“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. So goes the ancient maxim, and it’s one that applies to video games just as much as anything else. Franchises like FIFA, Madden and Assassin’s Creed consistently refuse to reinvent the wheel as far as their core mechanics are concerned, and they’ve all done pretty well for themselves. If something isn’t flawed, then don’t try to fix its flaws, because you might end up creating new ones along the way.
One wonders whether this is an aphorism that could be applied to the V-Rally series. This venerable set of racing titles stretches all the way back to 1997, when the first game (simply titled V-Rally) made its way to the original PlayStation. Two sequels followed in reasonably quick succession, and then the series was allowed to lay dormant for several years, presumably in order to gather its strength and fend off the coming Need for Speed apocalypse.
Fastforward to 2018 and, against all odds, V-Rally 4 darkens our humble PS4’s starting line. The original appeared during a slew of similar titles including Sega Rally, Colin McRae Rally and others. The rally racing genre has never really gone away; intermittently, we’ve had DiRT Rally and Gran Turismo Sport carrying the torch to varying degrees of authenticity, while the influence of V-Rally and its ilk can be found in all kinds of modern racing games.
Whether or not that will add up to a good game remains to be seen, though. The original V-Rally has the distinct advantage of being ancient, so any of its control quirks and graphical foibles can be forgiven or chalked up to pioneering new ground. This time around, development is being handled by WRC developers Kylotonn, so there’s some pedigree here. Can V-Rally transcend its humble origins and establish itself as a relevant player in the modern market?
One thing that immediately struck us as a breath of fresh air was V-Rally 4’s relative lack of licensed content. Too many developers are stifled by the constraints of realism these days; being strictly beholden to a perfect replica of the Nurburgring makes it impossible to really go to town on creating new, innovative and interesting courses from scratch. V-Rally 4 intends to hark back to the glory days of classic racers (of which it wants to be one), so just like those games, it’s all coy representations of real-world locations, although there is a smattering of licensed cars to choose from if you’re that way inclined.
Unfortunately, that desire to replicate the old-school ways also extends to V-Rally 4’s gameplay. Whether or not you think this particular “it” needs to be fixed depends entirely on whether you think the original V-Rally’s controls were good or not. If you liked the slightly more arcade-style handling of the vehicles and didn’t mind their more gravity-defying moments, then you’re quids in here, because V-Rally 4 maintains the control scheme and feel of the original to a tee.
What this means in practical terms is that you’ll slide around all over the place while you get to grips with cars that don’t feel so much like cars as pieces of paper being thrown around on the wind. Expect to crash frequently while you acclimate to the controls; those of you who remember the original PS1 Colin McRae Rally should be intimately familiar with this process already, so no biggie. In fact, V-Rally 4 feels closer to the aforementioned Sega Rally, all scrappy and ready to prove itself to an audience increasingly obsessed with verisimilitude.
Since V-Rally 4 is an old-school game, it’s got a bunch of old-school modes packed into it, as well. There’s your standard career mode, which will be familiar to anybody who’s played DiRT or Codemasters’ GRID series (which itself sprung from the ashes of TOCA Touring Cars, another old stalwart to which V-Rally 4 hopes to hark back). There’s a welcome stunt mode, in which you’ll put your vehicle of choice through a series of rigorous mastery tests to demonstrate that you have a handle on the handling, so to speak. There’s rallycross, which should appeal to the speed demons out there, although don’t expect too much of a challenge. All the elements are in place for a solid performance-class racing game that tickles the fancy of the enthusiast while drawing the attention of the novice.
Despite that, though, there’s just something about V-Rally 4 that doesn’t quite come off as it should. Perhaps it’s because in the search for ultimate realism, developers have been forced to improve the handling of their vehicles to the point where we’ve become spoiled. Maybe it’s the lack of a rewind feature, so beloved in franchises like Forza and GRID. Maybe it’s the fact that the modes don’t quite cohere, with each of them feeling like a distinct entity that could have been a prototype for a different game.
We really, really want to like V-Rally 4, and that goes a heck of a long way towards making it so. There’s a lovable derring-do to the game, a feeling of me-against-the-world unapologetic primalism that calls to mind a misspent childhood scoffing too many sweets and hammering the (non-DualShock, natch) PS1 controller helplessly as our rally car drifted stupidly into a nearby bit of bunting. V-Rally 4 has an unmistakable retro spirit; its handling, courses and disparate modes make it feel like, well, a video game rather than a simulation.
With that said, there just isn’t quite enough here to recommend it over other, perhaps more accomplished entries into the genre. If you’re a rally aficionado, you’ve already had your fill of DiRT and WRC, and you’re after something a bit more straightforward and a bit less simulation-y, then V-Rally 4 is the game for you. The problem is, we’re just not sure how many people fit into that Venn diagram. To close with a racing pun, we don’t know if V-Rally 4 has the grip to stay on course in the face of overwhelming competition.