Death Rally: Review

I’ve been enjoying my iPod lately, and it’s all thanks to old PC games. Wait, what?

As regular readers will know, not long ago I reviewed King of Dragon Pass (a ported PC strategy/role-playing game from 2001) here on Arcadian Rhythms, and I’ve also been playing Ascendancy (a ported PC 4X strategy game from 1996) and covetously glancing at Z (a ported PC RTS game from 1996). Now here I am with a writeup about a ported PC action racing game from 1996.

1996 fucking made the App Store. You hear me, Apple?

Duke match

You heard me, and you better run.

I GOT PETROL IN MY VEINS

The original Death Rally was Remedy Entertainment’s first game, and it’s quite a different beast from their later efforts Max Payne and Alan Wake – although good old Max also had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Death Rally plunders the conceptual territory of Death Race 2000, Mad Max and 2000AD for its daft tale of weaponised street racing building up to a confrontation with the demonic driver of destruction, the Adversary.

Back then players were treated to lush SVGA menu graphics and grimier, pixellated racing graphics; an odd contrast but a familiar one to PC gamers of the 90s. The iOS version has sexed everything up with the game looking a hell of a lot nicer throughout. Races themselves are still top-down but the environments and vehicles are fully 3D rendered with slick, clear textures.

It’s vital to note that the entire game has been overhauled; this is no cheap port or simple remake. Everything has changed: the tracks, the cars and handling, the weapons (these are also now much more varied), the mission structure, the upgrade system… what’s perhaps most surprising is that, given how much the game has been altered, how familiar it all feels. Remedy have succeeded in entirely re-making the game and not losing what made Death Rally feel like Death Rally.

Garage

The glory of a fully-upgraded motor.

I LIVE TO RIDE

It’s what’s changed that most excites, of course. Back in 1996 the combat amounted to holding down a fire button and seeing bullets ejected from the front of your car at varying speeds depending on your particular chariot. In shiny new 20xx Death Rally there are numerous weapon types available, from a humble easy-to-use shotgun to the classic mines, a powerful sniper rifle and two types of missile launcher with target-seeking capabilities.

New weapons and vehicles are drip-fed to you as you collect parts during races, a well-balanced process that plays out more or less in step with your acquisition of cash through participation in races. There’s always more to play, and you’re left to decide whether you’d rather continue upgrading your existing motor or tear the wrapper off something new and shiny.

There are also several new game types: as well as standard and reversed races there are weapon- or vehicle-specific races (locking all drivers in to that option), marathons (42 laps rather than the usual 3), Duke Matches (in which a bunch of cars zoom around an arena, blowing each other up and trying not to get crushed by Duke Nukem’s enormous monster truck) and the classic Adversary challenge (in which you race against the fastest, toughest car in the game, and probably lose).

Each race tends to last a bit over a minute, so the game is great for picking up and playing at the drop of a hat, and unless you do very badly there’s always a bit of cash available afterwards so you can repair your vehicle and make at least a little upgrade progress. If you sit down to play the game in a more dedicated fashion, an hour’s play will see your driving and shooting skills rocket upwards, and you’ll be maxing out cars and weapons in no time.

It’s worth mentioning that the controls are some of the best I’ve found in an iOS action game: a fake thumbstick on the left controls acceleration and steering and there’s an icon on the right which you tap to shoot. These are well-integrated and feel natural once you’ve got a knack for the handling – which essentially means sluice around corners as tightly as you can and try to anticipate the back end of your car skidding out.

The Adversary

Fuck you, "The Adversary".

SPEED MAKES ME DIZZY

A word to the wise… I’ve played this quite a lot over the past week and the fake thumbstick has led to a few pains in my left hand. It’s common for your muscles to tense up as you push the fake thumbstick about to snap around corners, and to lock in place against the screen, purely because of the lack of tactile resistance to your movements.

I’m also disappointed that I’ve had to miss out on the game’s ultimate payoff: beating the Adversary. His car is faster, tougher and more dangerous than anything else on the road and to take him out requires a fully-upgraded top-tier car and weapon, plenty of skill, a little energon and a lot of luck. Unfortunately Death Rally on the iOS – at least on the smaller screens of the iPod and iPhone – is a game where precision is hard to consistently maintain. This doesn’t matter in any other event but against the Adversary you must be consistently perfect. You’re also beholden to the somewhat random placement of crates and the nitro and ammo powerups inside: without nitro you can’t keep up with the Adversary to shoot him, and without lots of extra ammo you’ve not got a hope in hell of taking him down.

It’s a bit weak to complain about the ending of a game being too tough, but hey – I’ve beaten the Adversary on the original release multiple times and I’ve raced every other part of this release into submission. After a dozen attempts I just don’t feel driven (ha-ha!) to repeatedly try again and again until I luck out. It’s a sad ending to my road warrior’s tale. Almost as sad as the time I got to lap 26 of a 42-lap marathon session, thumbs cramping up all the way, and my car got inescapably stuck in a wall.

But it shouldn’t be how this ends! Because what Remedy have created here is a 69p iOS game that faithfully and skillfully recreates a cult classic title. That’s worth scrubbing the blood off your tires and taking to the highway for.

Crash

Taking screenshots is hazardous for drivers, cars and gigantic houseplants.