It’s been an, uh, interesting year for rally games. Dirt 5, which was already kind of superfluous given the amount of content in Dirt 4, took a new direction…and then drove right into a ditch. WRC9 continued that series’ remarkable campaign mode, which shifts the traditional caRPG structure from RP’ing as your favorite car to RP’ing as a rally team that’s not necessarily concerned with any specific car. But what’s been most interesting this year is a joyous and seemingly tiny rally racing game unlike any other.
Art of Rally, made from the Unity engine with the kind of care that goes into hardcore origami, is one of the most beautiful games you can play in 2020. One of the other most beautiful games of 2020, The Falconeer, is also made with the Unity engine. I can say about both of them something I can’t say about many Unity games: they look too good to play in a window. Fullscreen or nothing. Go ultrawide or go home. Cyberpunk’s confetti-colored neon city and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’s sun-drenched English fields have nothing on Art of Rally and Falconeer.
Art of Rally is played from a very third-person perspective. But this isn’t merely an external view. It’s a shift in focus. It intentionally pulls the view back from the car and up from the road, to let in more of the world. And not just the part of the world relevant to your stage time. This bird’s eye view isn’t about situational awareness to help you get a better stage time; it’s about sharing the scenery. Art of Rally wants to devote its real estate to, well, the real estate. The cars might be at the center, but the places where they drive are at the forefront.
It reminds me of paintings in which the human figures are tiny, all but swallowed by the landscape in deference to nature. Art of Rally adopts this pastoral approach to rally racing. The courses in Scandinavia, Japan, Germany, and Italy are in love with light and trees and patches of architecture. Finland’s austere frozen lakes and Japan’s regal mountain switchbacks are majestic hosts to their tiny visitors. The level designers drench the landscape in simple saturated colors and sprinkle it with reindeer or cattle. Sometimes clusters of cheering spectators honk clown horns and blow whistles while crowding the road to get a closer look at a car. This is a game about quiet drives through lovely countrysides with bursts of enthusiasm along the way. It’s simple and all the more beautiful for its simplicity. The stick-figure crowds are the game itself in a microcosm: a simple expression of sheer ebullience.
From this shift in focus, you might assume this is a whimsical racing game that treats its cars like toys. Which it kind of does. The cars are absolutely adorable in Unity and in miniature. Their descriptions (more on these in a moment) are full of humor and affection. But that doesn’t mean Art of Rally is an arcade game about toys. If you turn off the assists, you’re playing a serious racing game with a serious driving model. Grip, weight, inertia, understeer, oversteer, and all that serious stuff in other serious games is clearly at play. The damage model will gladly ruin your steering, gimp your engine, or even entirely trash your car. And the jumps in Art of Rally! For such a cute little game, I love how the resolute weight you feel in these jumps. Never has getting air been so dangerously tempting!
(As a side note, I have no idea why a rally racing game even bothers with assists. Rally racing is about surfing the limits of control without actually losing control. So why would you tell the game to automatically keep you within the limits of control? Rally racing with drive assists is like bowling with gutter guards. And don’t get me started on automatic transmissions! Playing a racing game with automatic transmission is like playing a shooter with guns that don’t have to reload. Sure, it’s going to be easier, but you’ve removed a fundamental rhythm from the action you’re imitating. You’ve taken the beat out of the melody. You’ve turned the act of driving into the act of steering.)
You wouldn’t know from the oh-so-precious screenshots, but Art of Rally is a serious rally game. And it’s seriously interested in the history of rally racing more than a driver or team’s supposed career. Its career mode isn’t about leveling up your car. It’s about introducing you to the stages of development in rally racing. But not from the perspective of a gearhead. You can’t set gear ratios or camber or even choose your tires. This is a game played from the perspective of a fan, a cheering spectator, an enthusiast. I’ve played a ton of rally games, but none of them has accidentally taught me about the history of the sport.
The career mode, like many career modes, starts you with an easy-to-drive underpowered car. But that’s because it starts you in 1967, as rally racing started getting serious enough for regulations. As automobile manufacturers started getting involved as sponsors. The average caRPG might give you one of the early cars from this era, expecting you to get attached to it and upgrade it, before eventually growing out of it and leveling up to a more powerful car. But your car options, like time, march on in Art of Rally. Once you’ve driven the 1967 race, it moves you on to 1968, then 1969, and so on. As you move into different eras, your choice of cars shifts. You don’t own any of these. You just pick the one you want to drive that year. Your perspective isn’t the cockpit in a specific car. Your perspective is the state of the sport in a specific year.
Although it’s invested in history, Art of Rally doesn’t bother with licensing, and it uses this as an opportunity for a lovely bit of playfulness. As sponsorships start to appear, they aren’t for recognizable name brands. Instead, they’re for companies like Oil, Petrol, Exhaust, Stopp, and my personal favorite, MetalTubing. When rally racing starts to allow sponsorships from tobacco and alcohol in 1977, you’ll see banners for Six Cans. On a similarly tongue-in-cheek note, check the drivers’ times after a race. Some of them make excuses for their poor showing.
Some excuses are more dire than others.
