The red sand of the outback makes for treacherous driving conditions; it’s all too easy to get bogged down.
Like beleaguered politicians, rally games seem like an easy target (for both developers and journalists alike). “Hey,” says developer X. “Let’s make a game not unlike Colin McRae, and see how the money rolls in.” Not a sure-fire way of making cash, but certainly not the worst idea in the world. Pro Rally 2001 is neither a cheap knock-off (read: V-Rally 2) nor a hard-nosed simulation which nobody will buy (read: Rally Championship) – in attempting to find some kind of middle ground it makes a reasonable claim for both playability and realism, but runs head-on into Colin McRae Rally 2 territory.
Options, tracks, cars and championships are respectably serviceable. What racing games need more than anything else is structure; PR2001 comes up trumps with a realistic take on the real World Rally Championship, with qualifying tournaments thrown in before you get to play with the big boys. Thus you can thrash round the training circuits, prove yourself on the minor challenges then go head-to-head in the serious rally events to prove yourself a top rally driver.
Handling (to some minds the be-all and end-all of racing games) is actually very impressive. Controlling cornering takes some getting used to, particularly in the tighter corners in which vital seconds can be won and lost. Providing you don’t run into obstacles, the general racing experience is both demanding and rewarding… But should you hit a piece of obstructive scenery, that all-important suspension of disbelief is easily shattered. While collisions are not ludicrously facile, they’re hardly very convincing. Small walls and trees tend to bounce you back into your tracks predictably: where are the believable crashes we should surely be seeing at this stage of the PC’s development?
Well, you can’t have the moon on a stick. Delivering your (fully licensed) vehicle round a tortuous track takes some considerable concentration: your co-pilot barks orders and they appear on-screen, but get distracted for a moment and you’re likely to head off into the nicely realised scenery. See, ultimately, your environment is entirely believable – until you crash. Clipping the front corner of your car into a crash barrier results in slightly too much friction, resulting in an unrealistic amount of deceleration.
But, like Colin McRae 2, Pro Rally 2001 offers challenging rallying at high speeds with – crucially – a well-judged degree of realism. A goodly variety of courses spread over the genuine rally season – from the snowy tracks of Sweden to Africa’s sandy courses – offers plenty of variety in handling challenges, demanding that you constantly adjust your handling skills. Moreover, the linear structure of the championships – and the way in which each unlocks the next, more difficult one – means there’s a genuine tension in your performance, making it less likely that you’ll simply quit and re-start the stage.
In achieving a certain standard – and Pro Rally 2001 is the best rally game, along with Colin 2, that we’ve seen since Rally Championship – it becomes clear that to attain a higher standard requires a superhuman effort on the behalf of any developer aiming for true greatness. But believable, non-frustrating collisions seem to represent a hurdle which is yet some way off.