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Combine the stunning track design, the fierce competition and a superb sense of speed and you would already have the a contender for the best arcade racer of the year, but Sega Rally still has something else up its sleeve. You see, Motorstorm has a new rival when it comes to mud-slinging antics. Like Evolution's Monument Valley racer, Sega Rally features deformable track surfaces, and this time the tracks and ruts persist from lap to lap. This feature isn't quite as important to gameplay as some early impressions might have made out, but there are definite advantages to, say, riding along in the firmer ground that someone's tyres have already stamped down. Meanwhile, the mud splattered over every surface of your vehicle seems almost tangible, thanks mostly to some clever use of bump-mapping and specular lighting.
Not everyone is going to love this game, but if you enjoyed the recent Ridge Racers, Need for Speeds or Burnouts then there's a very good chance that you will. What quibbles there are are pretty minor. It's an irritation, for example, that you can't change tyres between races in a championship, particularly when the faster road tyres might be essential to get a high place in two of three races but the grippy off-road tyres make life a lot easier in the third. A restart option in championship races would also lessen the stress levels a little; in a game this tough it's annoying to come first or second in the first two races then fluff up the first lap of the third, then realise that you've thrown the whole championship away. On the PS3, the Sixaxis tilt control option is also shockingly rubbish (though to be fair you could say the same of Motorstorm.)
The biggest downsize I expected was that, long-term, the game might grow stale or lack content, but actually it doesn't seem to be a problem. The game has three sets of championships to get through, each containing several ranked groups of events, with three tracks for each of the five environments - safari, arctic, alpine, tropical and canyon - plus reverse options. What's more, each championship takes a lot of time and concentration to get through, ensuring this is a game you won't be screaming through as you might have done, say, Burnout 4. On top of this, there are competitive online time trials where you can download ghost cars from your rival racers, and Sega Rally also outdoes DiRT by having a proper six-player online racing mode.
OK, the big question - where does Sega Rally sit in what has been a great year for off-road racers? Well, DiRT has more variety, slightly better visuals and will appeal slightly more to those looking for a simulation, but it's not as thrilling an experience and the different off-road motorsports presented are a bit of a mixed bag. Motorstorm is still, second-by-second, the most intense and exhilariting racing game of the year, but it can't match Sega Rally for long-term appeal or the variety and imagination of its settings and track design. In a perfect world I'd suggest you bought all three, but in this one you might have to make a choice. If so, I'd say that Sega Rally probably offers the most consistently great racing of any racing game I've played this year. As long as you're not looking for an in-depth simulation, you won't be disappointed.
Sega Rally rediscovers its roots in a glorious update of an arcade classic. Simultaneously retro and modern, it's a perfect mix of speed, spectacle and hardcore competition.