Many, many years ago I won a competition at high school, for which the prize was a cheque for £17. I’m not sure why it was such a strange sum, but it was just the right amount to purchase a used copy of V-Rally from a local video game store. Released in the late 90s, the halcyon days of the original PlayStation, this was a rich time for rally games. V-Rally actually pre-dates the genre defining Colin Mcrae Rally and helped rallying become a mainstream sport for a whole new generation of fans.
There were two sequels, columinating in V-Rally 3 — surprisingly I prefered the Game Boy Advance version to the PlayStation 2 edition — and then the series died. Fast forward a whole 16 years since the third game and we have a new game in the V-Rally franchise, V-Rally 4, though finding it on the shelves of a HMV is much less likely.
Developed by Kylotonn Games, the team has eschewed developing the yearly official game of the World Rally Championship in favour of an established video game franchise with a greater degree of individuality and nostalgia. For some, just the name alone will bring back whimsical memories of watching a rally car flip through the air due to a small collision with a solid piece of polygonal grass. I can see how the sales potential may be higher on paper, but I suspect for many, the name won’t mean a thing. It has been too long between drinks, and it’s not like the original V-Rally games are held in especially high esteemed.
Getting up to speed in 2018, V-Rally 4 is not just point-to-point rallying with a co-driver anymore. It adds hillclimbs, buggy racing, rallycross (called ‘V-Rally Cross’) and gymkhana (‘Extreme-Khana’). V-Rally mode is where you will spend most of your time and here you will have to hire mechanics, agents and engineers to your team, purchase cars, enter events, upgrade cars, enter more events, buy new cars and eventually become champion of the world across all categories. So far, so DiRT. You even pay team members and repair bills out of your prize money, akin to the Codemasters series.
Except, this game isn’t like DiRT in one key, crucial, area: the vehicle handling. Using a steering wheel, you’ll find yourself zigzagging down a straight line as though you were wheel sawing in a 1950s movie. Playing with the sensitivity settings does eradicate an element of this, but overall the balance still isn’t ideal. Once you have turned into a corner, the feedback weighs up and the handling is a physical challenge. It’s more meaty than you would expect and at the more serious end of arcade physics.
Using a controller is smoother, but can be too pointy in certain vehicles, leading you to miss the ideal line through a corner as you’ve turned too early or arrive at a hairpin backwards. No matter what type of input device you use, the front wheel and all wheel drive rally cars and the rallycross cars seem to oversteer just a little too much.
Such control inconsistencies are a shame, because there is so much here that is refreshing. Lacking official licenses of real-life tracks, courses have been created in some unusual places. The hillclimb courses in China and Romania appear to be loosely based around Tianmen Mountain and the Transfăgărășan Highway. Both stand out as visual treats, with detailed surroundings and often spectacular views. Rallying through Monument Valley sounds daft at first, but certain elements through vast cuttings look absolutely brilliant, and if you want to take a break from it all, you can pull up and soak in the view when you’re meant to be rallying across a Malaysian beach. It makes you wish for actual racing events in these locations. The lighting effects, especially on an evening or early morning, are of the highest quality.
A rally fan will be beside themselves with the car variety on offer here, but the buggy racing is a real highlight. There are hints of MotorStorm, as the developer has taken the best elements of a game they released last year, FlatOut 4: Total Insanity, with a similar track layout and style of vehicle damage that really packs a punch, but added new environments. The tracks are enjoyable, the buggys are loud and the action visceral.
Extreme-Khana is almost like you are playing a completely different game altogether. The aim is to drift your way around a stunt course, jumping over obstacles and smashing through buildings to beat a time. There could be a whole game spun-off from this mode alone. Both buggies and Extreme-Khana are at odds, however, with the more serious rallying tone that makes up the majority of the game.
Back to the career mode, alongside the team management and vehicle maintenance, there are of course the actual events. They pop up on a map of the world, with a small coloured icon indicating what type of event is available across the different discipline types. Strangely, there isn’t a clear progression path, just more events. In other video games, for example, there is a calendar of races or a career tree with clear goals. V-Rally 4 doesn’t really have that.
You know your goal is to win everything, but events disappear once you have completed them and there is no way of seeing what is next or how long the route ahead is. You start out by doing single-stage or one race events, before tackling championships later on, but again, there is no obvious telling when they arrive or how you are meant to become the overall world champion.
Additionally, cars are available to buy across different classes, with each subsequent class being faster and more expensive. In order to unlock the quicker cars, you need to buy the slower ones. You could save up your race winnings for a class seven ride, but you’re forced to blow it all on class two and three machinery first. I wish they were all available to buy from the off or unlocked through winning races instead.
You also can’t see which class of car you will be racing against. There is a difficulty rating represented by stars, but you can rock up in a class one car for a one star event and get thrashed because you are competing against quicker cars, or you could walk a two star event because you are against similar vehicles. It’s a very odd system, that makes it feel like more of a trudge than perhaps it actually is.
By far the worse element of V-Rally 4, however, is the music. In the career, there is one single song that repeats on an endless loop and is enough to make you lose your marbles.
Racing online, in particular in ‘V-Rally Cross’ events, is hectic and chaotic. It can be a huge amount of fun, but just as with the rest of the game, V-Rally 4 gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Lobbies require each and every member to ready up before the race will start, leading to a frustrating wait at times, especially if people are hopping in and out of the room. I also kept losing connection to lobbies, so it will be interesting to see how they hold up with the extra traffic come release.
Lacking the precision required to tantalize the more serious racing fan, but perhaps too much of a challenge for many, V-Rally 4 is packed to the brim with nice ideas and potential, but just as many annoyances. Sadly, in this competitive marketplace, it is stuck in a ditch. The strange layout of the career mode and iffy handling model do their very best to put a downer on things, but I really hope Kylotonn has the resources to build upon this effort and provide something that can take the fight to the very best racing games in the future.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One, and coming soon to PC and Nintendo Switch