Looking like a PlayStation racer and playing a bit like Outrun, V-Rally 3 on the GBA is actually a darn sight better than its PlayStation 2 sibling. But the question is; can the game stave off competition from the likes of GT Advance 2, which has had time to refine itself, and propel itself into pole position as the serious handheld racer? Surprisingly, and despite numerous problems, it can!
Graphically it's a cut above ever other GBA racer currently on the market, with lots of relatively detailed trackside scenery with simple polygonal buildings, banks of trees and bushes, spectators flashing cameras and uniformly excellent texturing. Although there are similarities to Outrun, with the car centred in the middle of the screen and the landscape rolling beneath your car as you speed along, tracks are littered with rises and falls, sharp bends and narrow straights, and the overall sense of three dimensions has been conveyed V-convincingly, which makes all the difference.
The handling of the cars is a bit slippery, but like the illusion of 3D, it's mostly convincing, and the toggleable in-car view (in itself a triumph for a GBA racer) adds to the effect. Sadly, there isn't much evidence of a damage engine except when using the in-car view, which emphasizes collisions by adding huge streaking cracks to the windscreen, making it harder and harder to see where you're going, but as you'll soon learn, V-Rally 3 isn't to be taken as a sim. Rounding off the vehicular side of things, sound effects are very bassy and believable, with the engine revving hard between gears and tyres throwing up gut-wrenching screeches. Crash noises are also suitably crunchy.
Unfortunately there are some out-of-body issues which do need addressing, like the amount of pop-up as you speed along, leading this writer to speculate that some greater entity was still shovelling bricks and mortar together a few metres ahead. The collision detection and clipping can also be a bit flaky, with the camera revealing more than it should on occasions, and then there's the issue of invisible barriers shoehorning the player along the track. Mistime a jump and head in the direction of the boundary and you'll find yourself scraping down the side and onto the track without disturbing the foliage. Fortunately though, various faults are soon forgotten, because V-Rally 3 is incredibly fun to play.
Your standard V-Rally mode invites you to compete in a number of circuits all over the world, each comprising five stages, with 20 or so other racers trying to post a better time than you. Tracks here are rally-style point A to point B, with no visible on-track opposition. V-Rally Cross mode is an alternative, more arcadey mode with five "licenses" to acquire (unlocked sequentially), each consisting of a simple circuit demanding several laps. You compete against three other cars on the track, first in a normal mode and second going round the track the other way.
The problem here is that the game is way too easy. I completed the whole of V-Rally Cross in one go, and V-Rally mode slipped past me in about a day, leaving me to ponder to where the rest of it had disappeared off. There are also Time Trial and Multiplayer modes, but as V-Rally mode is effectively a time trial anyway, that isn't going to help. Multiplayer mode is more of a package, with Time Trial and V-Rally Cross options so you can race your chums theoretically and physically.
The developer has clearly attempted to spice up proceedings here and there by adding in multiple car manufacturers and lots of tweaking options for your car, with tyres, steering, suspension and so on all given multiple settings (and speaking of tweaks, you can have speed displayed in KPH or MPH - hurrah!). Sadly though, the tweaks are mostly for show, and the different car manufacturers don't add a huge amount anyway. Thanks to layers of advertising plastered over them the rally cars all look alike, and due to the lack of formidable opposition, V-Rally 3 is more of an arcade racer to be played without too much brain input, so there isn't much impetus to complete it with every manufacturer.
So how come V-Rally 3 is good, if it's so intimately flawed? Quite simply, it's just plain fun. Zooming around a rally circuit in a pretty friendly environment, braking into corners and lurching this way and that makes for very compelling gameplay. The game feels fast, maintaining a solid framerate and the track design is nicely varied and challenging, even if you still win whether you bounce off walls or not. Ultimately, you forget about the problems and find yourself switching it on to unwind while you're blabbering on the phone to an aged relative, or sat on a sweaty sardine tin of a train in the middle of July.
It seems odd that I'm summarising a game with so many problems and all I can think about is how much I want to finish so I can dart off and play it again, but in truth, I really am! Despite its flaws, V-Rally 3 is an extremely enjoyable racer - it falls some way short of Mario Kart Super Circuit and Konami Krazy Racers in the handheld racing genre, but it's a very different game to those two, and if you fancy some light-hearted rally driving of a PlayStation calibre on your handheld, this is the answer. Just don't expect to be uncovering new things for too long.