The Switch isn’t lacking when it comes to racing games, but there’s one particular subsection of the genre in which it’s been left wanting so far: rally games. The current king of rally in the gaming world is Codemasters, but it’s been slow to support the Switch and its first offering (coming in 2019) will be a port of 2014’s GRID Autosport, which isn’t a rally game.
Step forward French developer Hylotonn, who’s been responsible for the previous three official World Rally Championship games and now wants to resurrect a much-loved rally series that’s been lying dormant for a decade and a half. The third instalment of V-Rally launched on the GameCube back in 2003: fifteen years later, does V-Rally 4 bring the series roaring into the current generation? You can’t see us, but we’re shrugging our shoulders just now.
The main meat of V-Rally 4 is its career mode, where you buy a rally car and start entering various single races and multi-race tournaments in order to afford better vehicles and upgrades. This money can also be used to improve your repair and research staff, letting you fix your cars cheaper and get better parts for them respectively. It’s all fairly straightforward stuff, even if the UI is a little unwieldy at times.
The main gimmick here that separates the fourth game from its predecessors, however, is that – in an apparent nod to Codies’ DIRT series – there are different types of rally racing on offer here, each with their own fleet of suitable vehicles to buy and upgrade. Naturally, the most obvious (and the one you kick off your career with) is standard rally racing, where you race alone and have to beat a set course as quickly as possible, with the winner being the driver who clears the stage the fastest.
There are two other types of solo racing, Hillclimb (where the tracks you race on have a steady upwards incline) and Extreme-Khana (where you take on more acrobatic courses with things like banked turns, jumps and doughnut turns). The former is good fun, the latter is rubbish; your car’s handling isn’t really sturdy enough to stop it turning into a bit of an annoying mess.
Finally, there are two disciplines that involve racing against other cars. V-Rally Cross is similar to Rally except it’s a standard lap-based event where you race other opponents at the same time. Buggy is similar, except you’re racing in... actually, we’ll let you figure that one out. These events are fun to a degree, although the AI is as smart as a bag of screwdrivers and the numerous jumps in Buggy races will have you cursing the game’s unforgiving physics.
This takes us to one of the game’s most notable issues, regardless of which discipline you choose to race. It feels like these cars are made of cardboard; the slightest brush against a piece of scenery, a ditch at the side of the road or a bump in the track will cause you to go flying and completely lose control. If you can’t put together an entirely clean run, chances are you’re going to come away extremely frustrated – at least early on, when you’re still trying to get to grips with the handling – by the fact that one little lapse can ruin things entirely. The lack of a rewind function will also exacerbate things for amateurs, especially given that some races are more than 10 minutes long and a mistake nine minutes in means you can pretty much forget winning.
Visually, V-Rally 4 is, well... let’s just say it pays an impressively accurate tribute to its 2003 predecessor, whether it means to or not. Trackside detail is low, trees and flowers are blurry, and while there are some occasional highlights – the small village you have to carefully make your way through in some Japan stages is a neat touch – for the most part, this is an extremely underwhelming package in terms of presentation. There’s even lens flare in there.
The worst example of all though is the pop-in, which is among the most blatant we’ve seen in the past couple of generations. Let’s be clear: pop-in happens in a lot of games, particularly racing games where the system can struggle to render and place the scenery in time, meaning it suddenly appears in the distance as you approach it. The key phrase here is “in the distance”, which is something not really adhered to here. Enormous trackside objects like trees and rocks can appear without warning, and the ineffective lighting system means large shadows literally draw themselves onto the road a few feet in front of you, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘chasing shadows’.
Things get even worse in the races against other cars. When you’re doing the solo rally events everything tends to run at a fairly stable 30fps, but some of the V-Rally Cross and Buggy races can become a stuttering, chugging mess, especially when a number of cars are in front of you and there’s an effect like night racing or rain applied. While we get that the V-Rally name is supposed to conjure up memories of late ‘90s gaming, using the same frame rate as GoldenEye on the N64 is maybe taking things a little too far.
The frustrating thing is that despite all of these performance issues, the game can actually get fairly compelling once you put a lot of practice in. Switch to the in-car view and you’ll find the back of your vehicle swings out far less than it does in the standard behind-the-car view (which usually feels like your car’s on an ice rink), and even though the whole ‘mess up once and you’re stuffed’ idea can lead to some infuriating moments, it can also lead to some satisfying ones when you finally nail it and start putting in good race times. The problem is the often irritating journey you have to take to get there.
V-Rally 4 is an old-school rally game at heart, for better and worse (but mainly the latter). If you stick with it you’ll eventually start to master and enjoy it, but the slippery handling and unforgiving ‘no mistakes allowed’ rally races make getting to that point a real slog. On top of this, its numerous performance issues are so severe that they aren’t just ugly, they’re downright distracting: the result being that although this is now the best rally game on Switch by default, pretty much every aspect of it leaves acres of room for improvement.