Before I begin this review, I have a question to ask. For the little Rally Racing coverage we actually get in North America, how did we manage to get three top Rally Games to enjoy, including Rally Masters, Colin McRae Rally 2, and Mobil 1 Rally Championship. There must a market for these types of games, but then again, who wouldn't like driving around on the brink of destruction with mud flying through the air behind them?
For those not familiar with Rally racing, is involves cars racing through difficult terrain in time trials in an attempt to gain the fastest time. Sound boring? Well, it can be at times, but most of these tracks are so tough that there's really no need for opponents, as you will have plenty to deal with just trying to survive the course. Also, Rally Masters includes the ability to race against opponents head-to-head, and beat and bang those Rally cars in a way they were never designed to be raced.
Rally Masters, published by Infogrames Entertainment and developed by Digital Illusions features 30 officially licenced Rally drivers and an extrodinary 46 real rally courses. Installation is quck and easy, and was completed within three minutes on my Pentium III 500. The navigational menus are easy to use and navigate, but do not offer much in the way of graphical enhancements. Also, no mouse support is included, so everything must be done using the keyboard. This is not a big problem, but it can become annoying at times. Load times are excellent, with only a few seconds load time to go from the menus to the track, to green flag racing. The manual is thin, but provides a good bit of detail on setting up the game and driving the car.
The general layout of Rally Masters is pretty simple. Players can race in a championship season, which is a set of races with two lanes. After the first lap around the course, the player and opponent switch lanes and the first one back to the line on the second lap is the winner. Some other modes include single player mode where players can select a track and condition, whether it be a double lane track used in championship modes, or an open race course where you battle head-to-head against opponents. Also, Rally Masters includes a multiplayer gaming system which uses GameSpy to allow players to connect, find and join races.
The physics in Rally Masters are very well done. Cars have the ability to flip and roll in wrecks, but rolling is not overdone as in many titles. It takes a hard wreck to roll the car, and usually wrecks like this are devistating to the performance of the vehicle. Weight transfers are very realistic, and the car will often whip sideways in the corners forcing the driver to quickly react in order to save the car, or wreck trying. At high rates of speed, it is not uncommon to cause massive suspension damage should you drive over a large bump at a bad angle. Driving a Rally car is much different than driving a regular automobile as the weight transfers are much more noticeable. Players will also have to learn to keep the rear of the car in line with the front while driving around corners at high rates of speed, or inevitably you will find yourself having to try and recover from spin after spin. Overall, the physics in Rally Masters are excellent, and appears to us to be very similar to what we've seen real Rally drivers having do on the track.
The graphics in Rally Masters are impressive to say the least. Excellent lighting effects are just the beginning, as there are also many highly detailed terrains to race on and conditions to race in. If you are driving through the rain, often you will see a flicker of lightning lighten up the sky. When driving through different conditions such as mud, you will see dirt flying through the air from your spinning tires. If you should happen to drive through numerous puddles of mud or gravel you'll notice that the sediment you've kicked up will build up on the side of the car, slowly covering sponsership decals. Framerates in Rally Masters are excellent at all times, even on older video cards such as the Voodoo 3 2000. All of the car models are very detailed and, believe me, there are an extensive selection of vehicles included. Digital Illusions has gone above and beyond in this department, and it definitely shows in the final product.
Damage is important in almost every simulation. Rally Masters offers excellent damage effects, although they can be somewhat forgiving at times. Occasionally we have impacted a wall at top speed and taken little if any damage, while most times if you impact a wall, your front will crumple and lights will shatter. It's important to note that driving at night is extremely difficult should you happen to smash your headlights. You'll also find that there are several visual effects present in this game, some of which include shattered windows and crumpled fendors. Its a shame these effects are only visible in arcade views and replays instead of inside the cockpit, but I guess it would be hard to drive without the ability to see through the windshield. Should you take enough damage, your engines performance will suffer, eventually leading to massive transmission problems. Overall, Rally Masters offers a very unique and well designed damage model, perfect for a game of its type and design.
AI is very important in all racing simulations, and the AI in Rally Masters is tough. They are not afraid to beat and bang at all, and will race the player, and each other, incredibly hard. I have found the AI to be very difficult to race against at some tracks simply because they are so good. More often than not, the best way to learn the line around a track is to follow the AI cars. Once in awhile, the AI cars will give you a little "love-tap" while entering a corner and you have to be very quick, and sometimes lucky, to avoid wrecking.
The track details in Rally Masters are incredible. Dirt and mud is often a factor on courses, and every little detail is included. Several courses include snow terrain where players have to learn to control the car on the slick surfaces. One problem however, is the implementation of invisible barriers around the outside edges of a lot of tracks. Instead of dirt mounds or other means of displaying the edge of the course, on several circuits the edge of the course is simply an invisible barrier. We believe there must be a better means of setting course limits than this. Another great feature in Rally Masters is players have the opportunity to select the racing conditions. You can choose to race under bright sunny skys, during a dark stormy evening, or almost anything in between.
After the races end, players are welcomed by a TV style replay which shows your movements on the track. The replay can be used to master your lines and learn where to correct your mistakes, or just to see that last lap crash over again. The default camera really acts as if you are watching a Rally race on television, as the camera will often change during the race to provide the best angle to see the action. Some cameras included are the standard in-car camera, the television style camera, as well as many other cameras positioned around the track.
The sound of the high pitch engine found in rally cars is an important aspect in any Rally game, and the sound in Rally Masters is superb. The sickening thud of metal as your car impacts a barricade, and the shatter of glass as windows explode upon impact are just a few of the sounds you will hear while driving around the track. Your second driver spots you, with commands informing you of upcoming corners and the curverature of them. Should you happen to wreck the car or hit an object, be prepared to take a quick scolding from your partner. If you have problems listening or understanding him, there are also arrows which will help you navigate around the course.
Another aspect of the game which is worth mentioning is its stability. After many hours of play, I have not experienced any technical problems with the game, even when using Alt-Tab to switch between applications. Also, the game uses minimal system resources while running, which shows that the developers put a lot of care into optimizing and cleaning up the code. The effort put into Rally Masters really is incredible, and Digital Illusions has done an extraordinary job with this sim.
Overall, Rally Masters is an excellent game, with excellent graphics and sound. Many people ask, "but is it fun?" In a word, "YES!" I mean, come on, who wouldn't enjoy driving around a long winding road course on the brink of control at 140 miles per hour?