The PC gaming industry hasn't always been dominated by modern-day megapublishers such as Electronic Arts and Microsoft. Before all the acquisitions and big-dollar bottom lines, the landscape was dotted with dozens of small, independent development houses that designed games in accordance with their own rules and guidelines. The results were often erratic, yet just as often exciting and original. Austrian-based publisher JoWood Productions takes us back to the best of those times with its first automobile racing game, Rally Trophy. Developed by Finland's Bugbear Entertainment, Rally Trophy is clearly designed to appeal to a niche market. The game focuses on the obscure discipline of solo rally racing, and from a historical perspective. If you enjoy this generally lonely style of driving and can appreciate the game's seriously challenging physics model and unique viewpoint, Rally Trophy will take you on a journey that ranks right up there with the best the genre has to offer.
Unlike most fender-banging PC racing games, Rally Trophy imitates the art of true European rallying. As such, it is essentially a series of perilous time trials in which competitors are released one at a time and asked to negotiate long and sometimes outrageously twisty bits of back road. Apart from a codriver, who incessantly conveys the direction and degree of upcoming turns, you're alone on the track and racing solely against the clock and the posted times of your peers. The game deviates from real-world rallying in that it always positions you as the final entrant and unfortunately doesn't actually let you encounter slower or faster competitors. Yet it is very real in almost ever other sense.
Most drivers will need only a few stints behind the wheel to realize that this Finnish import is one of the most demanding PC racing games currently in circulation. For starters, the courses are almost sadistic in nature. Even with your codriver advising on the degree and proximity of the next turn, you'll never really know exactly what to expect until you get there. Drive a given segment a dozen times, and the game's collection of twists, combinations, elevation changes, and surface variations will keep you guessing. And if you do venture off the beaten path, you may well encounter any number of roadside hazards. Trees and boulders stop you dead in your tracks, ditches suck you in and then spit you up into the air if you exit too quickly, and various forms of smaller hazards wreak havoc with your traction. Sometimes you may even find yourself driving across a great open plain with nary an obstacle in sight. It is important to note that despite their generally unforgiving nature, all of the courses mimic real-life terrain and never feel awkward or artificially cramped or exaggerated. Bugbear has also fashioned enough drivable run-off space on either side of the roadway--space where you can quite easily turn around or go for a little off-road jaunt without ever contacting that final off-limits boundary.
As unpredictable as they are, the courses are also very, very long. Rallies are typically driven in stages, several of which make up each event. In Rally Trophy, much like in last year's Mobil 1 Rally Championship, each segment can eat up several minutes. With 42 total stages and a good chance you'll need dozens of attempts to nail each one, campaigning the full championship is truly a grueling exercise. Add to this the frequent night and rain stages, each of which impacts your top speed and handling in a variety of ways. Even die-hard rally enthusiasts will find the going tough.
Between stages, you'll be compelled to repair the various bumps and bruises that your car has accrued. Although Rally Trophy vehicles somehow emerge relatively unscathed from full end-overs and never shed parts or morph into the tangled hunks of wreckage seen in that other rally favorite, Colin McRae Rally 2.0, they do suffer a variety of bent bumpers, buckled hoods, cracked windshields, dinged fenders, and broken headlights and taillights. Various mechanical characteristics are also affected by abuse, so it is strongly recommended to keep your car safe and far away from ruts and hazards if you don't want to spend precious postevent repair time fixing equipment that shouldn't have been damaged in the first place. And remember, though your tires never detach or pop and always seem to look in good working order, they too will degrade with time and mistreatment.