with Championship further divided into three vehicle classes, Premier, Modified and Masters. Each vehicle class is further divided across skill levels (Amateur, Professional and so on), with several multiple-race rallies in each skill level.

In the preview version the courses are all a variation on snow, desert or jungle (which is unlikely to change before the game's released). There are Safari, Alpine, Tropical, Arctic and Canyon tracks, all bursting with the sort of detail that graces the home console versions of the game - full of swooping helicopters, passing alpine trains, and cheering spectators. More importantly, they also feature a pretty entertaining selection of jumps, slopes and bends, strung together in such a way to provide a judicious balance between the difficulty of making it round and the delight of having done so.

It doesn't look like this when you're racing, obviously, just during the replays.

Although the PSP version of the game has been developed separately from the main console versions (by Bugbear Entertainment of Flatout fame), it holds up extremely well visually, and although it doesn't seem to feature the key selling point of the console versions - the persistent deformation - the road surface still plays a hugely important part in the gameplay.

Indeed, in SEGA Rally, your main contest is with the road surface. There are three types of surface in the game, and three types of tyre, with one best-suited for each type of tyre. Once you've picked your wheels, each race is all about judging how to control your slide on the different surface types so as to take the quickest racing line. It's all about knowing when to ease off the gas in order to control your slide, and knowing when to nudge the wheel to correct your direction. Slide too far and you'll lose speed. Don't slide at all and you'll bounce round the walls of the track. Get it just right and you'll segue satisfyingly from bend to bend.

It doesn't quite look like this, either. But it does look pretty sweet.

And, as mentioned above, they've totally nailed the handling. Whether you're hitting the brow of a hill and sailing through the air before switching into a perfect powerslide, or careening round a long easy right after cruising past your closest competitor on the inside, the feeling is one of utter exhilaration. You won't have had this much fun in a driving game since any of the OutRun 2 games.

But there is a but. There is an area in which the preview version of the game falls down, and that's the AI of the other racers, which hasn't been tuned yet. It all just feels a bit processional at the moment, with each race falling into the same pattern: the first two or three cars will sail off into the distance, eventually pulling away by the end of the race, while the middle two or three form a bunch some way behind them. It makes race results feel a bit predestined, and the game feel a bit lifeless - especially because overtaking feels like interacting with a robot, and once you've overtaken a car it's unlikely to battle its way back.

So, there's still some way to go before the finished product will feature the "closely fought competitive racing" mentioned in the press release - but it isn't such a disastrous flaw. The satisfaction to be derived from the game's glorious mix of smoking tyres and gravelly powersliding won't be diminished by dodgy AI, but it is the area of the game that needs the most work between now and release.

In fact, it looks pretty sweet even when you're trying to steer through the dust clouds of the cars in front.

Certainly, the only way to improve upon SEGA Rally on PSP as it stands would be to implement that closely fought competitive racing to give a sense of purpose to the elation - otherwise it runs the risk of being short-lived. But yes. Enough carping. Bugbear has got the handling exactly right, and the arcade simplicity, and when it comes to updating SEGA Rally for a new audience, on new technology, that's what's most important.

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SEGA Rally

PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo GBA, PSP, PC

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Dave McCarthy