I’m not the world’s greatest rally driving fan (Ed: Or sports fan, for that matter, but whatever), so it should come as very little surprise to any of our regular readers that I had absolutely no idea who Sébastien Loeb is. The last rally driver I was peripherally aware of was Colin McRae, and I had no idea that he had left for the great rally track in the sky. My ill knowledge has changed a lot with the introduction of Sébastien Loeb Rally EVO, one of the most technical racing games I’ve played (which says a lot about how many I play). So while I strap into my rally suit and go alert my co-driver, how about you mosey over to the track and I’ll meet you there?
This is going to be a tale of love and hate, of failure and revenge, of falling to the bottom, and so much redemption. Picture the scene:
Sicily, 1922 I pop the disc into my console, fire up the game, and am faced with a choice of jumping straight into driving, or playing the tutorial. I am wise, and choose the tutorial. I start to drive, and immediately lose control of the car. A lap around the training course, which should have taken less than minute, took me in excess of four minutes. Also, the course is a wreck, and by the time I’m going for the second lap, I can’t see the course demarcations anymore. This is hopeless. So I leave the tutorial in disgust and fire up a standard race instead. It was at the point where I’d landed my car on the roof, skidding over the finish in reverse that I figure I’m sure this game is not for me. So I throw my controller down in disgust and shut off my console, stalking off in disgust. I hated the game so much at that point. Total play time: about 30 minutes.
Slip sliding away
Thing is, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so at around 4am, wife and kids asleep in the house and me wide awake, replaying the horror of crossing the finish line in reverse on my roof, I head back to the lounge to see what went wrong. As a responsible reviewer, I had to discern whether the problem was ME or the GAME. By the time that evening rolled around, I’d actually managed to finish a few races somewhere in the middle rankings. It was honestly one of the most demanding games I’ve played in a long time. Newer games are all about spoon-feeding you the experience so that you consume it without a second thought. This game made me work for my meager wins. And slowly, I started to master the cars; the pace-notes started making more sense; and I started getting an appreciation of proper rally driving.
The game itself isn’t as flashy or gorgeous as, say, the latest Need for Speed, but the graphics are passable. Sébastien Loeb Rally EVO is not here to delight your eyes. Nor your ears. The sound design left a lot to be desired, and some of the engine noises are fairly grating. The game takes rallying seriously, however, so the controls are tuned fine enough for you to take the pace-notes seriously. What the game never tells you, though, is that until you get used to the finer controls, it’s easier for you to switch the camera to the inside of the car so you can see the steering wheel and how pushing the analog sticks affects how wildly your steer. Ramming the stick all the way to the end is only going to end with you skidding along on the roof. In reverse. By the same token, you actually need to learn to brake properly as you enter corners, and how to accelerate around them.
Experienced driver required
If you’re a rally enthusiast, there’s a section of the game called “The Loeb Experience”, which takes you through Sébastien’s rally career from his very first rally win. What makes this mode different to other “Insert Celebrity Name Experience” modes I’ve played in other games is the extensive interviews with the man himself, giving you a very close insight into his mindset and take on the rallies. Even for someone like me who had no initial interest in rally driving, watching Sébastien speak so passionately about his chosen sport gave me a much greater appreciation of the sport than I started with. Let’s just say that my wife wasn’t too pleased with me when I handed her a sheaf of pace-notes for our drive up to the mall.
One aspect I really liked was the number of cars and tracks that you have available to to you unlock. Like most driving games, you need to earn the right to drive later on (you buy these with rep points that you earn), but I was impressed with how many tracks are open at the start of the game, as difficult as some of the tracks may be. I also felt the game rewarded participation (a good thing!), meaning you earned points towards your next rank or car whether you finished first or not. I can name some games that penalize the dickens out of you for having the temerity of not coming within the first three positions (or worse, first place only). This rewarding of participation went a long way toward me actually continuing to play. At least I could see early on that I was making some kind of progress, even if said progress was simply crossing the finishing line on my wheels (although the first few times I somehow lost tires in the process, so I crossed the finish on just rims. I don’t know).
Crossing the finish line…
Because of a lack of experience, I honestly wouldn’t be able to say which is the best rally driving game out there, but this game definitely adds something to the genre, especially for someone who is completely new to it and is approaching with an open mind. The game is punishing at first, but once you’ve pushed over the initial difficulty curve, it becomes a lot more of a pleasure to play. Fans of games such as WRC will probably thoroughly enjoy this one, but arcade drivers may need to think before applying.