Two years ago RalliSport Challenge
tore up a young little console known as Xbox. Back then there was no Xbox Live to support and few racers to be compared to, but that's not the case anymore. Don't worry, RalliSport Challenge 2
has aged well with crisp graphics, better sound, a more robust career mode, and 16-player online racing. If you're looking for an arcade racer, look no further, the Challenge
RalliSport Challenge 2 shouldn't be compared to Codemaster's Colin McRae rally series even though both games feature rally cars and realistic rally events. Where McRae goes for a realistic representation of the sport, RSC 2 is an arcade-style racer that just happens to be very well done. Arcade doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of realism in the game. On the surface, RalliSport 2 has everything you'd expect from a hardcore rally racer with phenomenal graphics, solid handling, and a cockpit driver calling out turns and bumps. What makes it arcade is that great handling, which often adds just a tad more Kudo to the slides and some tweaks to gravity allowing for some higher jumps. Arcade does not mean shallow or cheap -- in this case, it means fun.
Anyone who picks up RSC 2 (and if it isn't clear yet, you will should snatch this one up as soon as possible) shouldn't have any complaints about car selection as over 40 rally cars are included and range from the quirky racing fave Volvo 240 Turbo to the more hardcore Lancia 037 Rallye. Each car also only one paint skin at the start, with three new skins for each vehicle unlocked as you put more miles on a car. To unlock every skin for every car would take perhaps a hundred hours. Mileage is tallied for every mode, so if you drive the Ford Focus Air Force Reserve in career mode and then online and then in a single offline race, all of it tallies towards unlocking another skin. While it's not quite at the level of custom liveries, it's a nice challenge to try unlocking new looks for your favorite cars.
On top of all the cars and color schemes, there are over 90 tracks allowing you to play through an entire career difficulty (there's Amateur, Pro, Champion, and Superrally) without replaying tracks. Though none of the tracks from the original are re-used, the environments are, which is a little disappointing. There's much greater detail in the environments, but when you're driving through the desert, it looks surprisingly similar to the original tracks. Thanks to those extra details, there's plenty of extra eye-candy that it becomes easy to forget that tracks feel a bit redundant from the first iteration of the series. Many of the rally tracks are longer this time as well and the Hill Climb tracks have greater variety in changing elevation.
While the visuals and hefty number of cars stand out quickly, the first thing I noticed was the special attention developer DICE paid to tweaking the handling. Cars are now more responsive and there's a much greater sense of control overall. This might have been called Project Gotham Rally with the ability to control powerslides easily and intuitively and the solid sense of speed from the new windshield view (which places the camera at the back of the hood, showing the front of the car but giving an overall good view of the road ahead).
There are also a number of tuning options and the ability to save options under different names so you can quickly load tuning for specific cars and conditions. The tuning isn't necessary, especially to finish the all-too-easy Pro Career, but by tweaking steering response, suspension, brake balance, and other options you can compensate for your own driving tendencies. I tend to over steer, which is especially disastrous on the slick Ice Racing tracks (that's right, you race on ice), so dropping the steering to slow and making a few other adjustments, I can still race to my style but not get penalized for lacking technical skill. If that sounds cheap at all, keep in mind that it's not easy to find the proper tuning balance to neutralize your own driving imperfections and none of this means that you won't still drive right into a tree like a dunderhead. The bulk of the RalliSport Challenge 2 experience is still Career Mode. There are four different difficulties and the more difficult ones offer much tougher racing AI, some longer tracks (and more laps on circuit races), and more races. Career progression is shown as a giant bracket ladder with branches for a variety of competitions. You can choose any race from an unlocked rung of the ladder and even redo races for better finishes and higher points (with a max of 20 points per competition). Some events require you to have earned a certain number of career points to unlock, but you never have to win events in order to continue.
Finishing a career difficulty doesn't mean you are the number 1 racer, as there are 15 AI racers also vying for the spot the entire time. Once you've finished one, you can go on to the next or replay events in the current career, but you can't really restart it as if another season has begun. Why DICE chose not to have any sort of seasonal career is a mystery as is the lack of any sort of co-op career mode. Though it doesn't have a lot of depth, finishing all four difficulties will take a significant amount of time, especially if you want to win every single event. The Champion and Superrally difficulties will put even the best racers to the test.