You should have thought of that before you left, Keiichi. This playfulness is even more pronounced with the cars. Rather than licensing actual car names, Art of Rally dances around the issue. The Mazda RX is called “The Rotary”, for its distinctive rotary engine. The Alpine is called “La Montaine”. The Porsche 911 is called “Der 119”. The Peugeot 502 is called “Le 205”. I love that some of these names acknowledge the nationality of the car. Art of Rally drives home how this is a national pastime for a handful of nations. And I especially appreciate the humor in the write-ups for each car. If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I have to share a couple of these. Here’s the blurb for Germany’s BMW M3:
Not even the Germans! Here’s the blurb for the 1980 Alfa Romeo that introduced Italy to turbochargers:
A little-known fact about the 1967 Renault:
A fascinating detail about the Lancia Fulvia:
I’ve been driving my Lancia Fulvia in Dirt 4 for months and I had no idea! I’ve never read a book about sports, but if these guys wrote a book about the history of rally racing, I’d read it.
And you can tell by driving the cars that the developers care about the details. These cars have character. This is where Art of Rally first grabbed my attention. When you try different cars, and feel how differently they drive, you know this is no cutesy arcade racer. And especially as you advance through the years in the campaign mode and feel the cars get more powerful, but no less distinct from each other. This is another strong point in Art of Rally: how it lets you freely sample different cars. Plenty of rally games let you upgrade your car to give you a sense for the progressing power of the sport. But since most of them ask you to invest in a single car, upgrading it as you play, most of them don’t have much range. But Art of Rally isn’t just about your favorite car getting better. It’s about celebrating the sport’s diversity. It’s about appreciating the different character of its various cars.
And they also sing! Boy, do these cars sing full-throated songs of rally racing! The sounds effects for each car are wonderfully pronounced, and also a part of the historical progression through the years. You go from the simple burrrrr of early engines to the complicated pops and wheezes and sneezes and chitters of more complex engines. When I got to 1980, Art of Rally finally made me look up what the heck that soggy cricket sound was. I’d heard it in racing games for as long as I can remember, a kind of cheerful but squishy chirp, but I never knew what it was. I learned it’s part of the turbocharger. It’s an anti-lag system kicking in to keep the turbine spinning when I ease up on the gas. I now find it even more endearing than the ping of an M1 Garand’s clip ejecting.
What I like most about Art of Rally, and what truly sets it apart from the other rally games I play, is that it’s relaxing. Rally racing is unique for being more solitary. You’re not physically jostling with the other cars. You’re jostling with their stage times, but not their actual cars. No one’s bumper is in your face. No one is looming in your rear view mirror. It’s just you doing the best you can with the car you have and the road you’re on.
But even then, I find rally racing exhausting for a couple of reasons. As I mentioned, it’s about holding your car at the limits of control. If you’re going as fast as you can, you’re constantly on the verge of wiping out. And an immersive rally racing game will make you feel this. Your car vibrates and rattles like it’s about to fall apart. The steering yanks and pulls and shimmies. The roads are uneven or slick. Sometimes they’re uneven and slick. You’re driving dangerously on surfaces that don’t support driving dangerously. These roads hate you. They want to throw you into a ditch. Or against one of the trees lurking beside the road. Or off a precipice.
And then there’s the issue of the co-driver. I imagine most rally racers have a love/hate relationship with their co-drivers. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with someone in the passenger seat shouting instructions at me. I’ve finally learned their language. What was most helpful for me was to think of a curve’s number as the gear you want to be in when you enter the curve. More or less. Now that I’m fluent in co-driver, they’ve become an indispensable part of the process (although I still hear “tightens” as a warning that there are “Titans!” up ahead). But in addition to the white-knuckle sensation of constantly being about to wreck, what’s exhausting about rally racing is that my head is always at the limit of how much shouted information it can process. Just like the rally car is on the verge of losing control, my brain is on the verge of a buffer overflow. I’m a syllable or two from the whole thing shorting out.
But Art of Rally doesn’t have a co-driver. At least it doesn’t have a co-driver shouting instructions into my brain. Instead, I look at the pulled back and on-high third-person view as visual language for my co-driver’s instructions. Instead of verbally inserting the track into my brain, one piece at a time as if it were built from parts out of a toybox, Art of Rally just shows me what the co-driver would tell me. It’s way less stressful for my brain. I’m never on the verge of buffer overflow. So to me, it’s not that Art of Rally doesn’t have co-drivers; it’s that it has far more efficient and soothing co-drivers. These are the kind of co-drivers I want on a rally race or a road trip. Just shut up and put the track directly into my head with pretty graphics. Ahhhh. Much better.
It’s the perfect illustration of how Art of Rally might be quaint, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. It might not have all the detail a gearhead expects, but that doesn’t mean it’s superficial. The cars might look like toys, but the driving model is no joke. It might not have a first-person view, or upgradable cars, or a career mode RPG, or demanding graphics, or product placement, or a shouting co-driver, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a rally racing game. Instead, it’s an adoring and adorable idyll about taking a relaxing drive through a lovely countryside, and doing it as fast as you can.
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