The world of rally cross has always been somewhat of an enigma to me. I wouldn't call myself a fan of televised racing, in fact, I wouldn't be hard pressed to say that I hate watching racing. Moreover, I hate the culture associated with racing. My friends and I have even gone as far as creating an alcoholic beverage known as the “NASCAR bomb” ( don't try this at home kids, but if you were wondering, it involves generic light beer, and caramel apple liquor). But, for some reason, European rally cross has an appeal that transcends the trailer trash ridden American counter-part. There is something to be said about watching a car flying over intense hills and rough terrain, while the driver and passenger maintain their composure. Juxtaposed with the looping monotony of NASCAR, it's clear to see that the Europeans are much more ardent about entertaining the common man.
Over the last few years, there has been an influx of interest in the rally cross scene in the U.S, and game developers have taken notice. Auspicious products, such as the Colin McRae series, along with the outstanding Rally Sport games have only fueled interest in the sport, and are continually raising the bar for racing games of all types. Techland's “Xpand Rally” is yet another entry in this growing genre, but does it have what it takes to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack? Well, sort of.
Xpand Rally is composed of your standard, no frills, game types and options. You will have the option to either play in a world tour, or do single races in which tracks are unlocked from the world tour. Other than these two game types, and multiplayer, there isn't much more to focus on. The rally tour is a money-based event in which you buy new cars and parts through cash made by winning races. Like other traditional rally games, in Xpand Rally, your competition is the clock, not other cars.. You must get to the finish line as fast as possible; an arrow indicator, as well as your passenger yelling out directions will guide you through each track. The arrows are efficient, therefore changing the passenger's voice to a language other than your own will be funny, but shouldn't affect your game. It would have been nice to see a few more options for single player play, but the depth of the rally tour is more than sufficient to provide hours of entertainment.
The game's control scheme is rather simple; forward throttle, reverse, and turning. By default, your car is automatic, but it is possible to set up a manual transmission with assigning keyboard keys accordingly. Like in other racing games, you can accelerate into a turn, then apply the handbrake to power slide through it. This method is tried and true, but Xpand Rally's controls feel much more arcade like and simplified than other racing sims. This change is welcome, as it compensates for the harsh reality of using a keyboard to turn your vehicle. Overall, in an area where a racing game can go terribly wrong, the control work of the game is successful.
Customization in Xpand Rally is one of the most important aspects of the game. After winning races, you are allowed to buy upgrades for your car, as well as repair and tweak specific parts. The amount of tweaking you are allowed to do is limited to pre-determined settings. For instance, rather than changing the height of your suspension to a specific inch, you are given the choice of high, medium, or low. To the game's credit, there are quite a few different factors to change, but the possibilities could have been endless if specifics were addressed. Buying parts is an easy affair, as the menus will tell you how each part will affect your performance with a percentage meter. Changes can be made to the engine, transmission, tires, drive train, and even a gps can be purchased to map out the courses. It's also worthy to note that customization is necessary to win races, because your car will respond poorly to weather and road condition changes if you do not. Lastly, along with the retail game, Techland has included the “ChromeEd” track building kit. This allows you to build your own tracks, and lets you use any car in the game to test it out. A nice feature for the mapper, but a pointless extra for the common man.
One of the biggest downfalls of the game is the lack of licensing. Although visually similar to cars you've come to know and love, these cars are complete spin-offs. For example, one of the first cars available to you is called the “tiny hooper”. This car is nearly a near mirror image of the Mini-Cooper, but I am not certain if their performance is parallel to their counter-part. Other imitations include the Suburu WRX, and the Ford Focus made famous by Colin McRae. Hopefully, with the success of this game, these companies will contribute their cars in any impending sequels.
Xpand Rally is a fine example of what is possible with today's graphic technology. The visuals are absolutely breathtaking, whether it is the incredible lighting effects, lush environments, or the fine details that are often overlooked by other games, XR delivers. Nothing has been overlooked, including small scrapes you'll see on the side of your vehicle when brushing against a wall, or dust residue covering your windows when going through the desert areas of the game. The realism isn't limited to the environments, but also to your car. If you hit objects, your car will perform accordingly to the damage received. This means you can lose your tires, headlights, quarter panels, and see it reflected in how your car handles and performs. It' is rather entertaining taking your vehicle off road, and seeing just how far you can destroy your car, and attempt to finish the race. If there is one complaint to be made, the game is a bit too clean looking. Although the environments and cars look great, when melded together they tend to create a degree of separation. It sometimes feels as though you are riding on top of the environments rather than through them. Of course, factors such as snow and water will change how you move, visually it just doesn't seem to connect. All problems aside, Techland tries to extrapolate the photorealism of racing games as we know it, and have succeeded marvelously.
Audio in Xpand Rally is rather slim, but what is there works. The rock-influenced electro-garb Music is limited to menu screens, and after race results, which in effect is a good thing. I may be a purist, but I don't really like to hear music during my races, as I would rather focus on the ambiance and track. On the other hand, the sounds emanating from your engine are rather well done, and appropriate. You will hear shift changes, and pitch differentiations as you fly over hills and cruise through water. Even though the cars are not licensed, it seems as though they captured the sounds of each licensed counter-part quite well. Nothing groundbreaking here, but what do you expect from a racing game?
The addition of multiplayer adds a great deal of replayability to the game, yet has a number of problems. You are given the choice to either set up a LAN game, or go online and strut (get it?) your stuff against the world. Although races can be fun, there is not a whole lot you can do here. Basically you can either race a track, or race a number of tracks in succession until you have a winner. The inclusion of other game types, and extended customization could have added a great deal to the experience of playing online. Furthermore, games were a bit hard to find. I'm aware the game has only been released in Europe, but I thought more people would be playing by now.
Xpand Rally is a great game for those who are interested in the genre. For anyone who dislikes racing games, there is nothing new here to change your mind, but for everyone else, this is a very commendable offering. As aforementioned, the game is currently only released in Europe, but there is always a possibility for an American or worldwide release. Until then, you can get dizzy watching NASCAR, but I don't advise getting dizzy “drinking” NASCAR.