Rally games aren't much of a commodity these days. Neither is the promise of six prestigious global rallies, 33 stages, 25 licensed vehicles in five classes, and four game modes including split-screen multi-player. If you didn't know I was talking about Rally Championship from Warthog and SCi, you might just as soon imagine I was talking about WRC2 (Sony), Colin McRae 3 (Codies), Rally Fusion (Activision), Pro Rally (Ubi Soft), V-Rally 3 (Infogrames) or Sega Rally 3. Even if I throw in realistic car damage systems, real car physics, advanced weather effects and actual rallying techniques, I could still be talking about pretty much any of them. And you know that's just marketing guff anyway.
But those are Rally Champs' vital stats according to the back of the box, and as you can probably tell from my tone, it doesn't get any more exciting. In fact, it barely lives up to them at all.
The main problem is just how indifferent the player feels to the on-screen action. Oh sure it's pretty fast, it's very close to good looking (albeit in a toony, GameCube sort of way, with chunky cars, solid walls of green wheat with a worrying opacity to them, dust kicked up behind your car leaving a hazy mist over the track in your rear-view, truck, tractor, house, barn and village prefabs, and so on), and simulation fans will probably lighten up at the sight of a progressive career mode, where you compete for money to buy new cars in the soggy British rallies, then journey abroad to more exotic locations in Africa and elsewhere. Throw in arcade/time trial modes, split-screen for up to four players (at the usual expense of detail/frame rate), and there you have it.
But however nicely you paint the picture, you can't escape the multitude of faults, which leap into your path like a drunken spectator on a foggy race day. The framework is good, but it's been filled out by office juniors.
Take the handling and physics models. For a sim-based rally game, would you seriously expect to flip your vehicle if you clip virtually anything? Would you expect to be able to donut your car about 17 times by holding the gas when you spin off? Would you expect to move in a dead straight line for the most part despite wiggling all over the track 'realistically'? Would you expect to write your car off after a 100mph collision with a solid wall of barley, or would you expect the headlights to pop before you started off again?
Actually, it's a touch ironic, but the most fun we had with Rally Championship - the most excitement - was on nighttime rallies where our apathetic driving stance would lose our headlights about half way through, forcing us to scrape away at the other bloke's lead in almost total darkness.
Back to reality though, and it's a good thing that we don't generally bother to twiddle with car options, because anybody doing so would quickly realise that for all your options - gear ratios, suspension, ride height, brake bias, brake power, tyre type, tyre tread and tyre compound - there's virtually no way to notice any changes because the handling's too inconsistent.
It isn't the only thing though. We mentioned the dust kicking up earlier. Well, the dust does, but the mud doesn't bother. The car has several distinct handling styles allegedly determined by the terrain, but in practise you won't find any difference between skating across mud and dust - snow is about the only thing which really throws a spanner into the works. Half the time you can get round only braking for hairpins. What's more, sometimes the controls are incredibly responsive, and you feel like you're blitzing a race, finding the perfect line on every turn and firing on all cylinders, only to crash out repeatedly in the next race because the car seems to take on a mind of its own.
Of course the real reason the car goes haywire may simply be your faceless character leaning over to jam the pace notes down his co-driver's throat, because although "long right, don't cut" can be a handy tip, it isn't so much if the bloody turn goes left! It's just another example of the inconsistency at work here.
Easy right, through the gate to finish
Now, we hesitate to condemn Rally Champs completely for a couple of reasons. 1) There is nothing else for rally fans on the Cube. 2) It really isn't a bad game to play - it's just a normal, unexciting, unrelenting procession of averageness. It's the Citroen Saxo of rally titles - small, well rounded and not horrible to look at, but it is pretty horrible to drive, it sounds like a chainsaw dragged over sand paper and the sales guy is going to have his work cut out selling it. If you absolutely require a rally title on the Cube, (heavy sigh), then this will probably do the trick, but there are infinitely better ways for Cube owners to blow 40 quid.