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Game-Over! Review:

Rally Championship

Review by: Mike Laskey and Mark Arnott

Game: Network Q RAC Rally Championship
Publisher: Europress
WWW: http://www.europress.co.uk/
Format: CD-ROM
Available: Out now

Network Q RAC Rally Championship

Introduction

Rally enthusiasts all around the world will already know the significance of the Network Q RAC Rally. For those who do not, this is the final challenge for the drivers and manufacturers competing to win the World Rally Championship.
The RAC Rally consists of 300 miles of top class racing action spread over twenty-eight stages around the United Kingdom, and without doubt this isthe most comprehensive rally simulation available to the public.
It features six high performance cars, extensive scenery, variable weather conditions, variable track surfaces and much, much more examined in detail below.

Installation

Rally Championship offers three levels of installation: 2Mb, 50Mb and 90Mb, and may be installed (and played) under DOS or in a full-screen Windows 95 DOS session.
Installation was simple and flawless, as was the automatic configuration of the sound card. However, it is worth noting that only the full installation appears to allow in-car music, despite the CD "readme" file which indicates that only the minimum installation disallows in-car music. Despite the confusion, the music is of high quality and is well worth pursuing.
Once the game is started, the player is presented with an attractive introductory sequence displaying various film clips of rally cars demonstrating their awesome potential. Immediately it becomes obvious that the player will receive an unique experience with this game - any road racing driving techniques may as well be left behind in the paddock!

The Interface

The game interface is a simple and functional front end to the driving mode. It is presented as nested layers of icons offering various options for the player to choose from. Surprisingly, there is no mouse support, and so navigation of the icon boxes requires use of the keyboard or joystick.
The various options include settings for damage, weather, automatic brakes, viewpoints, sizes and resolutions, opponent intelligence etc. Some of the options, for example the weather, are only in effect during the game's arcade mode - the player can sensibly not change such attributes during a championship season. In addition to the championship and 5 levels of arcade, additional racing modes include "individual" and "time-trial". Arcade is against the clock with opponents and checkpoints; Individual is racing a single stage (user selectable) with opponents; Time-trial is the player competing for the best times in the record books, and Championship is the full and perhaps daunting twenty-eight stage super-challenge.
Also available from the front end is a brief history and resume of the Rally and also details about the cars the player can drive. The briefing is given by none other than TV presenter and former co-driver Tony Mason, who also features as co-driver in the game - more on that later.

Car Selection

The player has access to a variety of cars ranging in horse power featuring 4WD, FWD and RWD drive-trains. They are: the Subaru Impreza Turbo, the Ford Escort Cosworth 4x4, the Renault Maxi Megane, the Proton Wire, the VW Golf GTi 16 Valve, and finally the 155BHP Skoda Felicia.
Each of the cars behave differently as they certainly should, and it becomes necessary for the player to consider this when deciding upon a race strategy. For example, whilst competing inside an overall score table against the computer opponents, it is perhaps more important that the player concentrates on performing well against the other drivers within his or her class.

The Championship

First off, the player is presented with the Leg information screen. This includes the initial stage number, its location, its start and stop time (day/night), the length of the stage, weather and track surface information and a map. Using the arrow keys, the player can view each stage of the leg up until the next available service point. It is vital to plan your race, setting-up the car appropriately for the stages ahead.
The characteristics of the car you may modify depend upon the vehicle, but for the majority you can change: suspension height and stiffness, brake balance, steering response, the gear ratios and tyre choice. Each of these parameters will be a factor in your success or failure (note that the options screen has an automatic setting, and of course you can always accept the defaults). Whilst you might be tempted to ignore this screen, for obvious reasons you should at least select the correct tyre compound for the stage ahead: you can choose between a variety ranging from tarmac slicks, through to mud, snow and rain tyres (the stage planning screen gives a run-down on surface percentages of tarmac, gravel, mud and snow).

Together we`ll fly!

