Monday, April 17, 2006

Xpand Rally Review

Xpand Rally, developed by Techland and published by TotalGaming.net.
The Good: Realistic tracks, accurate physics, fallible AI drivers, career mode with repair and upgrades that scales appropriately, pretty good graphics and effects, moderately difficult but fun to drive, track editor
The Not So Good: Co-driver doesn’t adjust corner speeds for your current setup, must unlock additional tracks, extremely laggy multiplayer
What say you? A lifelike rally racing game with some minor annoyances: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I love rally racing. I think the skill required to maneuver a car around treacherous corners inches from trees and other assorted obstacles (like people) is much more than the more asphalt related racing series around the world. Although it hasn’t gotten a strong foothold in the U.S. (and even more so now that it’s off the air on Speed), it’s fairly popular around other parts of the world and inspired me to get my sweet ass car. There have been a fair number of rally games produced, trying to replicate the excitement of high-speed thrills around tracks where you really shouldn’t be going fast. Probably the most visible titles on the PC is more arcade Colin McRae Rally and the hardcore simulation Richard Burns Rally). Lying somewhere in the middle is Xpand Rally, developed by Techland (from Poland) and now available in the U.S. through the TotalGaming.net download service. Xpand Rally hopes to satisfy both hardcore and casual fans and allow for user-created content, kind of a rally version of rFactor.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Like most driving games, the graphics found in Xpand Rally is one of the highlights of the game. The environments are very detailed: textured roads, crowds, roadside objects (like fences and cows behind fences) and tons of other objects. All of the objects can be run into, causing spectacular damage to your car. The damage in Xpand Rally looks to be almost realistic: falling off a cliff causes driver injury and crashing into trees causes appropriate amounts of damage. The model is scaled down from realistic levels to make the game playable and enjoyable, but the arcade damage seen in Colin McRae Rally is long gone. The game has some other enjoyable graphical touches: dynamic clouds and shadows, people running across the track, windshield wipers that clear the window of mud and water, and others. The game also features full time of day effects (for dawn, dusk, or night racing, complete with dynamic shadows) along with weather. It’s obvious that a lot of attention was paid to the graphics of Xpand Rally, adding the little touches that makes for a great visual experience. The sound is standard for a racing game: engine sounds, tire squeals, breaking glass, and the co-driver calling out information about the next corner. The sound neither impresses nor disappoints: it just does an adequate job.

TOTALGAMING.NET
Like I mentioned in the introduction, Xpand Rally is available for download through the TotalGaming.net service, run by the Stardock people (they made Galactic Civilizations II). TotalGaming.net is a lot like a combination of Steam (a central hub where you can access all your purchased software) and Direct2Drive (direct download purchasing). The advantage of it is that you don’t need copy protection or a CD in the drive to play the games and if you switch computers, you can just re-download the software because it’s tied to your account instead of your computer. The disadvantage is that it’s download only, so if you’re on a slow Internet connection, games will take quite a while to download. I did encounter some slow speeds when trying to download Xpand Rally (around 25 KB/sec) but the rest of the time when I’ve dealt with GalCiv2 it’s been fine. TotalGaming.net features primarily independent games, including some titles I have reviewed through other means: Flatspace, Supreme Ruler 2010, Trash, and Tribal Trouble. Now, on with the countdown!

