SL Rally Evo aims somewhere in between the arcade style of Dirt and the Sim style of Dirt Rally. At first I thought this was going to make it hard for it to please anyone, but in reality, itís refreshing not to have to spend hours learning to drive. Itís easy enough for a rally enthusiast to get going with straight away, beating the ďmediumĒ AI stage times after only a few attempts, and for those used to something easier still, thereís an ďeasyĒ settings on the times which will give them something to work towards thatís obtainable with practice. Thereís also a superbly implemented rewind system, usable six times per stage, that gently eases you back up to full speed, rather than the sudden jolt seen in most other games. Rally fans will want to avoid overusing this and learn the stages properly, otherwise online racing will be tough.
Iím a big fan of Rallisport Challenge 2 on the original Xbox. Pretty much every weekend until the service was shut down, Iíd be online, having the most amazing fun racing with a dedicated group of fans of the game. Nothing has come close to that in the rally genre since. Until now. SL Rally Evo has a solid online mode with heart pounding racing (quite literally - I wore a heart rate monitor and in close racing, the adrenaline was sending my rate up to almost exercise levels!) A little niggle: lobbies are peer based and if the host drops, thereís no migration, which isnít great, but since it goes to the track voting system after each race anyway, thereís very little time lost and most drivers will end up in the same lobby as they all rejoin at the same time. However, after spending many hours online racing in the rallicross and stage modes, I can say that it has what it takes to deliver thrills. The rallicross is bumper cars, so throw your gentlemensí gloves out the window and get the nomex gloves on. Some of the corners are joyous, sliding through the mix of dirt and tarmac flat out, and remembering to take the joker diversion once in every three lap race. In the rally stages, the opponent cars are wireframe ghosts and so overtaking is possible on the tight mountain tracks. On one Australian track I overtook someone in the air on the last corner, landing in front of him to take the win. Massive grin. Often I get too excited and crash everywhere though. Careful driving has a better chance of winning than massive risks because the stages are often long, up to seven or so minutes. Thereís a reset button that can be held to quickly respawn if trapped in a tree or up a rock. Online has a points system Ė start at 1000 and finish above middle to gain points or below middle of the pack to lose points, or if you quit, you lose a lot of points. Quite a good deterrent, although I had the game crash a couple of times mid-race which resulted in the same huge penalty. But with Dirt Rally only having the option of Rallicross PvP, SL Rally Evo is the only place to get decent Stage rally racing online on a console.
The single player has quick-race, career and Sebastien Loeb Experience modes. The latter is a good place to start if you are an experienced rally game player. People new to the genre might want to build up more gradually in the career mode which starts with shorter stages and slower cars, before moving on to the serious stuff. The Loeb Experience is a full fan-service mode, with (understandably) Citroen cars everywhere. Each race recreats a different moment from Loebís long and daftly successful career. They are grouped into eras, accompanied by a dub-translated video interview with Loeb himself talking about his background and progression through the ranks. Itís actually pretty fascinating. The Experience gives you a taste of many of the race styles and car classes that youíll go through in more detail in the career mode, from stage racing in kit cars, through rallicross and on to Pikes Peak hillclimbing in powerful 1000bhp/tonne downforce-equipped monsters. Another reason itís worth doing this first is because it unlocks cars only available here. I completed the lot, which then unlocks the full Pikes Peak circuit and a fast PP test car which handles like itís on rails, making for a brain meltingly fast run up the mountain. Get to it now! Thereís a decent array of cars from many manufacturers and eras in the career mode.
Before starting any of this, you can try the tutorial. I spent some time here playing with the settings and driver aids, comparing options. Even if you are a total novice, I insist you turn off the ďStability controlĒ option. Left on, it kills the game completely, cutting the power at the vaguest hint of understeer, thus making drifts with the handbrake completely uncontrollable. The rest of the aids are acceptable and wonít diminish from the fun too much. Some games are nigh on impossible for mortals to play with all the aids off, but SL Rally Evo plays best with them all off. Manual gears to control the wheelspin are recommended for advanced drivers too.
Handling is mostly controllable and fun, with a shallow, but noticeable learning curve. Where Dirt Rally requires small, considered, almost delicate inputs to get the best out of it, SL Rally Evo instead prefers it if you get a bit physical with the gamepad to keep you car out of trouble. This will help newcomers to stay with it and allow experienced drivers to go really fast. In fact, this is one of the best aspects Ė the feeling of speed is excellent, only let down by some horrific frame-stutter in some locations. However, the majority of the time itís smooth and this should not put you off buying the game Ė youíll miss out. Reports suggest if you have both consoles, the PS4 version is the smoother.
The difference between the way the FWD, AWD and occasional RWD (GT86!) cars drive is significant, as is the difference between tarmac, dirt and snow. Actually the snow stages deserve special mention, with the way the powdery snow-drifts gently nudge the back end of a car into line being lush, and then the back wheels riding up a sudden patch of ice with a satisfying crunch. Sometimes, the tarmac stages feel they have a bit too much grip, with more of a focus on accurate braking, but it increases the variety. There are some hilariously jump-riddled dirt tracks, and there are some stages with long grass lining the track which you can just plough straight through, with no idea whatís on the other side (assuming you arenít playing from chase cam!) The graphics alternate between lush and a bit rubbish. The aforementioned grass looks quite weak, and car models are a bit lacklustre, but who cares when you are blatting along in top gear eh? The way the tarmac gradually turns to snow and then ice (and back again on the way down) was beautiful on a Monte Carlo mountain stage. The sunsets are amazing, the views down the mountain valleys are scary and you can normally tell whatís about to happen to the road if you also pay enough attention to the co-driver; unless you are at Pikes Peak where you just have to learn all 8-9 minutes worth by heart because hey, single seater! I prefer the Pikes Peak racing in SL Rally Evo to the same in Dirt Rally Ė itís much more instantly enjoyable, giving you reason to want to learn the nuances of the course.
Stages are forgiving, with little damage from clipping soft verges, or edges of roads, unless it tips the car (losing control), or has rock / trees / other hard edges. Thereís a coastal road in Wales where the kerb / pedestrian pavement on one side is a literal flipping death trap though, making it a favourite for online racing. The damage model is pretty cosmetic and doesn't attempt to closely match impacts. You will eventually puncture tyres and end up on the rims if you are careless, or lose a bit of steering control, but it's not a major part of the game.
One of my pet hates is sorted Ė unlike Forza, all the "look at the course and car" stuff before races is skippable. Well done Milestone. Deserves a paragraph all of itís own. Now if we can just have an online mode added that skips all the voting stuff (country / track / time of day) and just randomly jumps to another stage and car without delay, that would ice the cake, pretty please!
Overall yes, there are unpolished areas, which could have been addressed to raise Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo to another level, but this is the best Rally game in a long time on consoles and any racing fan is going to have a lot of fun, so itís highly recommended. Buy it, turn off Stability Control and get racing.
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