World Rally Championship II Extreme Review
Historically speaking, rally games have never been very well received outside of PAL regions, aside from a handful of titles that aren't really representative of what the sport is all about. The Sega Rally franchise probably owes its fair amount of success to the typical Japanese arcade gameplay found in the title, which takes quite a few liberties with the standard rally formula. South Park Rally could've been called "...Kart" instead, and the first two games in the V-Rally series managed to win over skeptics with the help of the Need For Speed moniker that it was adorned with in North America.
The first game in Sony's World Rally Championship series managed to scope up fairly decent sales under the circumstances. Distributed in the US by Bam! Entertainment, it didn't receive the same commercial backing as it would have had SCEA decided to bring it over. Still, I was a bit surprised over its performance, especially when you take in mind that the game itself had some small issues in the control and physics departments. Thankfully, World Rally Championship II Extreme manages to rectify those problems.
The cars have just the right amount of weight to them, and the controls feel a lot tighter as you slide around corners and head up and down steep hills. Developer Evolution Studios has really managed to strike the perfect balance between the exhilarating thrill of a more arcade-esque experience, all while leaving in more options of customization for players who prefer to go into races with a more sophisticated approach.
Speaking of options, that's one of WRCII's biggest advantages over its competitors in the genre. I'm particularly thinking about the latest installment in the Colin McRae Rally series, CMR3, where perhaps the largest downside about the game is the bare bones approach to it all. In WRCII, however, there's an endless sea of things for you to toy around with. Thanks to Sony holding the official FIA WRC license, the Championship mode is a truly authentic experience. Before each rally, the official TV announcer introduces the stages up ahead and briefly discusses the featured terrain of the country you're in. Presentation is top notch, as you'd expect from an official product. Also thanks to the WRC license, Evolution Studios has had access to all the GPS data from the huge amount of official courses - there's a grand total of 115 stages in the game, divided between 14 nations - giving them a great advantage when it comes to creating believable course designs. The stages are incredibly fun and challenging, and often take quite a while to go through. As usual, the scenery is as varied as can be. One moment you'll be racing on the twisty roads of Monte Carlo, and the next thing you know you'll be skidding across a snowy Swedish landscape.
There are three difficulty levels to choose from - Novice, Professional and Expert. On Expert, you have to manually tune the settings of your car yourself, and you also have to endure three consecutive stages for each day of the rally. Meanwhile, on the Novice setting, you only have to drive one stage per day, plus you get the option of having the CPU set up your car - this is recommended for beginners.
The revamped graphics engine further enhances the bona fide feel of it all, due to it being capable of rendering huge, sprawling landscapes. Polygon count on the cars has also been bumped up considerably, and lighting effects are used to great success now. Sound effects are used expertly, with environmental details like loose rocks hitting the underside of your car, and the sound of you plowing through a snowy road. Engine sounds for the most part sound like the real thing, and the pace notes from the co-drivers are spot-on, unlike in some other games.
The damage model is also excellent, even though it feels a bit inconsistent at times. At times, it feels as if your car can take a huge beating, while at other times, slightly bumping the side of the car into a wall is enough to give you a flat tire or something comparably dreadful. Hopefully you'll quickly learn not to bump into so many roadside objects though, but if you keep doing so, I strongly encourage spending some time looking at the gorgeous race replays. They offer up a plethora of camera angles to choose from, and can really be a helpful in noticing your mistakes.
So is this the ultimate rally game? Well, it's perhaps one of the most complete packages the genre has to offer, but as in most cases, there is still room for some improvement. For one, I'd like to see the controls become even more responsive. The cars can still feel like lightweights at times, as if they're floating around on the track.
Another thing is the accessibility of it all. Even though the game tries to cater to all tastes, it can still be pretty unforgiving to newcomers, and it can be quite a daunting task to get used to the different racing experience that is the WRC. Perhaps Evolution Studios could include a comprehensive in-game tutorial to decrease the risk of alienating potential customers?
World Rally Championship II Extreme was released in PAL countries back in November 2002. Better late than never, the purpose of this review is to inform you of what you are missing out on. Even though it's nearing 1 year in age, WRCII still manages to hold the rest of the competition at bay, including all the rally titles found on other consoles. So if you have the means to play imported games, do yourself a favor and get this game. It can be found at a dirt-cheap price in most serious online stores. Ignore the embarrassing title, (yes, we get it, it's so extreme) and enjoy the experience of playing it, because it's something special. Not only for rally aficionados, but for fans of racing games in general as well. It'll be a good way to tide you over until Christmas, and WRC3.
9/10/2003 Alexander Agren