Before Alan Wake and Max Payne, development house Remedy Entertainment had Death Rally, an interesting racing game on the PC. On the surface, it was just a top-down racing title in the same vein as Micro Machines, but the addition of guns made it stand out a bit more, as did other little things like secondary objectives for more cash and the ability to bribe mechanics to sabotage opponents. It even had online multiplayer — a rarity in the DOS days. After more than a decade, the team at Remedy decided to update its very first project for the modern era.
There is a story to Death Rally, but beyond the initial cut scene and level, you'll forget that it exists. You play a driver who, for unexplained reasons, becomes a fugitive from the law. After being taken down by the cops, you're given an alternative to prison: join the notorious Death Rally to ferret out its leader and champion. With no other choice, you participate in the deadly motor games.
From here, the title gives you a choice of tracks with varying difficulty levels. The track selection, which is randomized after every event, consists of two different types. Deathmatch puts you in a slightly open arena against other competitors, and your goal is to score more kills than your main competitor. Races pit you against five others in a three-lap race to the finish. Each race is littered with parts that can be used to build new weapons and vehicles as well as extra cash, nitro canisters and ammo for secondary weapons. While most races follow this standard, you have a few variations, including one-lap races, one-on-one races, matches where extra cash is the only available pick-up, and bouts where your cache of mines is higher than normal. At times, you'll also be given the opportunity to ride special vehicles or get a weapons cache boost in exchange for half of your winnings. You may be asked to target certain drivers, including a few journalists appearing for cameos, for a nice cash bonus.
At the end of each event, you're given cash and experience based on your race placement, number of kills, etc. Your experience opens up new tracks and events that progress the story. Cash is used for vehicle repairs as well as upgrades to both secondary weapons and vehicle attributes such as handling, speed and armor. Each vehicle can be upgraded to a set level for each category until it reaches gold status while secondary guns can be upgraded all the way to level nine, with each level providing damage increases. Thankfully, weapon increases carry over to other cars, so the levels don't reset if you decide to outfit the shotgun on a new vehicle, for example.
That's Death Rally in a nutshell. All of the events you encounter can be played offline or online against five other players if you're so inclined. The problem with multiplayer, however, has to do with the lack of players online. During several attempts at creating an online match, no one showed up. There isn't a lobby that shows how many online games are occurring at any one time, and forum searches showed that there is hardly anyone playing online. Even if you could find one brave soul or two who'd compete on the Internet, matches don't start unless there are six people present, and bots can't fill in for missing people. Unless you can find friends who'll constantly play this with you, expect Death Rally to be a mostly single-player experience.
Even if you're fine playing the game solo, Death Rally does things so differently from the original that it feels like steps backward instead of forward. While shooting starts off as something done manually, it becomes automatic once you equip your secondary gun; it can be a little annoying for those who want full control. It doesn't help that the clips on the secondary weapons are rather small and that the damage done by your primary gun is so paltry that it can take over a lap of constantly firing at one car before it'll blow up. The cars never seem very fast. No matter how much you level up the stats on your car, it never seems as fast as the competition, who leaves you in the dust right out of the gate. Turning also feels a bit loose, a problem that's worsened by neither camera angle doing a good job of warning you about upcoming turns.
Then there's the grinding nature of the whole affair. You'll revisit the same tracks countless times because there aren't that many. Even with reverse courses sometimes, the tracks feel too similar all too quickly. Levels that make the story progress only occur after a certain experience level is reached, but with the experience being drip-fed to you, it can take a long time. You're set on a treadmill for so long that when those events happen, you'll never realize it until you check your progress meter and see that you have participated in a story event. The lack of clear progression can turn off players who feel that there's no end in sight to what they're doing.
Despite all of the above issues, Death Rally has a strange quality that makes it difficult to put down. Each race can be completed in around two minutes, with the longer ones and deathmatches taking no more than three minutes. Load times for each race are rather quick, and the menus can be sped through more quickly compared to the mobile versions. Every race gives you a bare minimum of cash and experience, ensuring that you never walk away empty-handed, and the microtransaction in the mobile version are gone. None of those factors alone make the game any more enjoyable, but they somehow make you want to keep going for one more match because it requires such a small time investment.
On paper, the controls are simple. By default, the arrow keys handle acceleration, braking and steering just like they did in the original release over a decade ago. The X button handles the firing of the secondary guns, Z handles mine deployment and the space bar takes care of turbo. The layout is nice, but the already-sluggish steering is even harder to fine-tune on a keyboard, resulting in many hits against walls and almost ensuring a last-place finish every time. The controller with an analog stick fares a little better since steering is more precise, but the lack of customization on that front means you'll have to constantly remind yourself of the layout configuration.
From a presentation standpoint, Death Rally is very good in a few areas and lacking in others. The environments look nice, and while only one has an interesting track design (a jungle with wrecked planes as part of the road you're driving on), they certainly look much nicer than what's on the mobile versions. On the other hand, the cars have a more varied color scheme on the mobile devices. Both have nice little details on the vehicles, like parts being broken away, hoods flapping uncontrollably, and smoke pouring out of the back when badly damaged. The frame rate holds up rather well despite some sporadic screen-tearing.
In the sound department, the music is good, standard action fare. The voice clips are short but repetitive, especially in deathmatch. The effects are fine, but it seems like some general sounds are missing. Gunfire and some screeching when making a turn are present, but acceleration and engine noises are completely absent, making it feel a bit rushed since that's what you'd expect to have in a game involving cars.
Death Rally is a bit hard to judge. From a racing standpoint, the slight slowness and presence of very loose handling don't make it enjoyable. The automatic firing of guns, low ammo count, and weak strength of the bullets aren't too enjoyable for car combat fans, either. The grinding nature and low track count means repetition is inevitable, and the completely empty online community means that you won't be able to enjoy it with friends or strangers. Despite all of these drawbacks, Death Rally has an inexplicably addictive quality that keeps drawing you in no matter how much you want to stop playing. At the current price point of $9.99 on the PC, the title is difficult to recommend if you don't have access to a PC gamepad. However, if the price drops and you have a few bucks to spare, Death Rally may be worth the hassle.
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