Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Death Rally Review

The Good: Shooting while driving with varied cars and weapons, winning not required to unlock new items, quick races, lots of in-race pick-ups
The Not So Good: Cars lack subtle control, very repetitive race format, poor online multiplayer matchmaking
What say you? This top-down combat racing game offers explosive, monotonous action with oversimplified driving: 4/8

In 1996, seminal shareware publisher Apogee released a combat racing game called Death Rally, the first title developed by Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment, who would later go on to develop obscure, niche titles Max Payne and Alan Wake. There’s always room for a reintroduction of combat racing games, so Death Rally has appeared on the PC after a soiree on mobile platforms. Sadly not featuring Jason Statham, Death Rally was, and still is, a top-down combat racer where you attempt to shoot the competition on the way towards triumphant victory. Does this reboot place on the podium when compared against contemporary racing simulations?

Death Rally features decent graphics for a top-down racing game. The atypical (nowadays) perspective limits the amount of detail you can show on the cars and tracks; subsequently, the cars aren’t animated well and appear fairly static during each race. The weapon fire is underwhelming (simple white lines, mostly), though explosions and vehicle damage can be decent. There is a digital effect when your vehicle health is low, which is both immersive and annoying. The track design is nice, with a variety of settings for each event and some obstacles and objects on and around each layout. The sound design is average at best, with appropriate (if repetitive) effects, sporadic voice acting that recycles the same sayings for each opponent, and a typical selection of rock music for the genre. Nothing is spectacular in the graphics and sound for Death Rally, but the results are what’s expected of an inexpensive casual title.

There is a story presented in Death Rally in the form of a comic book: you were **SPOILER** with a **SPOILER** and then **SPOILER** a **SPOILER** in the **SPOILER**.  The game is quite open ended, giving you a choice of seven races to choose from at any one time, in addition to longer “story” races that offer more specific objectives (like win or eliminate a specific competitor). The regular races are three lap circuits events that are over in about one minute, sometimes involving special rules (like only one lap, or head-to-head with a single opponent). There is also a loathsome deathmatch mode where you must rack up kills in an arena, but your computer opponent steals a lot of your kills with precise hits that are difficult to replicate. The races recycle the same set of tracks, but races are quick so you can switch locations often. Sometimes, you are offered a bonus before a race: you can blow up an opponent at the beginning of the race for a price, drive a better car for half the profits, or earn double cash for eliminating a specific racer. All of the races can be played online, and unlocks carry over between offline and online play. Joining an online match is difficult to impossible, as you have to select a specific track to race on and the game only matches you up with drivers searching for the same exact track. With so many specific track options to choose from, I never found anyone to play against. 

Yeah, I said unlocks. At the end of each race, you are awarded cash based on your position, beating a specific racer, number of kills, and setting a lap time record. Thankfully, you do not need to win to earn cash, as you can earn just as much (if not more) money getting kills (plus, you earn a small amount simply for participating). I routinely slowed down so that I could rack up more kills instead of floundering in second place. Oddly, all of the cash earned during a race must be spent immediately and entirely on your current vehicle, repairing damage incurred during the race and improving speed, handling, armor, and secondary weapon ratings. I’m not sure of the reason for this rule, as it removes the ability to use one car to earn upgrades for another; since new vehicles almost always start out being worse than your currently car (but can eventually be upgraded to higher amounts), you have to suffer through some poor finished with a new vehicle as you wait for the speed and handling values to steadily increase. Death Rally features a good assortment of new vehicles, tracks, and weapons you can unlock by collecting loot from destroyed vehicles (another incentive for destruction). I never felt like a large portion of the game was being restricted from me since you start out with a decent number of tracks, and the AI drives appropriately based on your progress through the game. Each car is equipped with a primary machine gun, one secondary weapon (shotgun, machine gun, sniper rifle, flamethrower), and assorted tertiary items (mines, armored bumpers, laser sights), so you can choose (and upgrade) the weapon combination that best suits your driving style.

Driving in Death Rally is odd as there is no throttle control: you simply press the arrow keys or push a gamepad stick in the direction you wish to travel. You could consider the analog gamepad stick as a sort of throttle input (based on how far its pushed), but it certainly does not lend itself towards precise input. This method makes Death Rally easy to pick up and play, but leaves a lot to be desired in controlling your vehicle: I had a tough time slowing down and making tight turns, longing for the ability to drive with finesse. Buttons are used to fire your secondary weapon, use nitro, and drop mines. The primary weapon fires automatically if enemies are within range, which took me about an hour to figure out. The weapons add a meaningful layer to what otherwise would be bland racing. In Death Rally, it is inherently bad to have a small lead, since most of the weapons in the game are aimed forward. You can deploy some mines to keep those pesky stragglers off your tail, but it’s sometimes good tactics to slow down and surrender the lead so you can open fire on your opponents and remove them from the race. Pick-ups are scattered on the track that grant extra ammunition, cash, repairs, or nitro; since the cars are always driven at full throttle, nitro is a very important item that must be used to catch the leader. The AI drivers are fine opponents, firing at each other with good accuracy (though I would say unfairly so during the deathmatch mode) and not being noticeably robotic as they race around each circuit. The computer drivers don’t avoid incoming fire enough, making them easy targets, but the typically narrow track layouts make it difficult to do so.

Death Rally harkens back to the simple arcade games of yesteryear, with simple controls and fast races designed to be approachable and chaotic. Of course, these limitations means most races play out the same, and the dangling carrot of unlocking new content can only persuade so much. While I appreciate the fact that the races are short and you can choose between seven different events at one time to mix things up a bit, the grind of leveling up your cars and the sameness of the races do contribute towards tedium. I think that if the control scheme, which only relies on a direction for piloting your vehicle from a top-down direction, involved more finesse, then Death Rally would have increased longevity. Certainly, the lack of precise throttle control hurts. Death Rally has enough vehicles and weapons to keep things interesting, and the races feature lots of death amongst the rallying, although the matchmaking makes it almost impossible to find humans to race against. Overall, Death Rally is an update to the top-down racing game held back by repetitive races and the lack of nuanced control.