We thought Colin McRae Dirt's punt at ultra-realism and huge variety in vehicle and race types would be the revolutionary off-road racer of this generation so far, but it turns out that the usually arcade-centric Sega Rally could be the pioneering the start of a new era in off-road racing games.
We are of course talking about surface deformation; the way in which the tyres have not just a visual but a physical effect on the road surface. As cars blister around the courses, the mud, snow and gravel surfaces are torn up by the skidding wheels, leaving indentations in the course. You can see it in action in the wire-frame shots below.
During the race the cars disperse the smooth, loose upper layers of the course, exposing the firmer, and more grippy surface underneath. At our first look at the game, Sega was keen to stress what a difference the surface deformation makes to the game, and this time, thanks to being allowed to actually play that game, we can say that it really does enhance the experience.
Alongside some 360s running the game with standard control pads, Sega had set up six PS3s, linked together in a six-player race each one hooked up to force feedback-enabled racing wheels and pedals. That was a wise move because it was using these wheels that truly showed us how incredibly well the deformation works.
You can literally feel the smooth, loose steering of the car rumble as your wheels rumble over the torn up surface shredded in previous laps. You can feel the handling tighten up slightly too, as the car gets a better hold of the firmer surface that was hiding under the now-cleared loose gravel or snow.
The four courses we got to race around (set in three of the six environments set for the final game) made fantastic use of this pioneering technology. Two of the courses were set in the vivid, tree-covered tropical environment we saw before. The course is made up mostly of mud and dirt, with some sections waterlogged with huge puddles to splash through. As you splattered through the loose mud (which covered the cars to awesome effect, we'd like to add), your tyre tracks would reveal the watery sludge underneath, and you could even see the water from puddles gathering in your tracks.
A fantastic Alpine environment was the setting of one course which ran up the side of a snowy mountain. This course is genius. You start off at the bottom of the mountain where the tarmac is dry and provides plenty of grip. As you work your way further up the mountain the road is covered in a thin layer of slush that immediately changes the way you have to treat the car. It's great because, after two laps, you will see a path where the cars have almost completely cleared the slush, leaving wet tarmac.
Nearer to the mountain peak the snow is out in force completely covering the road in a thick white powder. The deformation tech kicks into full effect as your wheels boar paths in the show, and this is where it's most important in later levels to stick to the flattened paths made by cars in the previous laps.
The third playable environment was a canyon area which Sega says is roughly based on Arizona, America. Steep cliffs line a road of tarmac, dust and loose gravel. This course is all about harsh changes in the road surface.
The ultra-grippy tarmac meets the dusty sections on bends at the end of long straights. Think about that - you'll start your powerslide on tarmac and drift your car onto the looser gravel where the wheel starts to shake in your hands.