Mobil 1 Rally Championship (PSX) Review
While American fans may sadly neglect the sport of rallying, the genre is hotter than Anna Kournikova with console-game developers. The last six months have been a golden age for American video-game rally fans, with the worldwide release of Need For Speed: V-Rally 2 and the American release of Colin McRae Rally for the PlayStation.
Electronic Arts, which released the outstanding V-Rally 2 last fall, wasted no time in releasing the PlayStation port of the universally acclaimed PC rally jewel, Mobil 1 Rally Championship. The game is based on the British Rally Championship, a six-rally series that takes place annually in the United Kingdom. Can the PlayStation version match up to the standards set by its PC cousin? Is this game as good or better than V-Rally 2? It's time to get dirty and find out.
Presentation/Graphics : 93
The cars look excellent. They are properly proportioned and feature accurate color and decal schemes used by their real-world counterparts in the BRC. There is superb light sourcing and reflections from the sun on the cars as they speed down the narrow forest trails of Wales and Scotland.
Every rally game has included mud that actually clings to the car as individual stages progress. But HotGen and Actualize took the graphical representation of mud a step further. Cars appear spotless at the start of each stage in other rally games, which is unrealistic. Drivers often compete in as many as seven or eight stages in a day in a real rally, so the mud never is cleaned from the car until the end of the day or there is extra time in a service area between stages. The cars in Mobil 1 stay dirty at the start of certain stages, which is a superb touch of realism.
Other aspects of the graphics drip with detail, too. Clouds of dust trail the cars on dry gravel stages, and visible smoke wafts from the exhaust when the car is stationary at the start of each stage. There are working red brake lights and white reverse lights, just as in reality. Great touch.
The courses are lush. HotGen and Actualize went deep into the color palette with this game, as there are many different hues of brown and tan used in the dirt courses, and black and gray on the asphalt courses. The courses, mostly contested in rural forest areas, are loaded with touches such as logs stacked adjacent to the road, windmills, small buildings, pockets of spectators standing at various sections, and accurately colored rock outcroppings and moss-covered slopes. Perhaps the most impressive visual element is the shafts of sunlight that stab through the trees to the track surface when driving in a thick forest section. An awesome effect.
There is very little pop-up or draw-in, and none of the polygon clipping that hurt the graphics in Colin McRae Rally. The sense of speed is terrific. It almost borders on being too fast for vehicles that rarely exceed 110 mph, but it's very acceptable and increases the challenge.
Mobil 1 features some of the best camera-angle tunability that I've seen in a video game. The height and distance of the camera can be adjusted by the decimeter, and the angle of the camera can be adjusted by the degree. This gives gamers the chance to dial in the angles just to their liking. I only wish more developers offered this kind of foresight.
There's a very clean screen interface, with overall time shown in the upper left corner, a course progression meter in the upper right and a combination tachometer, speedometer and gear indicator in the lower right. Color-coded Arrow icons appear in the upper middle of the screen to help give drivers cues as to the shape and duration of upcoming turns. While they're the same used in V-Rally 2, something about the positioning of the directional arrows in Mobil 1 rubbed me wrong. They often interfered with long-range vision, which is vital in a rally game.
While the placement of the arrows was mildly annoying, there is one major flaw in the graphics of Mobil 1: no visible damage. But that's a symptom of an even greater problem that will be examined in the gameplay section of this review.
Presentation/Audio : 90
Probably the most important audio aspect of any rally game is the co-driver. This person sits in the passenger sit and reads pace notes to the driver, indicating the shape and length of upcoming turns and other obstacles so the driver can finish the stage in minimal time. No rally game had better co-driver audio than Colin McRae Rally, as Nicky Grist - McRae's actual co-driver - provided pace notes nearly identical to what he uses with McRae in the World Rally Championship.
But Mobil 1, like its EA cousin V-Rally 2, isn't far behind in the co-driver audio department. The co-driver will issue pace notes such as "left five," "right three," "right one," indicating the direction and severity of the turn. One is easiest; five is toughest. The co-driver uses a British accent and is a bit muffled. But his audio track can be turned up, which is recommended. It's the most important part of the audio in this game.