Into the car and the count-down is given. Wait for the GO or do what I did: incur a 1 minute time penalty straight away for jumping the start! Floor the accelerator and we're off. Suddenly, good ol' Tony Mason is screaming, "HAIRPIN LEFT!" Oooh, on the braaaaaaaaaaaaaakes, crunch... ah ha!
So the first bend wasn't entirely successful, but never mind! Then, a quick succession of "easy right, easy left, medium right" is heard. Wow, my PC speakers are telling me something useful in a driving game - good stuff, and Tony does an excellent job at it, too. He warns the player of turns, jumps, water, and in the tight twisty sections, the player really has to remember exactly the instructions that have been given because events occur so quickly, the co-driver has to rattle them off in advance. Easy you think? Yeah ok... now try doing it in a night stage on a narrow forest gravel track!
Still in control? Ok, picture this: it's a night stage and you're driving an Escort Cosworth 4x4, the headlights point the way, but they're not particularly effective because it's hammering down with rain. The windscreen wipers are thumping back and forth, and visibility overall is pretty horrendous. You're powering your way out of a medium right turn, the back end hanging out, hundreds of loose gravel chips thrown up by each of the wheels. Mason calls out, "easy right", and somewhere in the dark, a group of intrepid, rain sodden spectators flash by as they stand out at the side of the track. Mason calls out more instructions but by now the rain is falling even harder and you can hardly see a thing - it's virtually impossible to see the road ahead. "HAIRPIN RIGHT!!!" You're looking out for the turn, but you must brake before you see it, so anticipation and insanity is required, and suddenly the heavens groan and a crash of thunder rapidly followed by several seconds of sheet lightning blind your way. Of course now you're hard on the brakes, but still you can't see anything, but finally the lightning fades... where is the turn, where is the turn? And if you haven't hit anything, you're ok. If you have, you know it is essential that your car lasts several more stages of the leg before a service is possible... what damage has been done? And is it terminal?
By this stage of the review, I hope you appreciate that Rally Championshipis a considerably detailed game. It features a great deal of audio, from the rain, wipers and the gear clunk to what sounds like a turbo/dump valve effect on the Cosworth. Each of the track surfaces has a different sound effect, and there's a nice round of applause when the car finally reaches the finishing post.
The graphics are very nicely rendered indeed - each of the stages mapped out with stunning track-side scenery. The horizon graphics are detailed with spectators, bushes and rocks populating the edges of the tracks, and one aspect that impressed me in particular were the transitions from one road surface to another. For example, near the end of a gravel section, tiny sections of tarmac would start to become apparent between the gravel, and the sounds from the tyres would also reflect the changing environment. Neat!
The twenty-eight rounds of the championship are basically structured into four legs, with a number of stages and servicing/repair points within each leg.
Once proficient at the game, the player will appreciate that during a long stage (sometimes taking up to around 25 minutes), it is essential to take great care of the car and not to throw it into the barriers at every opportunity. This is because damage is carried across stages and may only be repaired when a service point is reached. Typically, the available time for repairs will be between 15 and 45 minutes, and each section of the car that has acquired damage, and/or general wear and tear, will be assessed and assigned a repair time. The player will then make decisions on what are the highest priority components to fix before driving the upcoming stages. For example, there would be no point wasting time fixing headlamps and wipers for a day time stage in sunny weather; fixing the engine, exhaust or clutch, for example, would be far more strategically beneficial.

So what`s up?

Overall, Rally Championship is good honest attempt at what is a difficult sport to simulate to a high standard. There are a few aspects of the game that I feel could be improved: for example, the presence of what I would describe as invisible barriers alongside the track is frustrating and somewhat disappointing - the ability to slap the car into a ditch or through a fence and into a lake would certainly moderate the driving style of the player!
Ok, a word about the driving physics. Generally not bad - it's fun to brake and slide the car through the medium bends and catch it as the accelerator is floored on the drive out of the turns. The physics models are affected by road camber and gradients (for example, put the car in neutral and it will slowly accelerate down a hill) which is all very encouraging, but on the negative side (and this really depends on how much emphasis you place on having a realistic physics model), when the car is thrown into the air, it seems to maintain suspiciously static roll and pitch angles. I would also have enjoyed the facility of a hand-brake, the effect of locking the wheels under braking, and to experience severe understeer out from a turn as a FWD car struggles for grip under rapid acceleration, particularly when driving in rain and snow. One other point is that traction appears to be calculated all-round rather than by each individual tyre contact patch. For example, placing the left side of the car on the grass and the right side of the car on tarmac and slamming on the brakes results in a perfectly straight pull-up. This is clearly an inadequacy of the driving model and if improved, would have made an incredible rally experience as each tyre experienced differing levels of grip.
But, the game is extremely enjoyable and a most worthy addition to any gamer's collection. And an added bonus as that the game also supports link-up and an eight player IPX mode! Good fun and well recommended.

Rating: 8/10 (Recommended!)

Mike Laskey

Many thanks to Game-Over! for letting us have this review for Speed. The full review, including a second opinion on the game will appear in December's Game-Over!

This Review 1996 Game-Over!

 1996 onwards. Speed and its contents may not be reproduced without written permission from the editorial team.