FEATURES AND GAMEPLAY
Xpand Rally features both arcade and simulation modes; most real drivers will want to play in simulation mode, as arcade mode features relaxed physics for beginners. The main part of the game is the rather lengthy career mode, where you buy a car, race to earn money, and unlock better tracks with bigger prizes. Like Gran Turismo, you start out with a crappy car and earn money by placing well in races. The game starts with 3 races unlocked, and placing 2nd or better in each of these races opens the next series of 3-5 races, and so on. The money you earn can be used to purchase upgraded parts, repair your vehicle, or purchase a better car. You can upgrade components of the engine, exhaust, brakes, transmission, body, and others, just like Gran Turismo. And also like Gran Turismo, you don’t get a discount going from level 1 to level 2 brakes and can’t sell outdated parts, which makes absolutely no sense. You can’t have more than one type of brakes on a car at once, so why can’t you recoup some of the money? Apparently there’s no return policy in Xpand Rally. Some of your earned money will also be spend on repairing damage to the parts installed in your car. One of the cooler parts of Xpand Rally is that each individual part you installed can be damaged different amounts, depending on where you received damage during the races. There isn’t generic “engine” damage in Xpand Rally: you can break the exhaust, radiator, or tuning kit to varying degrees. You can also play single races on tracks you’ve unlocked in career mode; although all the cars and upgrades are available from the beginning for single races, the tracks must be unlocked. You can also play multiplayer games over the Internet. Through the time I’ve played online, the gameplay has been less than stellar. For some odd reason, the first time I played multiplayer the game reset all of the options I had changed (such as turning off force feedback and resetting the video settings) so I had to withdraw from the race and change them during the race. Multiplayer is also very laggy even on the most basic graphics settings. Part of this is because most of the players of Xpand Rally are located overseas, but a ping of 70 should not result in second-long lockups during racing. This wouldn’t be a big deal in some other games, but it’s a major problem in a rally game. And this is only with 2 players! I don’t enjoy slamming into a cliff because the Internet code isn’t up to snuff. Obviously, Xpand Rally is geared towards the single player experience.

Xpand Rally comes with a track editor so that you can create your own circuits. Once you learn how it works (I suggest getting this excellent beginner’s tutorial), it takes about 20 minutes to whip up a crappy but drivable track with just the basics using Paint Shop Pro and the game’s editor. Of course, you can spend quite a while adding accoutrements to your design, and some interesting designs are starting to crop up around the Internet. Unfortunetly, the game will not call out upcoming corners on custom tracks, so you really need to learn them. Xpand Rally seems to feature a moderately difficult physics engine: I like driving on dirt and gravel, but driving on pavement just seems a little bit off. The physics engine does a good job in simulating weight shift: you must brake well before a turn in order for the weight to shift and brakes to engage. This means you must really learn the tracks in order to be successful. One of the better features of Xpand Rally is the realistic track design. One of my major problems with Colin McRae Rally is that the tracks are way, way too wide, which makes the game extremely easy to drive and doesn’t feature any of the “close calls” seen in real rally racing. Xpand Rally’s tracks are very realistic, featuring cramped quarters and showing how much skill is required just to stay on the track. The co-pilot does a decent job calling out upcoming corner, although the gears are hard-coded, meaning his information does not adjust to your current setup. This is problematic for the beginning of career mode, where your car is not exactly top of the line. For example, the co-driver said an upcoming corner was a “4” when it was really a “2” with the car I was using. Until you realize this, a lot of wrecks will result. Although rally racing is a single driver affair, you can see a ghosted image of the AI leader’s line while you drive. The AI drivers do slip-up, over-correcting for a corner or clipping a bump. I’m not sure if these “mistakes” are random or not, but it’s still cool. This way, you feel like you’re racing against a real opponent, not some arbitrary time.

IN CLOSING
Xpand Rally is a pretty decent rally game, featuring beautiful graphics and the ability to customize track layouts. The AI drivers act like humans, and they scale with the career mode, always presenting an appropriate challenge. The career mode is long, enjoyable, and difficult enough to hold your attention. Driving in the game is also enjoyable, successfully straddling the line between outright simulation and inaccurate arcade. I definitely enjoyed playing Xpand Rally more than Colin McRae Rally, whipping past trees, rocks, and billboards on realistic, narrow courses through interesting environments. Hopefully more people will discover this game now that it’s available here in the U.S., so that I can have some better pings in multiplayer, and also have an increased number of custom tracks available for download. Xpand Rally should be able to find a place in the racing market with gamers who enjoy rally racing and want to see some custom content.