Where Mobil 1 really shines in the audio department is with its pre-rally commentary. A British man provides very interesting information about the history and rallying success of each of the 21 cars available in the game during the car selection screen. The announcer also gives a ton of background before each rally, including location, history and stage composition. The commentary helped me learn a lot about the cars and races of the BRC and added a sim feel to the game. Plus it isn't annoying enough to distract those who don't care about the information and just want to play. Excellent touch.
Once on the course, there are excellent and varied racing sounds. Pockets of cheering are heard when cars pass spectators, and the cheering ebbs and flows accurately as the cars approach and pass the fans. There are also superb sounds of tires screeching as they struggle for grip on asphalt stages and the resounding thud and "ping-ping" of rocks and mud clumps hitting the wheel wells of the car on gravel and mud stages. Mobil 1 doesn't quite have the detailed racing sounds of V-Rally 2, which even included the sound of slush lapping the car in snow stages, but it's close.
The only true negative about the sound in Mobil 1 is the engine sound. Rally cars use high-revving engines, but the engines in Mobil 1 gurgle or whine a bit too much to be realistic. There's just not enough grunt in lower gears.
Interface/Options : 37
Where to start? How about one of my biggest pet peeves in racing games: Mobil 1 doesn't include analog gas/brake control with the right stick. This is simply inexcusable for a 2000-era racing video game. Sure, most of a rally stage is spent with the throttle wide open, but proper weight transfer and powersliding in turns depends on a very subtle touch with the throttle and brake. This is impossible with all-on, all-off digital acceleration and braking and leads to instant frustration.
There are three controller configurations, and none are mappable. This again is another flaw. Controllers in racing sims - which Mobil 1 purports itself to be - must be mappable to suit the players' needs. It's ironic and puzzling that a game featuring such a tunable camera angle system features such a primitive control setup system.
While the lack of analog gas/brake and controller mappability is a major flaw, it only gets worse. Rally fans, swallow hard before you read this next line. This game includes no track maps. None. Not before, during or after the stage. This is an incredibly stupid omission by HotGen and Actualize. It's absolutely impossible to determine the proper gearing, suspension, brake balance and steering sensitivity for the car before each stage without at least a simple map. This is almost like creating a golf game in which players can't see each hole before they tee off. This flaw nearly ruins this game by itself.
Proper setup is absolutely vital for a rally game, and all of the usual options are available in Mobil 1. Players can chose from six tire types, with special tires for dry gravel, wet gravel, snow, asphalt, intermediate surfaces and wet surfaces. Slider bars are used to adjust gearing, suspension, brake balance and steering. But again, this clean, easy-to-use and realistic setup system is rendered useless by the lack of a course map. Setting up cars for this game is a lot like playing craps in a pitch-black casino: Roll the dice and pray, baby.
There are a couple of good points about the interface of this game. First, there are good text descriptions of each car, with engine type, horsepower, torque, gearbox type, drivetrain and weight all described. There are also good track surface and weather descriptions before each stage, showing the composition and percentages of the various surfaces. That description helps players make intelligent tire choices but does nothing to help with other setup parameters. Only a course map could do that, and HotGen and Actualize screwed up royally by omitting those from the game.
Gameplay : 51
The driving model of Mobil 1 is frustrating all the time and ridiculously unrealistic at many times. HotGen and Actualize simply get the physics of a high-performance rally car all wrong. Powersliding is a key aspect of rallying, as players slide and countersteer through turns to trim time. V-Rally 2 captures this aspect of rally driving very, very well, and Colin McRae Rally nails it with incredible sensitivity and control.
Powersliding is very, very tough to perform in Mobil 1. When players pitch cars sideways in turns, there is a two-level effect that is very unrealistic. First, the car does nothing. There almost seems to be a null zone in handling. Then the car suddenly starts to spin. It's almost like an invisible force drove a spike through the center of the car's roof, and the car starts to spin on that axis. There's no understeer or controllable oversteer. You simply rotate to varying degrees on a central axis rather than slide sideways at a diagonal angle. My controller was unhappy when I played this game since I tossed it on the floor so many times in frustration, while my copy of Colin McRae Rally must have thought I was strange as I looked at it with lust while playing Mobil 1. The physics are that bad in this game.
A major contributor to the poor driving physics is the mushy steering. This game has comatose and numb at the default levels. The left analog stick must be thrown nearly all the way to the left or right to get any turning action at all. Increasing the steering sensitivity to the maximum before every stage is recommended and helps players gain better control of the car. But even more sensitive steering can't overcome the flawed "central axis" physics model.
