Fool me once, cute looking game, shame on you. Fool me several times and, well, still shame on you, you crafty sod. Cuphead lured me in and kicked me in the shins. Hyper Light Drifter then took a run up. And now, shin callouses lumpy and healed, art of rally cracks out the steel capped boots.
Despite not following the motorsport, I actually quite like rally. It’s not as serious as Formula One, yet it’s not as primitive as banger racing. It’s the in-between I like: the precision in throwing finely tuned cars around courses shaped by the elements and a few flags. The high speed on jumpy straights to sudden hairpins right next to your nan’s cottage, that kind of thing.
So when a new game comes out, that’s a striking mix of those two aspects, I am on board. art of rally (yes, it is all lower case) is one such treat, complete with funky stylings to boot. Does it hold up against the likes of the Dirt and WRC series’, and more importantly, will old consoles run it properly? Buckle up and we’ll find out.
Imagine A Race… Without Limits
Here’s something I didn’t expect to say about art of rally: it has a story. Well, sort of. It has a plot device, if you want to get technical. Not in the Driver: San Francisco coma dream sense, but a narrative device to get players invested.
As far as framing devices go, it’s surprisingly clever. Even a Buddha-like figure gets involved, notifying you of what’s what in a dream-like manner. In the real world, Group B cars have been banned since the late ’80s. Following crashes and tragic accidents, the group was deemed far too unsafe for the sport. Smashing round a carefully designed track in a Formula One car is one thing, whereas it’s a bit riskier against uneven, bumpy courses.
Here in videogame land, however, we’re not bound by the laws of death and injury. As a result, this “What If?” premise is presented as alternate history, with cars grouping all the way up to A and S class. What this means, in elaborate, mystical terms is that there are no limits. Cars can, and will, go very fast around lovingly rendered tracks. Which, frankly, is what we want.
Winging It On A Prayer
Behind its cute and colourful visuals, art of rally is a surprisingly comprehensive racing game. Not that that’s a backhanded compliment, mind, it just doesn’t look like a serious game. I think that’s what caught me out, thinking it’s a simple game with simple visuals.
If you’ve played Funselektor’s other car game, Absolute Drift, you’ll be slightly familiar with how it handles. Acceleration, brake and of course, a handbrake for those sharper corners, there isn’t much to burden yourself with here. No myriad simulation mechanics to get used to, just those simple tenets.
As gamers are very aware though, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. art of rally is every bit as serious as its DIRT counterparts. Fall off the track? That’s a time penalty. Hit a hay bale and need to restart? Well, they’re only a finite amount. It’s the pinnacle of sort-of easy to play/difficult to master: you’ll swear your way through improvement as time goes on.
Watch Out For That Tree Popping In!
As you may have already noticed, art of rally employs a somewhat minimal approach to its aesthetic. Cars are modelled after their real-life counterparts, but they look like Micro Machines.
The landscapes and tracks are all limited pastel colours, as if like a child’s drawing. The track is one colour, the grass another. There’s very little in the way of shading, as if to say, “Here is the track. Stay on it”. The crowds that gather on corners look like Duplo figures, except animated and will hop out of the way in a humorous little fashion if you get too close.
There are several camera options available, but don’t expect immersive first person or bonnet cam. They’re all a variation on third person; either some ways behind the car or progressively scaled out to hover directly above. When zoomed right out and above, it reminded me of a more serious Micro Machines, or Mashed. However, the drawback to being further away is the larger draw distance: meaning more horrible pop-up.
I Thought My Handling Was Bad
Now, I figure at this stage I should point out that I’m playing on an older Xbox One. Not a launch one, but a 1Tb version, so still a good six year old console at this point. I’ve heard from Rossko and Andy that it runs better on both old and new S, but there’s still one glaring issue in this game.
I refer to the oft-old problem of pop-up. That annoying problem when games can’t render in long draw distance and the scenery doesn’t load in accordingly. So what you get instead is plain textures, far and wide, and then the local flora deciding to make an appearance.
art of rally has one of this issues as part of its aesthetic: the plain plains of its landscapes. But even Starwing didn’t have this much of a scenery pop-up issue, and that game’s twenty eight years old… and on the SNES.
The other problem, usually hand in hand with pop-up, is lag/frame rate dropping. art of rally is no stranger to that, either. Not consistently, but on densely packed and snow-based courses, frames dropped to a stutter. Which, for a game that requires fast thinking, can figuratively and literally throw you off.
