Written by: Rik

Date posted: January 17, 2006


While rallying is obviously quite exciting for those directly involved, driving at recklessly high speeds through muddy forests and icy wastelands, powersliding through corners and occasionally rolling your car into a ditch, its appeal as a spectator sport is slightly more mysterious. Watching the highlights on television is bad enough (only suitable for Sunday afternoons when you can’t find the remote), but donning an anorak and standing in the rain for hours on end in the hope that a red blur might shoot past and cover you with muck – well, it’s hard to believe anyone actually does that, really. Still, there’s clearly a market for rallying games on the PC, if the sheer number of titles released in the past few years is anything to go by. Frankly, we’ve had loads, all with misleadingly similar titles (Rally Championship, Rally Masters, Pro Rally, Master Rally – I’d better stop before anyone thinks I’m making these up) and certainly more than enough to confuse the gaming press and public alike, most of whom decided to stick with the long-established Colin McRae series.

The African rally can get a little bit dull, but occasionally you'll come across something interesting - like this wooden bridge, for example.

Perhaps in an effort to challenge Codemasters’ hegemony, or just to make it stand out from the crowd a little, someone decided to shoehorn the word ‘Xtreme’ into the title of this one. Bad idea. Not only does it sound like a middle-aged marketing man’s misguided attempts to ‘get down with the kids’, its use in the title also implies a fairly cheap, low-quality game underneath, possibly conceived as a straight-to-budget affair aimed at those who wouldn’t know any better. In fact, this may as well have been the case for all the impact Rally Championship Xtreme made when it was first released, and its transition to budget was indeed pretty swift. Clearly not one for the marketing team to celebrate, then, and it’s fair to say that most gamers could be forgiven for letting it pass them by.

However, to do so would be to ignore one of the more enjoyable racing games of recent years. And, before we get too critical of that title, in fairness it does have some basis in fact. You see, compared with other, more traditional rally games, in Xtreme you get to drive at high speed around slightly more dangerous and exotic environments, in more perilous conditions, and with the odds of driving off the side of a cliff or into a river greatly increased. So, more dangerous, more crazy, more ‘extreme’ – you see? It’s almost enough to make you forgive that title: if only they hadn’t dropped the E.

Fans of mud, rain and the bleak Welsh countryside needn’t be disappointed, though, as the game offers a couple of British courses on top of the Arctic and safari rallies. Exactly to what extent they replicate any real-life locations or courses, I really couldn’t say: in fact, due to my complete lack of interest in or knowledge of the current world rallying scene, I’m afraid I’m unable to verify the authenticity of much of the game’s content. But given the absence of any endorsement logos, or any familiar names on the drivers’ leaderboard, and bearing in mind the emphasis on the game’s ‘extreme’ nature, I’d hazard a guess and say that this game doesn’t have much to do with anything official in the world of rallying.

Nope, this isn't the reverse camera angle...I'm just being rubbish.

Still, we’ve already established that this doesn’t really matter to a whole lot of people. And from what I’ve seen of the World Rally Championship, many of the courses involve quite a narrow piece of dirt track, cordoned off from the scenic forestry or wherever else it happens to be located. For developers of rally games, this has often been an excuse for ‘invisible wall syndrome’ (seen in the likes of Need for Speed), where any attempt to leave the track just sees you bounced back onto it with mild loss of speed and direction. Rest assured, there are no invisible walls here. Wide-open spaces are Rally Championship Xtreme‘s thing, and boy does it make the most of them. This game has some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in a game, and certainly much better than you usually get in racing games. Without the need to create authentic-looking WRC courses, the developers have cut loose and given you the opportunity to drive in more environments than the usual bland ‘wooded area’ fare.

Not only does it look fantastic, but the open courses are also much more interesting to race on. Those who traditionally struggle to memorise tracks on racing games may find it easier here, with each stage almost completely different from the last, boasting unique landmarks and scenery. That said, many of them are so huge that getting through them without any mishaps is still a tough task, especially with the high frequency of steep drops, lakeside sections and other hazards throughout. Of course, in rallying you have a co-driver on hand to help out with this sort of thing, and there?s even an option in the game to re-set the default instructions for each course if you so desire. Unfortunately, the poor bloke who’s been given the job happens to have an extremely dull and quiet voice which blends quite nicely into the hum of the engine, and his comments frequently go unnoticed (the note of urgency in his warning of DANGER! being the one exception). Luckily, you’re also given visual aids.

This is what it's all about...driving in the mud. In Wales.

The game holds your hand a little by locking you out of the most powerful cars until you’ve proved yourself in a small Peugeot. While this does help you to learn the courses as well as the general dos and don’ts of the game at a slightly lower speed, RCX is rarely anything less than challenging. Indeed, while the learning curve is well-balanced, some may find it pretty hard going at first. There are plenty of opportunities to damage your car, veer wildly off course, and even drive off the edge of a cliff – and at times it only takes a minor miscalculation to do so. One big mistake can ruin it all, though the game will charitably re-set you if you veer too wildly off-course or plunge towards certain death. While this may be unrealistic, it seems like a decent compromise made in the name of balance, and certainly preferable to the dreaded ‘invisible wall’. At the end of the day, it still costs you time, and ultimately you’ll want to cut out the re-starts altogether if you want to start winning rallies.

But, given time and practice, you will start to win. In many ways, it’s quite a pared-down (or, dare I say it, ‘pure’) racing experience: the car can easily be controlled with the four arrow keys, and without any AI drivers to deal with, it’s just you against the course, striving for a decent time. Nevertheless, concentration is paramount, and with the championship mode employing a TOCA-style ‘two races before you save’ system, it’s the really big mistakes you need to avoid. The haphazard nature of rallying means that a perfect race is extremely unlikely, but so long as you don’t crash into anything or drive into any lakes, decent times are easily attainable. Another big plus is that many of the subsidiary elements of rallying, such as tweaking and repairing the car, are secondary to the driving itself. While there are plenty of opportunities to tweak your ride, it’s all done in a very simple way, and even those who are usually happy to ignore this side of the game may find themselves getting into it.

This isn't going to have a happy ending.

It’s getting close to verdict time, and really I should mention some negatives, though there aren’t really that many. One niggle is the occasional presence of graphical pop-up in the far distance. This is perhaps understandable given the scale of some of the tracks, but it takes the sheen off an otherwise immaculately-presented package. In terms of gameplay, the only criticism I have is that some of the more ‘Xtreme’ courses are actually a little disappointing – the USA, Arctic and Safari rallies, while sporadically impressive, are slightly dull at times, especially when compared with the excellent Scottish and Welsh stages. Maybe it’s because it feels more like rallying when it’s in the mud and rain, but the British stages do seem to be longer, more fun to drive on, and have (believe it or not) more impressive scenery.

But all of this is fairly minor stuff. Perhaps the biggest problem with Rally Championship Xtreme is that it is unlikely to go down in history as a timeless classic. In a few years’ time, the graphics won’t look so impressive and a whole new generation of rally titles may well have rendered it redundant. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely playable game, and offers a slightly different take on the genre which makes it stand out from the more conventional rallying fare available. While some might be tempted by the fact that recent editions of the ubiquitous Colin McRae series are also available on budget, Rally Championship Xtreme would be the more interesting choice.