The hits to the physics model continue. When cars leave the main road, which happens quite often, they don't slow enough when traveling through grass or mud. Plus cars sometimes can drive at nearly a 45-degree angle along the sides of some courses for a short period of time. This is very unrealistic. The cars also have the same flawed, helium-filled physics as V-Rally 2 when crashing. They bound upward in the air and then roll to the ground, which is very unrealistic.
Another major blemish on the gameplay in Mobil 1 is the lack of a damage model. This is simply inexcusable for a game that depicts itself as a sim. One of the most important aspects of rallying is deciding whether to risk a crash and heavy damage by going all out on a stage or simply being conservative and staying near the leaders before the next service area for repairs. V-Rally 2 did a decent job of simulating this, while Colin McRae Rally did it perfectly. Gamers are robbed of those strategic decisions in Mobil 1, and that's a shame. This really can't be considered a rally sim at all without damage.
There are three difficulty levels - easy, medium and hard. But many gamers won't get past the easy level, for two reasons. One, the physics are so unrealistic that most gamers will simply throw this game in their stack after 30 minutes. Two, this game is really, really hard at any level. I consider myself to be a good videogame driver and have won some championships at most difficulty levels in V-Rally 2 and Colin McRae Rally. But I hardly ever cracked the top 10 in any rally in Mobil 1. The poor driving physics and lack of track map for proper setup contributed to that poor driving, but the complexity curve in this game is nearly vertical. So while HotGen and Actualize didn't give us sim-like physics or damage model, they gave us hellish complexity. Go figure.
On the plus side, there are a nice variety of tracks in Mobil 1, offering quite a challenge to drivers. Each stage also takes between three and four minutes to complete. That's very similar to Colin McRae Rally and quite a refreshing change from the 90-second sprint stages that fill V-Rally 2. Some have complained that the tracks in Mobil 1 are too narrow, but that's hogwash. Based on the pictures I have seen of the BRC in the British magazine Autosport, the British forests are plenty narrow.
Replay Value: 49
But for those who do, there are some positives. First, the game offers four modes: Time trial, two-player, arcade and championship. The Championship mode consists of six rallies with six stages in each. It starts with the Vauxhall Rally of Wales. Players must complete each rally before continuing to the next.
That progression-type system is fine and dandy for the sim-like championship mode. But players can only start in Wales in the Arcade mode, too. All other rallies are locked. That's ludicrous. Arcade modes should give players complete freedom to go and do whatever they want. That's the beauty of an arcade mode, but HotGen and Actualize have sullied that beauty into ugliness.
Finally, players are rewarded with an excellent selection of 21 cars. This is much more than the eight offered in Colin McRae Rally and about the same offered in V-Rally 2. Manufacturers in the game include Ford, SEAT, Skoda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Renault, Vauxhall, Citroen, Honda, Proton, Peugeot and Hyundai.
But the big question remains: Once they get on the track with their favorite car, will they want to continue much past the first few stages in Wales? Doubtful. This game has the staying power of an elderly man who forgot his Viagra.
Overall : 59
But Mobil 1 can't compare to those gems. This game might be tolerable if it were the only PlayStation rally game on the market. But Colin McRae and V-Rally 2 are far superior as simulations in nearly every aspect, and Sony's Rally Cross series is a much more fun arcade representation of rallying. So Mobil 1 falls into a no man's land.
A valuable lesson should be learned by EA from the release of Mobil 1. Quite simply, not all killer PC titles make great PlayStation ports. This game falls into the same category as Superbike 2000 by EA Sports. Great PC game. Lousy PlayStation port. Some games are better left to the hard drive. Mobil 1 Rally Championship is one of them.
And a final, fundamental question needs to be asked, too. Besides the obvious decrease in quality between the PC and PlayStation games, why did EA release Mobil 1 in the first place for PlayStation? It just released the outstanding Need For Speed: V-Rally 2 last fall. Then six months later, it releases this very mediocre game. With the American dawn of the PlayStation 2 set for this fall, let's hope that Mobil 1 Rally Championship isn't Electronic Arts' rallying legacy to the original PlayStation. The company can, and has done, much better. If this is EA's last rallying game for the PlayStation, it simply reeks of pulling the cash cow for more profits.