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Top Gear Rally Review

Publisher - Midway/Kemco
Developer - Boss Game Studios
Platform - N64
Type - Racing
Score - 8/10

Top Gear Rally is the second rally style racing game on the Nintendo 64, and an early release in a season that's going to be filled with racing games. With so many racers coming out, an obvious question is what makes it stand out from the pack. The answer is that it shows MRC how a rally racer should be done.

Top Gear Rally gives you 4 tracks and 9 cars. The tracks have very distinct settings, such as Jungle and Mountain, and each requires a different approach to successfully drive them. The Jungle encourages flat out speed with its broad turns, limited by the dirt roads. The Mountain course has many twisting turns that require care to avoid running off the track and up hills. The cars range from underpowered with relatively poor control up to the Porsche, which is speed incarnate.

While 4 courses may not sound like a lot, Top Gear Rally does two things to keep you playing. First, the courses are long. It may take more than ten minutes to complete a three lap race when you first start driving. The game takes advantage of that length by giving you several different sections to drive through. The Desert course starts out in a city and then has some woods before you get to the exposed desert section. Courses also have shortcuts that are worth hunting for, because they can offer big savings in time once you master them. The other thing the game does is Championship Mode.

Championship Mode is the heart of the game. It's based on a season format, where you run several races, are awarded points for each race based on your standing, and if you do well enough, you can advance to the next season. The first season, you can only use two cars, and neither one is worth writing home about. You race against 20 other cars on two courses, and if you place in the top six you get points. Enough points, and you move on to the second season, where you get two more cars and have to run three courses. As this goes on, you get varying weather conditions, including fog, rain, snow, and night races, and eventually you get mirror versions of the four courses. While you start off comparatively slowly, you get better performing cars with each season. Unfortunately, so does your opposition.

The effect of all this is that the game is as much about learning the control of the cars as it is about learning the courses. Even if you've mastered the courses with the basic cars, you'll be completely out of control with the high powered vehicles. What was a pleasant little rise turns into a jump, which can cause serious problems if you're trying to hold a corner. The weather conditions also play a major role in your ability to handle the course. When it's raining, it feels like the car is hydroplaning, and you're much more likely to skid out trying to take a corner. And when it's snowing, you might as well give up entirely on steering.

Other gameplay modes include Arcade, in which you race against an individual computer controlled car or against a friend splitscreen (you can't race Championship two player), Time Trials, in which you try to set records in perfect weather and without other cars in your way, Practice, good for finding those shortcuts, and the Paint Shop. While the paint jobs on the cars are good, you can design your own personalized look and save it to a memory pak. This is just thing for going to a friend's house and blowing him away in your unique car. The game lets you paint each panel of the car, and has a basic set of tools, including rectangles, lines, and text, to give you just the look you want. Way cool.

The graphics in this game are stunning. While the racing environment isn't very complex, the textures on the walls, the road, and occasional objects are perfect. There is nearly no draw-in and absolutely no fogging, except as a weather effect. The frame rate is plenty high, with no slowdown or choppiness. The game limits the number of other cars in view to pull this off, however. Like MRC, the race starts with the cars staggered around the track, and you're not so much racing against them as just trying to pass them all before you complete three laps. When the other cars do appear though, they look excellent, with plenty of detail. The two player mode suffers, however. You don't get the full width of the screen, and the view feels unnaturally restricted, much like four player Mario Kart. The game also introduces heavy fogging to conceal the draw-in. Compared to the beauty of the one-player mode, the two-player mode can only be considered a disappointment.

While the game includes the standard behind the car view, the game is unquestionably designed to be played in the first person view. First of all, the control is superior. Secondly, the game behaves like you're looking out the windshield of a car. Drive over rough ground, and the view vibrates with the car. This is an effect that can't be described. It has to be seen. But it makes the game feel perfectly like you're actually in a car. On the other hand, if you're in the car, you'll miss out on all sorts of cool graphics effects, like the reflection of the sky in the windshield, the wake driving through water, and the reflection of your headlights off the other cars when driving at night. Play it first person, but once things get under control a little and you can start looking around a bit, check out the third person view.

One thing that's only apparent in the third person view is that your car takes damage. Scrape a wall, and you'll flatten the side of your car. A couple of bad crashes, and you can completely redefine the front of your car. When you complete the race, the game shows and rotates your car, so you can appreciate the gouge in the side of your car from when you slid into that pole. While the damage is only cosmetic, it adds a lot of fun. When you complete the race, you get a replay of your last lap, so you can appreciate your car in action. The graphics are good enough that watching what you did is enjoyable, unlike a lot of games where it would just be tedious.

For once, the soundtrack of the game isn't built around techno. I know this comes as a shock to racing fans, but Top Gear Rally relies on a European 80s synthpop sound. While it doesn't have the bloops and bleeps of so many other racers, it still successfully sets the mood and gives you drive to race. The sound quality is good, although the electric guitar is a little fake, and there's enough music that it doesn't get repetitive or boring. The sound effects, on the other hand, are kind of minimal. There's one sound for hitting another car, and another for hitting a wall. They get kind of repetitive, although in the heat of the race you tend not to notice. Engine noise is functional, but nothing more. Skidding sounds fare better. There are different skid noises for each road surface, and although they're subtle, they perfectly add to the game.

The control for Top Gear Rally is impressive. The game relies on a detailed physics model for the control of the cars, and you can feel it. In addition to getting progressively faster, the cars have varying characteristics such as front or rear wheel drive and engine placement. With its engine in the rear, the Porsche takes forever for the front to come back down after you get a little air. With other cars the front wheels come down much faster, returning control to you quicker. The game relies on a 4 wheel independent suspension, and you can see the wheels bouncing up and down over the ground. While it's not as detailed as MRC, you have some ability to customize your car, choosing different handling, suspension, and other characteristics to match your needs and the demands of the course.

The big payoff of the physics model is the crashes. In other games, wipe out and you'll get a fixed animation of the car flipping. In Top Gear Rally, how you flip is precisely dependent on exactly what you did to lose control. You'll find yourself flipping, twisting, and spinning through the air as you hit objects or blow corners and slide off into space. Oh, and unlike other games, when you're playing in the first person view and wipe out, you stay there. Other games pull out and you'll see it all from behind, but in Top Gear Rally, get ready to watch the world spin. Unfortunately, all this crashing reveals a bug in the game. If you end up on your roof or otherwise unable to go on, the game will usually pick you up and drop you back on the track. Sometimes, though, you'll get stuck against a wall, with your wheels spinning freely, and you'll have no choice but to restart the race. When you've just passed the final car on your third lap, it gets annoying when a little screwup forces you to start over.

While the Rumble Pak support is a lot more subtle than MRC, I find it more effective. The pak only rumbles when you jump and when you crash, which ends up a lot more useful than the continuous rumble of MRC. There were times when I was just pushing the car a little off the ground and having control problems as a result, and I never would have known if not for the jolts when I came back down. If you want to use the Rumble Pak, you'll have to hot swap it with the memory pak, which brings up another point. You have to use a memory pak to save your game. Having to start over at the first season every time you turn the game on gets annoying, so you'll need a memory pak. If you use the memory pak to save everything including a paint job and a ghost car, you'll need a full pak, but if you just save your season data, you can get away with sharing the pak with another game.

Racing games are fundamentally about going way too fast and being completely out of control, but Top Gear Rally succeeds at making you feel like you're going way too fast and completely out of control better than just about any other racer out there. As a one-player game, it competes with Waverace. If it didn't have that crashing bug and if its two-player game measured up, it would be the perfect racer.