During any of the playing options, be it Career, Time Attack, Single Race, or Multiplayer, all five race modes are available for play: Rally, Crossover, RallyCross, Hill Climb, and Ice Racing. All of these were in the original RSC save Crossover, which is the new mode. Don't get too excited though as Crossover is basically like RallyCross (circuit racing), except drivers are split onto two different tracks, which overlap halfway through the race. Essentially they both will race along the same amount of track, just at different times. It's almost impossible (as in, I've never seen it through over 20 hours of play) for the timing to be so exact that cars meet at the intersecting point, but you will sometimes catch site of a competitor racing by on a different portion of the track. This does help ease congestion and makes for some cool four-player races with two cars on each set of the track.
Though the career mode is long, if a bit simple, the real boon is the multiplayer. The good news is that 16 people can hop onto Xbox Live or System Link and do any type of race on any unlocked track. The bad news is, none of the tracks were designed for 16 people to race at the same time. In fact, the Rally tracks are generally very narrow, making it congested when even four cars race. Part of the solution to this forces collision detection to be turned off to do any race with more than four players. Not only do cars then slide right through each other, but every car besides yours becomes wireframe. Yes, you read that right.
There are two things forcing the wireframe issue: Track design and technical issues. First, the tracks are just two narrow and, at most, some of the RallyCross, Ice Racing, and Crossover tracks could reasonably accommodate, at most, eight players. As for Rally and Hill Climb? Those are tracks made with timed singlecar events in mind, but multiplayer tosses far too many vehicles on the road, all starting at the same point and all trying to reach the finish first. When racing with four cars and the ability to have every car rendered with full collision detection on, the Rally and Hill Climb turn into a demolition derby instead of a game of racing skill. You'll bump and bash. I have to admit, it's a blast turning a corner and bumping an opponent off a cliff, but it seems to be completely against the intentions of the game. It can be fun, but, truth be told, it seems poorly planned.
The other racing modes work very well with four cars and are fantastic. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth turning off collision detection just to be able to race more people. It does turn something like Rally into more of a race for the best time, but it also points 15 wireframe cars on the screen. Yech. It would have been better to either make special tracks for more cars or to simply limit this to a four or six-car racing experience. At least you have the option to avoid the wireframes and, hey, if you don't mind, then you can race against 15 other folks online with no problem. As stated, the other issue forcing this is a technical one. There are some clear graphical compromises with even four cars on screen (more texture pop-in, lots of aliasing, but no slowdown at least), so putting in 16 cars would probably have killed the system.
Sticking to four-player, there's really no complaints for the Xbox Live functionality. Races don't hit big slow-down slugs and control is smooth, as if you were just racing against cursing A.I. opponents. There's also a leaderboard and instant updates similar (but not as well done) as Project Gotham Racing 2, but RSC 2 is also the last XSN Sports for the foreseeable future. Set up your own league and track clan stats online. No, this isn't Xbox Live 3.0, but it's the closest thing to it until this fall. If you're looking for a new online racer, this is a good one, just be wary of the wireframes.
Though RalliSport Challenge 2 is more attractive than the original, it's also two years older and Xbox games have definitely progressed in terms of graphics potential, making it out of a "wow, greatest-looking game ever" contention. Still, it looks damn fine. The background details are awesome with swaying grass, dust clouds kicking up in the desert, and realistic car damage. There are some problems, though, with some texture pop-in on a lot of the forest levels and some other areas and while the game looks fantastic when there's one car on the track, the anti-aliasing is turned off when there are more than two cars in the game, making for a log of jaggies.
For those with fancy TVs, RSC 2 supports 480p and widescreen without any compromise to framerate and boy does it look gorgeous in 480p. For those who don't have the beauty of HDTV, RSC 2 still looks great on a normal flat screen (you do at least have a flat screen, don't you?). The pop-in is a little annoying at times, but the cars look so good, it's easy to forgive -- so please forgive them.
Sound in racing games sometimes comes down to loud engine revs and nothing much else. RalliSport Challenge 2 pushes that away with cars that each sound distinct. There are even different sounds for gear changes. Here's a fun little quest, find the car that sounds like its squeezing air out of child's inflatable toy when it changes gears. Strange, but cool. Sound also changes depending on which view you've selected, so there's no rush of the wind when you're in the cockpit view, but you hear a great deal more of the engine roar when on the hood.
The music is pretty forgettable, but thanks to custom soundtrack support, that's not a problem. Okay, so the music is a little infectious, like something you'd hear in an elevator, only you're in your car. The voice of the navigator, in case you're wondering, hasn't changed one note, so enjoy him in all his stoic glory.
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