Rally Round The Landscape, Pocket Full Of Smiles
However, don’t let the occasional graphical mishap and poor optimisation for older consoles put you off. At its very heart, art of rally is an insanely good time. Frustrating, yes, but great too.
Zipping around cartoon countrysides set in Italy, Germany, Japan and Finland is dinky replicas of famous cars is a blast. Cruising down straights at 100mph in a not-Sierra Cosworth before neatly handbrake turning around a hay bale with the sunset bouncing off the track is an absolute treat.
Navigating your way through towns, hearing the air horns and cheers, is akin to any big budget, “realistic” rally game. That it’s on a smaller scale doesn’t detract from the experience, instead only making it worth persevering with. The problem is mistaking art of rally for being simple because it looks simple, when its driving is actually quite nuanced and rewarding when it clicks.
Working your way through six groups, filled with varying amounts of rallies, is an exercise in patience indeed. As is the case, the game starts players with the lower powered Group 3 cars before letting them play with the Group S & A behemoths.
Patience is indeed a virtue here as you can’t skip a group. So in one regard, there is a grind. But on the other, more positive to that: the game makes sure you’re good and ready to use the 800bhp machines. I haven’t reached the lofty Group A heights in career yet, but from playing Time Attacks, believe me when I say you will need that practice and patience.
The Gentle art
If you do need a break from all the high octane rallying, and honestly who could blame you, there are a smattering of extra modes to try. Don’t expect Codemasters levels of extra bumf, mind, and you’ll be alright.
There’s the aforementioned Time Trial mode, which lets you dabble with any track and car you like. There are leaderboards too, if you really care about how you fare against random worldwide players. I dunno, some people do.
The other, bigger draw is the Free Roam mode. As the name implies, this mode lets players cruise around any of the locales, taking in the scenery and the handling of their car. I say this with no hyperbole that Free Roam in art of rally is absolutely beautiful. Odd pop-up issue notwithstanding, taking these aesthetically pleasing landscapes in and posing for pictures is a delight. In stark contrast to the high speed racing, chilling around Japan’s cherry blossom trees is a thing of joy.
The other added bonus to Free Roam is the mini-game aspect to it. Like a more zen approach to the Tony Hawk’s philosophy, there are letters dotted about each landscape. Spell RALLY and you’ll unlock a host of items, from new cars to liveries, even bonus vehicles like trucks and such. Couple that with the photo spots dotted around, and there’s enough here for a chilled out drive to pass the time.
There’s Beauty In The Burnout
So from me, art of rally is going to get a hearty recommendation. I went in expected a very simplistic rally game, and in one regard it is. You simply rally, from point A to B in the fastest time and with all four wheels attached. Yet under that simple veneer there’s a deeper experience to be had.
Progressing through the career, trying out different difficulties and damage setting makes it on par with some of the AAA offerings available. Sure, you don’t have to hire a team and sit through team briefings, but you still have to look after your car every other race to make sure it’s at optimum functionality. You’re still going to want to be at peak performance, not just to win, but to unlock those bonus items for winning each event and not using your retries. Oh yes, using those restarts comes with a hidden cost, especially if you want to deck our your not-Lancia Delta in a zebra wrap.
Even aside from the main career, there’s enough in here to make it an entertaining experience. There are daily and weekly rally events to participate in, and as mentioned, the Free Roam is sheer artistic delight. Coupled with its lo-fi beats soundtrack, there’s just an extremely chill yet engaging half of a game here.
The only gripe I had may have been down to console limitations. Is that my fault for not upgrading, or Funselektor’s for not considering that this might happen. I couldn’t tell you how other versions vary, so this negative with the pop-up and lagging may only affect a small percentage of the player base.
Push that niggle to one side, however, and go in with a positive approach and you’ll find one of the most comprehensive and well-executed racing games in years. That both chills you out and makes you want to invent new swearwords. Especially on the German tracks when they line corners with those bastarding concrete bollards.
Don’t be fooled by its cute visuals and simple looks, art of rally is deceptively challenging. But it’s the fun kind of challenge, that simple plug-and-play style of racing that will have players wanting to unlock the faster cars. Paradoxically paired with one of those most serene game modes, there’s a lot in here to keep gamers occupied for many an hour. Just watch out for the occasional tree popping in.
art of rally is available now on Xbox One (reviewed on base Xbox One 1Tb), Nintendo Switch and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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