No matter which side of the console fence you plant your soapbox, it's hard to question the slew of kick-ass racing games for the Xbox. Games like Project Gotham Racing 2, Colin McRae '04 and the original Rallisport Challenge have done a nice job of alleviating Xbox owners' pain of playing in a Gran Turismo 4-less world.
And while Sony's giant sleeps, the big black box's wheels are spinning, kicking up dust in a mean way in the form of Rallisport Challenge 2, D.I.C.E.'s impressive sequel to their excellent first rally outing.
While a bit more arcadey than what you'll find in the McRae series, Rallisport Challenge 2 has fine-tuned nearly everything that was good about the original, though they haven't so much as lifted a socket wrench to tighten the few loose screws gamers griped about the first time around. Still, this racer is about as good as it gets while sitting on the sofa.
The game offers five different race types spanning 90 (!) total tracks. That's more than double the number of tracks offered in the original. The different Rally types include Rally races (point-to-point racing against NPC times) and Rallycross (a series of circuit races against three other opponents). Ice Racing is essentially the same as Rallycross, but an unforgiving, frictionless course metes out its own unique challenge. There are also Hill Climb races and the new addition, Crossover, where players race against another car on a similar course that crisscrosses in the middle.
Though the number of modes is impressive, only a few actually pit you against other racers, and you'll never race against more than three others at once. True rally racing is a huge, epic event often spanning countries, so why do I only get to race a measly three other opponents? It's lame, but is also the game's only major pothole.
The meat of Rallisport Challenge 2 is served up in the Career mode. Here you'll find four difficulties - Amateur, Pro, Champion, and Super-Rally - each of which offers a set number of rallies, which in turn are comprised of a fixed number of races.
In this model, points are earned for meeting various goals, like winning, simply finishing a race, achieving a high top speed, avoiding damage, excellent lap times, etc. Your points are added to your overall total, and the racer with the highest point total at the end of each race wins, so being first isn't everything. This is great way to learn the cars and tracks without sacrificing competitive gameplay.
And practice is essential, because despite its arcade feel, Rallisport Challenge 2's gameplay is tough and serious. Each car handles differently with varying weight and physics - even the clutch feels different from car to car when using manual transmission. Luckily, the spot-on control will see you through the tightest S-turns. The precise handling is assisted by an increased number of tuning options to fiddle with like gear ratios, suspension resistance, steering option and a few tire treads.
But with so much time spent under the hood, why not throw in a few purchasing options and after-market parts to buy? The omission of any sort of shop stands out as a sore spot.
The same cannot be said of the graphics, which are excellent. Rallisport Challenge 2 shines like a brand new STi straight off the lot. The game features over 40 licensed cars including the popular Subaru WRX STi, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Skyline, Saab 9-3, and many, many others. Some races even call for the classic rally cars of the late 70's just to mix things up.
Each car is meticulously modeled and features the very latest bump-mapping tricks to show off a glorious array of cuts and grooves. The paint jobs glisten in the sun and give off a realistic glare effect, all of which complement the game's staggering amount of damage modeling.
Despite the fact that the cars are licensed, the damage modeling in Rallisport Challenge 2 is some of the best in any game, period. A wrong turn can lead to dents, scratches and bumps alongside cracked, chipped and even lost windows. Bumpers and doors hang before being ripped off entirely. This is the way damage modeling should be.
However, the damage itself has little effect on how your car handles. Plus, once you progress to the next race in a circuit, your car is magically restored to mint condition. If the game offered a shop, you could theoretically buy new parts and body work to fix your mangled ride between races. Maybe the devs just couldn't bear to see the beautiful models sullied for more than a few laps.
The tracks and environments are beautiful. Grass and bushes sway in the wake of your car's jet stream. Your tires will kick up dirt, sand and snow, making it increasingly difficult for those closing in on your rear bumper. The various weather effects are rendered in great detail; the setting sun looks amazing. Most importantly, the sense of speed is never in question thanks to a solid framerate and nary a hiccup…
…even while playing online via Xbox Live. With several game options for hosts to tweak, races can get pretty interesting. The big difference is found in Collision or Non-Collision races. Collision races allow four players at once and function normally, but if you want more racers, you'll have to opt for Non-collision races, which allow 16 players to go at it. However, you only see your specific car model while the other 15 opponents appear as car "outlines" that can crisscross each other unabated. The inability to hit one another makes this a much less enticing option than it could have been. Still, playing online is handled well enough, and with XSN's stat-tracking and record-keeping, your bragging rights are available for all to loathe and curse.
A ton of tracks and licensed cars, tight control, amazing graphics, stunning physics and a solid online component places Rallisport Challenge 2 out in front of the competition. If you look hard enough you'll still find a few loose screws, but as it stands, this is a must have for even the most critical couch-bound racer.