Recently, I began an elementary Japanese class here at college. Considering that the class is taught to people with effectively no experience, our first lessons have been fairly rote exercises in the language. For instance, we spent a lot of time writing and rewriting various lines of simple Hiragana to learn the stroke order of each character and to refine our depiction of it. There is a clear monotonous component to this task. However, I found something beautiful about it too, as I gradually watched my control over each character improve through repetition. And while this may seem like a complete non-sequitur when reviewing Art of Rally, it’s actually the most concrete way that I can summarize my critique of this game.
Like my beginning foray into learning Japanese, my beginning foray into rally racing here was characterized in equal parts by monotony and beauty. Prior to starting the game, I was under the false impression that Art of Rally was a decidedly arcade racing experience. While elements of that subgenre do exist, the Art of Rally experience skews far closer to simulation on a mechanical level. As such, like those Hiragana lessons, my first few days with this game proved to be frustrating, truth be told. Even with newbie-friendly options turned on, like automatic transmission, I was absolutely unable to corner. At all. It probably doesn’t help that I can’t drive in real life!
drifting toward greatness
However, through a familiar repetition I was able to hone my skill and not just hang on, but truly zip around each stage. Now, I’m far from a rally master despite the ending cutscene declaring me as such. Nonetheless, I found a genuinely rewarding journey here as I built myself up from complete incompetence behind the wheel. As I raced across track after track, I slowly developed an understanding for drifting and speed management. The burn marks my tires etched into the ground began to look more and more graceful. For me, Art of Rally’s success is found within this story.
This is a game that wants its players to understand and appreciate rally racing as an art – as the title implies. Developer Funselektor obviously appreciates rally racing, as their game is a clear and evocative ode to the sport. I had to play many hours to truly understand that reverence myself. And when I did, I found myself entranced by the game on a moment-to-moment basis. The sputters of the engine and the bite of the track alongside my growing mechanical competency allowed me to push through the rougher components of this experience.
When I was pulling off drifts reinforced by great sound design and rumble implementation, I saw the same art that Funselektor did. But, I likewise found myself frustrated by Art of Rally in large part. Unfortunately, this was a frustration that poked at the underlying design of the game, not my personal inability to stay on the track before learning how to use the handbrake. No, the frustration is derived from a litany of technical and design-related issues.
trouble on the track
To the former, I find Art of Rally’s presentation to be a mixed bag. Its aesthetic is what initially attracted me to this game, and what I initially thought the “Art” in Art of Rally referred to. While I believe that the “Art” does refer to the mechanics foremost, it certainly has a dual meaning. I find this title to be quite beautiful at times. Its warm, sometimes otherworldly color palette and minimalistic direction are stunning. At its best, the game looks exceptional.
Disappointingly, Art of Rally wasn’t often at its best, at least on Xbox Series S where I played. The game suffers from distractingly overt pop-in for everything from textures to shadows. Considering that the pop-in distance is painfully close, maybe a few car-lengths, my immersion in the overarching experience was dampened. I was doubly removed from the world when I realized that background elements which should be alive, like animals in Kenya, are totally static. I was hoping for a bit more life and sense of place here, which was often missing and not helped by a fairly toothless soundtrack.
These issues are compounded by a design-level malaise which sometimes reduced the meditative gameplay loop to tedium. There is a seeming lack in both visual track variety and track gimmick. Repeated motifs in the context of an arguably bloated campaign led to prolonged stints of incredibly same-y gameplay. This is obviously to be expected, but the best titles in this genre leverage track design and visuals to keep things fresh, in my opinion. Art of Rally doesn’t quite do that, especially in the Career mode.
I can’t seem to reconcile my thoughts on Career mode. On one hand, I found it to be far too padded. As a serial pauser who’ll leave their console in that state for hours at a time, running up unearned playtime in the process, I don’t have an exact figure for how long it took me to clear this campaign. But, I’d say that 13-15 hours sounds about right, which also tracks alongside the How Long to Beat average. Given the lack of any meaningful track-based progression, I found myself playing what I felt was maybe eight hours-worth of racing for close to double that amount of time. It was the same set of locales with the same set of weather-based modifiers over and over again. So, a part of me was absolutely disconnected from the mode, which is the main offering here in Art of Rally.
a first-place finish?
But, another part of me thought of my Hiragana lessons. I needed that Career time to progress toward mastery. This is an interesting example of a game wherein the progression truly felt driven by my evolving skill and not necessarily by rigid in-game progression. So, even though I was absolutely ready to be done with the Career mode long before I actually was, my best gameplay came in the final few hours. I’m not sure exactly what to make of this tension and so your mileage will vary here – pun entirely intended.
To this point, Art of Rally is nothing if not full of content. While the Career mode is of a debatable quality, it does offer plenty to sink your teeth into. And, if you want more beyond that, the game offers a lot more. There are free roam maps to drift around in, chock full of collectables to find. There are the more expected time trials and leaderboard modes to work through as well. For those really looking to push and develop their skills, Art of Rally offers ample opportunity to do so.
For me, I think that my Art of Rally experience ended with the Career. I did enjoy my time with the game, but I’m burnt out on it after my mechanical climb. This is not the game that I expected, but it’s one that challenged me in an atypical way. For that, I find this to be a special game, albeit a frustrating one. Art of Rally is nothing short of good. For those who love rally racing, I’m sure that the game is nothing short of great. However, as a beginner, this was a compelling lens into the sport, but not one that I plan on looking through much longer. Between its technical issues and the lack of track-level variety, I find it unlikely that I’ll return. Yet, that doesn’t undercut either the uniqueness of my experience, or the love that Funselektor crafted this title with.