Kicking off in 1995, the Sega Rally Championship franchise has long stood among the best that arcade racing has to offer. It didn't enjoy a wealth of sequels like most great games do, but it made for great games any time Sega chose to build one.
In 2007, Sega did it again, putting the newly-formed "Sega Racing Studio" to work on a pair of titles that would run side by side: Sega Rally 3 for the arcades, and Sega Rally Revo for the home consoles. These were actually companion titles, having a few courses in common, as well as the same basic gameplay. Revo had a wealth of content, numerous leagues to perfect, cars to unlock, and courses to memorize. 3 had only a small handful of courses and focused entirely on the core racing component. Revo was a commercial and critical flop, causing Sega to prematurely hand the studio over to Codemasters. 3 enjoyed the same success in arcades as did its predecessors, at times coming off as having no association whatsoever to its console counterpart.
Enter Sega Rally Online Arcade, recently released on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. SROA is essentially a console port of Sega Rally 3, and it really is the game we should have gotten all along.
What's it about?
At its core, Sega Rally Online Arcade is a straight-up Sega Rally title with an enhanced online component. This gives players a variety of ways to play. Championship Mode is the heart-and-soul of single-player Sega Rally in the arcades. You start on the back end of a 22-car grid and grind your way to the front over the course of three races. Should you finish in first place, you're "treated" to a fourth course – a boss duel on the poorly-lit, stiff-curbed widowmaker of a course known (and dreaded) by long-time fans of the series as Lakeside. The addition of Lakeside is a cold-turkey, punch-in-the-face declaration of SROA's preference of arcade sensibilities over console, and there are some achievements and unlockables tied to it, so be ready to practice up.
Single-player is rounded out by the typical Quick Race and Time Attack modes, as well as a classic challenge that has players tackle the original Desert course from Sega Rally '95, where they select one of the two cars from that game in a duel with the other. It's great nostalgia, but it's a shame that Desert is only used as a side attraction, as it's still solid enough to hold up with the other four tracks that comprise SROA.
Of course, when you subtitle your game "Online Arcade", you're explicitly making online play the focus, and Sega Rally does not disappoint. That's not to say it overcompensates, but it does deliver everything that's needed to complement a game like this. The core online multiplayer represents head-to-head arcade racing at its finest, and even the Time Attack Mode becomes extremely competitive with the inclusion of downloadable ghosts.
Why should I care?
A lot of racing games are touted as "arcade-style" when in fact there is a world of difference between them and actual arcade racers – locked content, cumbersome controls, and so many tracks that you could never memorize them all without devoting yourself to the game. Those are just a few of the things separating so-called "arcade" racers from the real deal. Revo was guilty of this, too. SROA is not. SROA is approachable and straightforward, showing you all there is to see from the beginning, believing enough in its core gameplay to keep you interested rather than withholding content to keep you captive. That isn't to say there aren't unlockables, just none so profound that you have to become a perfect player (or even a particularly good one) in order to see all there is to see.
Instead, SROA focuses on keeping the player interested through competition – whether against the AI in championship mode or quick races, or against human competition in online matches and time attacks. Rest assured, if SROA gets its hooks into you, you'll soon discover that it will take more than a few casual drives through the game's handful of tracks to even come close to truly mastering them. That is the essence of arcade racing, and that is the strength that SROA plays to beautifully.
What makes it worth my time and money?
Think of SROA and Revo as two sides of the same coin. If you're looking to get your hands on every bit of content you possibly can, and don't care so much about the arcade racing experience, it might be more to your benefit to search your local bargain bins for a copy of Revo. On the other hand, if you value the arcade approach to racing games, and prefer the "minute to learn, ages to master" mentality of arcade gaming in general, or if you were put off by Revo's heavily-consolized approach, SROA is one of the better experiences $10 will get you on Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network.