3, 2, 1... Bloody Fog
Given the deluge of rally titles around at the moment, the arrival of a new V-Rally game from Infogrames is hardly cause for celebration. But as a born again rally nut coming fresh from the joys of Rallisport Challenge, I was cautiously looking forward to getting back on to the dirt tracks again. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for, although my assistant's eagerness to give me our sole review copy of the game should have served as a warning.
Firing up V-Rally 3 for the first time, it's hard not to be a little disappointed. The graphics are unremarkable at best, pitiful at worst. Tracks vary from the attractive savannahs of Africa and forests of Finland to a cruddy ersatz English countryside and the blinding nightmare that is Sweden in the winter. It's hard to see where the track is when it's exactly the same shade of white as the rest of the world, or when it's smothered in mist and rain. Despite this, some of the tracks still suffer from horrendous slow downs and an embarrassing degree of scenery pop-up on the horizon, and pointless touches like poorly animated track-side wildlife hardly compensate for this.
Actually playing the game is an even more painful experience. There's a total lack of tactile feedback, with the controller barely shuddering even with the vibration option set to maximum. The best V-Rally has to offer is a rattling sensation as you cross wooden bridges, a far cry from the superb force feedback support found in Rallisport Challenge. To add insult to injury, the physics feels soggy and the cars' handling is unpredictable. The slightest bump is enough to launch your vehicle into the clear blue sky, where it seems to hover out of spite as you desperately try to regain control before your car sails off a cliff or vanishes into the woods. At times it feels more like you're in a giant pinball machine than a rally, with the car bouncing back and forth from one tree to another or floating through the air after hitting a crest.
Careering Out Of Control
The cancer at the heart of V-Rally 3 is its career mode. Without this the game might actually have been enjoyable, but the developers have made such a pig's ear of things that you'll need the patience of Gandhi to reach the point where it's actually fun to play.
The career mode is built around your office, where horrible repetitive musak burns your ears and a computer sits flashing a giant e-mail icon at you. Having created your own driver, picking his name, appearance and nationality, your first task is to check your mail. Here you will find test drive offers from one or more manufacturers, and selecting "go" will drop you into a shortened rally stage where you must beat the target time they have set to earn a place in their team. Luckily most teams will give you more than one attempt to get it right, so before long you should have a contract to sign.
Having joined a team, you can now start your first season. Every year you take part in the same four rallies, but as the five stages that make up each race vary from season to season, it's not quite as repetitive as it sounds. Scattered between the individual stages you will also find two service stops, giving you a much needed chance to repair your car and tinker with your setup. Time is limited though, so you won't always be able to fix everything, leaving you to choose your priorities. Do you replace that bumper you left embedded in a tree by the side of the track, or mend the suspension? Once you've told your pit crew what to do you can check what kind of conditions you can expect in the following stages and adjust your setup accordingly. Usually the default settings work fine, but sometimes you can gain an advantage by switching tyres or altering your gearbox ratios to trade off speed and acceleration. More arcane options such as tyre pressure, ride height and brake balance can also be adjusted, for the hardcore mechanics amongst us.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
The bad news is that your first season is almost guaranteed to be an unmitigated disaster. You will find yourself in a team with low morale, no funding and a car that handles like an old Trabant. Luckily your initial goal is simply to finish the championship somewhere around 12th or 13th out of sixteen drivers, and given that you can usually rely on a few people to drop out of each race, it's not entirely impossible to achieve this.
The good news is that things do start to improve after the first season, either because you earned a drive in a better car, or because your existing team has invested enough money to develop a vehicle that can make it around a corner without you getting out to push. Unbelievably the developers have intentionally broken the car handling and controls for the benefit of the career mode, to give you more of a sense of progress. After three or four seasons you'll suddenly find yourself enjoying the game; your car is a dream to drive, can power its way around corners that were previously accident blackspots for you, and handles well enough for you to pull yourself out of a spin or slide that would have left you reaching for the "I give in, put me back on the track" button just a few hours earlier. The only downside to this is that by my fourth season I was winning every rally, often finishing stages ten seconds ahead of my nearest rival. Having your car develop along with your driver is a nice idea, but the designers have taken it to such an extreme that the car is undriveable for the first couple of seasons and unbeatable thereafter.
