If you played rally games in the 90’s there were really only two choices: Colin McRae Rally or V-Rally. Of course there weren’t just those available, but they defined the shift from pure arcade representations to an attempt to replicate the adrenaline rush of drifting around tight hairpin bends and narrowly missing hitting a tree at 100 mph for the casual market. Both were successful enough to kickstart franchises and we had the racing game equivalent of the FIFA/ProEvo arguments about which is better. Over time it proved to be Colin McRae Rally as it warped into the DiRT series, turbo charged its content, and largely managed to reach the finish line fastest. Contrary to that, V-Rally slipped off the edge of an edge of a cliff into the undergrowth never to be seen again… until now. Emerging at pace from French racing game experts Kylotonn, V-Rally 4 brings the series out of retirement, but is it a podium contender or merely a grid filler?
Disclosure time – I was a V-Rally fan. Hours were spent hurtling around Corsica in splitscreen trying to keep things in check with deft taps of the d-pad buttons; and even more was lost building tracks in the generator that was inserted into the second game. I wouldn’t entertain the thought of switching to the “other” series even though it had a greater depth to it, I was hooked on the twitchy handling and slightly less serious facade. It provided thrills without getting too bogged down with the realism, but was recognisable in what it was trying to achieve. V-Rally 4 isn’t quite as arcade like in it’s presentation, but it retains the feel of the originals whilst bringing on board some of the features expected as standard in the genre now. This is mainly the addition of different disciplines, a career mode to compel progress and online functionality, but it doesn’t drag in rewind modes to correct mistakes, try to make a YouTube star of you as a driver, or overwhelm with race options. It’s designed to be pick up and play with almost the ability to drop in/drop out of the main mode whenever you feel like it. However, it does almost stumble at the first hurdle.
Some games need a tutorial and when you’re looking to make your game accessible for all it’s important to add one. The first thing V-Rally 4 does is drop you in that mode so that you can learn the controls and understand the basics of rallying, as well as giving you suggested settings at the end. So far, so good. It’s a bit unfinished though in that it talks over fairly important things like telling you corners are coming up, and in one fell swoop I nearly wrote off the nippy little Polo I was in. Not a great first impression. Get past it though and the aspects of the game are introduced in a more sedate manner with time to take in where to go for what. Definitely worth doing because a lot of the career mode (V-Rally mode as it’s called) screens are very similar and it’s easy to get confused when you’re just looking for a race. It’s managed through a global map with tabs scattered across the top to switch between career events, dealerships, recruitment and online. Pick what you’re looking to do and the map fills with dots and you take it from there. Some of the pieces like the hiring section are based around building a rally team and upping the skills of your mechanics and engineers. It’s a nice thing to include but doesn’t add much to the gameplay, that’s all about the tracks and vehicles.
With 5 types of race to go at: Rally, Rally Cross, Buggies, Hillclimb and Extreme-kana, there’s never a lack of event to take part in. They start off simple enough with a single, relatively short stage, but then increase in length, difficulty and locations as your status increases. Rally stages are the point to point bread and butter of V-Rally 4, but if you fancy a diversion Rally Cross and Buggies mix things up with AI opponents on lap based tracks, Extreme-kana asks you to be Ken Block in weird and wonderful arenas, and Hillclimb just wants you to floor it and try not to crash into a rock face. Each needs a specific type of car to take part and, you guessed it, they have to be bought. A foible of the structure of the game is that the first cars that are available to buy tend to be some of the most difficult to control, with rear wheel drive dinosaurs that don’t lend themselves to the lack of finesse for beginners. If you decide to go with a front wheel drive car then prepare to languish at the back until you can upgrade it, they’re not massively quick. At least you can set the difficulty level to whatever you want at any time and all it does is adjust the amount of cash that you win.
Getting money into the bank is crucial because it runs everything in the game. You can’t buy a new car or upgrade or fix your current one without it. You can’t pay your team or enter events without it. You won’t get sponsors or pledge money of you’re not racing. It feels like an attempt to layer in a team management sim over the excitement of the sports on offer, yet you can pretty much ignore it as long as there’s enough to cover the wages at the end of each week. That bill won’t be excessive in the early stages and a quick race with a decent finish will be enough, or you can head to the online section and take a chance there. Taking part in the community events is as simple as picking one that looks interesting and setting a time on the stage or course. Wait for the timer to run out and the prize money is doled out. The more players that take part, the more money in the pot, and the greater the reward for finishing higher up. The fact that events run for a couple of hours to up to a day means that there’s always something fresh to have a go at, and it’s not long before the payday hits either. I’ve found it one of the more interesting elements on offer – it’s not at all a new concept, but the way it’s implemented works really well.
