June 21, 2007 - Picture the scene: it's 1995 and we're in our local bowling alley armed with a pocket full of change. We're not here to wear odd-looking shoes and score strikes though; indeed, throwing a heavy ball at plastic milk bottles is dull compared to the real reason we're here, which is that the SEGA Rally Championship arcade machine - not the stand-up unit but the full-on sit-down cabinet - has just been delivered and we're first in line to take it for a spin. From the moment the starting light turns green and we're power-sliding around the mud-spattered course, we're hooked.
12 years on and we're delighted to report that we've got that same feeling of excitement in our stomachs as we play SEGA Rally on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. As the engine growls and we battle with the steering wheel to control the backend, it's like being a giddy teenager all over again, only without the uncontrollable acne and bumfluff moustaches. Indeed, from our hands-on time with the game, it's obvious to see SEGA Rally Racing Studio has encapsulated the DNA of the original game - the pure arcade controls and all-out speed - perfectly in this next-gen update, so much so you can feel it coursing through its turbo-charged engine.
Recreating the thrill of the original SEGA Rally was never going to be easy but capturing the essence of the original was of paramount importance to the developer when it set about bringing an all-time classic up to date so it stood proud alongside modern day racers like MotorStorm and Colin McRae: DiRT. Talking to IGN, SEGA Driving Studio head Guy Wilday said the team always wanted to make sure this next-gen version lived up to the original but also did something new: "It was a big challenge for us. SEGA Rally has an important part in our videogame past and we had a lot of respect for the series. We wanted to make sure that we created a landmark game that moves the genre forward while still sticking to the core SEGA Rally gameplay."
One of the key features introduced in SEGA Rally is Driving Studio's incredible track deformation engine. When you begin a race, the circuit is in pristine condition, its surface smooth and untouched. By the time you're on your second lap the wheels of speeding cars throttling through mud, sand, gravel and even snow have carved ruts through the track, creating fresh racing lines and deep tyre-shaped grooves. Of course, one might argue this has been done before in MotorStorm, but the big difference in SEGA Rally is that it directly affects the way you play rather than just being an aesthetic addition.
When you first begin to play, the thick gobs of mud that splatter on the windscreen and gravel that pings off the bodywork appear to be nothing but visual flair but, as the race continues, your tyres dig through the loose top layers of gravel or mud and uncovering a harder, better racing surface. So, when coming round the track for the second time and the surface is cut to pieces, keen-eyed drivers should aim for those stable patches of ground at the bottom of ruts. That harder surface offers increased grip, therefore enabling faster driving.
Indeed, track deformation is something the SEGA Rally team has looked into for a long time, as Wilday explains: "We've had the idea for about seven years but it's only really been possible now thanks to next-gen consoles. It has been a long time coming but we really wanted something that would influence the game and create something that was more than just a visual effect. We needed to make sure the deformation had a gameplay purpose rather than just an aesthetic purpose."
Thankfully that's something that Wilday and the team have got bang on. The deformation adds a fresh element to the core SEGA Rally gameplay and now it's not just about thrashing round a circuit while skidding over a handful of different surfaces. It's about spotting the best racing lines and making sure you stick to them, adapting your tactics to make the most of the ever-changing circuit and decrease your lap times as more of the loose gravel is chipped away.