Your first few seasons are only showing you half the game though, the 1.6l series. Eventually you will get a job offer from a two litre team, which is a whole different kettle of fish. Not only do you have to learn two new events (Germany and Africa), drive six rallies a year instead of four, and deal with higher speeds and greater acceleration, but you also have a car which is, frankly, a bit of a handful. Compounding their stupidity, the developers throw you in at the deep end by resetting all the performance statistics to zero again. In a single season I went from winning every rally in a beautifully balanced 1.6l Citroen Saxo to struggling to even make it to the finish line in one piece with a lousy 2.0l Toyota Corolla. Again, things improve season by season, but I had such a torrid time that I lost the will to live, nevermind to finish another rally in a car that did more fishtailing than The Little Mermaid. At first I couldn't understand how some drivers were managing to wreck their cars and drop out of a rally before they'd even started their engines, but by the end of a season with Toyota I came to understand their pain.
When you're not struggling to keep your car on the track, you'll be struggling to decipher the cryptic e-mails which arrive on your computer between races. Some of these are repetitive epistles from your team, either congratulating you on exceeding your targets or cajoling you into doing better next time. Others arrive from EuroSport, but they seem to have chosen to use the Dutch commentary, as translated into English by Babelfish. One typical message told me that "after England, John Bye has taken over the ahead of Marcello Marchetti and Nigel Walker, with 22 points ahead". Not only is it poorly translated, it's also woefully inaccurate - I'd been ahead all season.
The contributions of your co-driver are often equally helpful. Pace notes take the form of telling you which way a corner goes and which gear you should be in, but they ignore any changes you've made to the gear ratios, leaving you to judge the corners for yourself. Sometimes directions come so thick and fast that it's hard to keep up, other times the warning of an upcoming cliff or hairpin corner will arrive so late that you've already launched yourself off a bump and are flying helplessly through the air towards it at high speed. On at least one track the pace notes miss a hairpin entirely, which can provide an unwanted surprise, and even when your co-driver does know about the corner, he'll sometimes choose not to warn you about it, instead interrupting his directions to congratulate you on your fine performance or to suggest you concentrate if you're falling behind. Oh, gee, thanks. Why don't you concentrate on telling me where I'm going and leave the driving to me? And if you thought your own performance was poor, spare a thought for your team mate. In the early stages of the game he will often outpace you, but his performance doesn't seem to improve with the car, so after a few seasons you'll be finishing over a minute ahead of him on a twenty minute rally.
Deep down inside V-Rally 3 there is an entertaining if unspectacular rally game trying to break out, but it's buried under so many design flaws that it's hard to find any evidence of it in the main career mode. There is a quick race mode where you can drive the unsullied versions of the cars, which is actually quite fun, but you have to unlock most of the tracks in the career mode first, so there's no escaping the pain. There's also a challenge mode, which basically gives you a mini-rally to drive outside of the main championship, with a handful of stages spread across all of the settings. Both of these modes support up to four players, but there's no simultaneous racing option; instead each player has to take it in turns to race against the ghost car of the current lap record holder.
What makes V-Rally 3 really annoying is that it could have been so much better with a little more thought. As it is all the best bits are hidden away behind a couple of hours of tedium driving a deliberately trashed car in the career mode. If you have the patience and determination to unlock everything you'll eventually find some amusement, but the process is so painful that most people will probably give up long before they reach that point. Throw in regular frame rate drop-offs, sloppy presentation, and huge save game files that chew up somewhere in the region of 2Mb of your precious memory card, and this is one rally game you can probably live without.