It probably all sounds a bit convoluted and grindy in the beginning, and there’s a chance it could have gone that way, but it manages to deliver a really moreish experience. Because the events start off short and load fairly quickly, it’s easy to bang through nearly a dozen an hour, and because it’s going at pace you get sucked in. Pay attention to the prize money categories to blend that with the next motor you want to buy and the structure makes sense. It’s whether you adjust to the actual racing style that’s key. V-Rally 4 apes its predecessors so it’s very light and quick on the handling, expect to have to fiddle with the controller sensitivity to tame the response. If you’ve got a wheel then expect to spend a lot longer getting that setup right, only to go back to the controller because it’s easier to play with. There’s not the highest level of feedback through the controller to tell you what’s happening with the car and it takes a while to get used to – though it’s there in the force feedback of a wheel – and there’s no option to move throttle and brake to the sticks to tame the analogue input. The handling is definitely an acquired taste, as is the view option. Focusing on the road is hard work from anything but the external camera with the way the cars bounce continuously. Couple it with a heavy handed use of lens flare and it’s way too easy to run off the road.
It’s a struggle to get bored with running off though because there’s quite a bit going on in the backgrounds. These aren’t just static renders of nice scenery, there’s an effort to instil some character… even if the NPCs are a bit ropey looking. It’s nice looking, decent sounding and runs at a solid frame rate, what more can you expect? How about thousands of track variations to make sure there’s longevity and replayability? Tucked away in the quick race menus (as well as the multiplayer, which includes splitscreen), there are random generation options to tinker with. It’s not the scale of the track builder of yore, but it is nice to see. Speaking of the human based competitive elements, these are competently realised as well. It’s not very glamorous and was sparsely populated pre-release, yet when you do get into a lobby and start racing real people it’s a lot of fun. Coming from behind to take the win with under a tenth of second margin is a rush as much as a kicker it must have been to the poor soul I did it to. Equally, make a mistake and you’re forever in the dust of more experienced drivers, though points are still awarded for taking part.
If the different disciplines and online options aren’t enough, Kylotonn have shoehorned in a livery editor too. It’s functional and relatively easy to use, and I’m sure skilled designers will come up with something good from the stock paint colours and decals. How you share these or download them is a black art at the moment. Despite the info that says “don’t draw dicks ‘cos they’re shared with the community” (I’m paraphrasing, obviously), I couldn’t find any option to share or download new ones. No doubt that’ll be unveiled in time, though really it’s just a minor diversion to make up for the relatively low number of cars to pick from. There are some staple Group B’s, a smattering of modern hatchbacks, and a decent serving of Porsche’s, but it doesn’t disguise the fact that the budget couldn’t stretch to a few more. They’ll get you through even if you’re yearning for an Impreza or Evo. The money constraint is apparent in the soundtrack too, and whilst the menu music isn’t awful I can only recommend dropping the volume down to avoid it grating because you’ll hear it a lot.
Don’t think I’m being downbeat on V-Rally 4 though, I’ve enjoyed nearly every second of the racing once past the tutorial. There’s no pretentiousness here, the content is in because the developers think there’s an opportunity with there being nothing around that does the same job on the current consoles. It’s taken a huge leaf from Codemasters previous work, there’s no denying that, and it’s delivered a good, solid arcade rally game. It’s far from perfect with the career elements feeling thrown together instead of having a tangible impact on each other, and it missing some of the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect; yet it manages to awake that desire to keep driving because there are few distractions from that. There’s also something in the spooling up of the turbo and the thump of the exhaust as you blast off the start line that just makes it feel worthwhile, as long as you can keep it out of the ditch on the first bend.
A PS4 review copy of V-Rally 4 was provided by Bigben Interactive’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4 and Xbox One, and is coming to PC at the end of September.