Ever wondered what happened to racing games viewed from above? They used to be huge hits back in the heydays of 2D (or even the very beginning of 3D games, the first GTA was viewed from above). Yet they have completely disappeared by now. Well, almost. With Art of Rally, we get a surprising new take on a very popular racing genre. And despite what the trailer might have suggested, it does not play at all like Dirt Rally or anything in the Dirt series for that matter.
The whole game takes a very minimalist approach. Menus are simple (black text on white without any kind of decoration), and all tracks use few main colors and almost no textures to depict the race and its environment. Visually, I do find it pleasant. It helps you focus on the core of the game, the driving, like the early 8-bit games which could not display much apart from the road.
As you start playing, everything is organized by seasons and each season consists of a few rally tracks to complete. Most tracks are pretty short, between 2 to 5 minutes of continuous driving (no laps). Easy to advance even if you don’t have hours in front of you.
Each season represents a year in time and you get a selection of cars more or less fitting with what was available to race during that year. There’s no brands mentioned but the trained eye will recognize them very easily. As you win races of finish seasons you unlock new cars with different looks and characteristics.
Now, what kind of rally experience should you expect? Quite different from what you may be used to. Because of the top-view approach, you can see all curves coming to you ahead of time, so there’s not really a need for a co-pilot to shout “5 left, 3 right” as you drive. Actually, it would be useful when you drive really fast, but the devs decided not to include it.
Now how is the driving? Is it just right? That’s always a tricky subject, somewhat subjective depending on what you expect from a game in general and if you like simulations more than arcade games. Well, Art of Rally is certainly NOT in the arcade category. Driving takes practice, and you may end up in the trees more often than you’d like. It also really depends on the car you pick. Some cars drive ok, others like la wedge are simply horrible to handle. Swerving left or right will make the car drift in an uncontrollable way. I don’t know what they were thinking there.
Drifting is a key mechanic here, make no mistake. I am not sure it’s implemented very well, both on dirt tracks as well as regular roads. It feels like cars a drifting way more than they should at the speed they are at.
So I find myself fighting with the controls to keep my car on the road rather than focusing on making perfect curves and increasing my speed. But hey, a lot of people seem to enjoy the way Art of Rally works, so I may be completely wrong. Juts speaking from my 30 years of driving in video games and almost as much on actual roads in actual cars, you know.
The environment looks great, while they are certainly more fiction than accurate. For example, in Japan, they keep making you drive in mountains filled with cherry blossoms, on DIRT TRACKS. This is madness. Cherry blossoms means lots of tourists, and you can bet the Japanese will make their roads nice and new when they attract a lot of people. Don’t expect any dirt tracks, despite what Art of Rally depicts. And Japanese mountains are a lot more rocky and dangerous than the hills pictured here. But let’s not nitpick here, it’s fairly obvious that the tracks are just made to set the stage, not represent anything accurately.
However, I do care a little more about the roads. When driving on dirt tracks, such roads and trails appear to be perfectly flat just like regular roads, which removes most of the fun. Rally is all about bumps, uneven surfaces, and holes filled with puddles. Instead, dirt tracks feel different than regular roads, but in a programmatic way: the surface properties will change but there’s no real visual cue that they differ apart from their colors and shades.
If you venture a little too much out of bounds, your car will be put back automatically on track with some penalty (+5 seconds on your timer) – this is fair but sometimes it feels a little too stringent (a little too close to the track) as drifting a little too fast will easily send you far enough off the road.
There’s also some silly tracks like this one in Germany where the road is bordered by tombstones on each side, making it perilous to even slightly touch the sides. Collisions will result in damaging your car, and once every 2 stages you can use some repairs if needed. Not sure how relevant this addition is: most of the times I never even used half of the repair points – in Dirt 4, for example, one bad collision could ruin your car and make it very difficult for you to perform. The settings can be adjusted in Art of Rally, but by default it is very forgiving – which is strange as the driving is not.
Art of Rally, however, succeeds in bringing some of the Rally feeling with spectators (pictured as colored cubes) around the track, moving away from the car as you approach. Don’t expect GTA or Carmageddon here: you will never be able to actually hit them – but it’s a lot closer to what you see in most Rally games where spectators are just static objects with a few animation keyframes.
There’s some critical details lacking to make driving a little more enjoyable. Passing through the different checkpoints in each track give you no information whatsoever about how you are doing versus the other drivers. So you only find out if you did well at the very end of the track. In Dirt Rally or other games in the series, intermediate timings acted as an additional motivation to do better and speed up in case you noticed you were slower than the rest. This is really missing here.
They should also have added other cars once in a while on the track. In Dirt, they had the good idea to sometimes give you an alert that an earlier car ahead of you had crashed so that you would avoid potential collisions as you pass them: this kind of detail does not seem like much but they contribute to making everything more believable. Here, competitors don’t physically exist and it feels like you are fighting against a fake AI without ever seeing it.
As you can see, I’m a little torn so far with the driving and the overall mechanics, while the environments make the genre look fresh and colorful. There’s one more element that I really need to point out.
The Linux native client has a very poor performance. To be fair, it has improved a little since the earlier builds of the game, but still I could not get smooth framerates with a GTX970 at medium settings in Full HD. I also had to forget about going above low settings on a GTX1060 on my ultra wide display with higher resolution.
I have to wonder what’s happening under the hood as there is nothing too impressive going on on-screen. The trees are probably to blame, but even then, how can a game like Dirt 4 on the same hardware run at 60 fps while this one struggles to even display half as much? Lack of optimization? There’s something going on.
Running the Windows client in Proton gives a much appreciated boost in performance, while it’s still far from what I would consider smooth on said hardware. At least with Proton you can consistently hit 60 fps and add some more graphical details. Note that at the time of writing I had to use a specific Proton GE version to make it run (Proton-5.9-GE-3-ST).
Bad performance is damning in a racing game, as it means your reaction time will be negatively impacted as frame rates drop.
Art of Rally looked like a refreshing take on the Rally genre, yet the driving is somewhat off and more difficult than it should be. Driving alone on roads, without a copilot, is also not too exciting after a while. The lack of voice over is probably deliberate, but makes the whole package feel a little artificial and impersonal. I would like to see some intermediate goals. Some unexpected challenges. Something to look forward to and break from the monotony. Sure, there’s additional game modes (time attack, online events) but that’s more of the same. The addition of a roaming mode is a nice bonus – it feels like a sandbox if you just want to drive without any particular goal.
The way racing games are changing out there also raises the bar for anyone now. You have the F1 20xx games with full RPG elements on top of a solid driving experience, the Dirt Rally titles with minute precision driving, the Dirt canonical series somewhat more arcade with a lot more content and many styles of events… and of course full fledged simulations like rFactor at the other end of the spectrum.
The recent HotShot Racing is successful in bringing back the arcade racing genre while everyone else has gone full Gran Turismo mode (HotShot Racing nevertheless fails at providing a compelling driving challenge). Art of Rally also managed to find its own unique visual identity, with vivid colors and a focus on beautiful exteriors.
Too bad the driving is not as fun as the game looks.
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