The important thing to remember about Sega Rally Online Arcade – particularly if the camp bawling of the words: “game over yeah!” fails to spur to life any memories in your mind – is that the pivotal word is arcade. It certainly is not rally. Which is no bad thing, Sega’s slippery rendition of driving cars really fast on dirt roads is enthralling, just don’t expect to be utilising the brake much.
Sega Rally Online Arcade (herein known as SROA) bears the hallmarks of other classic arcade racers – Outruns come to mind – but it’s a slim, quietly refined version of Sega Rally. As a result it’s chock full of colours in that glorious Sega way tantamount to dunking your face in a bowl of Lucky Charms, is served incessantly by an adrenalized soundtrack and you can accelerate by holding down the ‘A’ button. Vintage.
It’s also geared entirely toward going really, really fast. Cars careen off walls like you’re racing through the world’s most elaborate bouncy castle and there’s scarcely a corner in the game that requires anything more taxing than dropping down a gear and easing off the acceleration. This is about as Byzantine as a microwave meal but SROA isn’t a game about vanquishing rubber-banding AI (although it has its fair share). Instead it’s one about mastering every turn, gearshift and jump until you’re knocking at the door of perfection. This takes about two hours.
Endowed with just five tracks, 13 vehicles and a modest suite of modes, SROA certainly isn’t going to be eating away at your time. But it’s the best kind of brief; the Vanquish kind and so you’re never resigned to beavering through a seven-hour marathon, pushing around a half-mile lap 493 times. It’s brief, incisive and saccharine and it knows when to shut up and stop trying to be your friend, rather than limply urging you to show it some attention by including dozens of identikit races. The limited number of tracks means the game is about refinement. You’ll learn where to apply the faintest touch of brake and when to just burn through a corner like Mel Gibson. On Sega’s part it’s an astute move and comparable to DICE’s Battlefield 1943.
Courses do get progressively more complex – for want of a better word – some even include hairpin bends. Opening track Tropical has precisely one corner that you’re required to release the accelerator for before drifting casually through but the later winding mountain trails of Alpine and the perilously curvaceous Lakeside (about the only track where braking is necessary), amplify the difficulty.
Maps are gorgeous to plunge through at speed though. Even those resigned to the desert are somehow imbued with more primary colours than you’d catch in an entire November release schedule. Plumes of smoke billow on Canyon in the wake of a space rocket launch while snow-capped mountains loom in the distance of Alpine and yet, even half buried beneath snow, Alpine is still a jamboree of colour and feel-goodery. The tracks are each lifted from various iterations of Sega Rally but when they’re this enjoyable to cavort around and as lovingly detailed, that’s no hitch.
Included are the familiar blend of quick races and time trials prevalent in most racers. The meek collection of time trials can be raced against leaderboard ghosts and an auxiliary “classic” mode has you racing mano-a-mano against one of two traditional rally vehicles with the mode boasting its own unique track.
The undeniable highlight however, is the championship: an unorthodox deviation from the standard tournament format. Over the course of three two-lap races you have to work your way from 22nd (last place) into first. It’s impossible to do so over the course of just one of the events and so you gradually ease your way into pole position over the full three. The whole ordeal is done and dusted within 12 minutes but a sprinkling of unlockables and achievements ought to entice you back if you’re that way inclined.
Championship is rather easy, even on the arcade difficulty. When I crashed, everyone else seemed to slow down courteously and the AI drivers rarely seem to make it out of fifth gear leaving you to breeze on by assuming you remember to keep the right trigger held firmly down. SROA accommodates all.
You can’t really fault the AI when it’s relaxed because this is a game about throwing your car around a mountain bend at a hundred miles an hour and getting away with it rather than squaring up earnestly to your computer adversaries. The joy stems from the mechanics and the tracks and the AI almost seems like an afterthought.
Should you win the championship you’re entered into a one-on-one race around the bonus Lakeside map to decide the tournament champion and it’s here that the bastard rubber banding rears its Elephant Man face. AI drivers rocket around right angle bends without releasing the accelerator and hurtle off from the start line leaving you wondering who sabotaged your car. Even by SROA’s physics-defying interpretation of driving metal boxes at 130mph, it’s absurd.
A humble multiplayer component that fails to live up to the game’s title rounds out the package. Split-screen races as well as online support for up to 6 players – or less, with bots filling the vacant positions – are about as deep as the social experience goes but there are few people frequenting SROA’s scene anyhow.
That’s okay though. The heart of the experience lies firmly in learning and mastering those taut and beautiful courses, even if Sega thought otherwise. Its brevity may deter some but the quality here more than masks the pithy length and Sega Rally Online Arcade’s blissfully adrenalized interpretation of rally is a dashing throwback to the classic racer, one that revels in its reminiscing ways.