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Exo Rally Championship promises a hardcore space race like no other

Fans of Dirt Rally and Mudrunner need apply

A six-wheeler space buggy in Exo Rally Championship jumps on rocky terrain on an alien planet while a meteor storm starts up in the background
Image credit: Future Friends Games

On the day of our interview, Exo Rally Championship programmer and composer Rhys Lindsay was preparing for a race on a hostile alien planet, and feeling pretty good about his chances. He spent a full three minutes surveying the pockmarked, potentially lethal landscape from above with a drone, marking the most dangerous terrain in advance and picking out a relatively safe route between the checkpoints. “Alright,” he thought. “I’m going to smash this stage.”

Of course, it’s just as they say: no plan survives contact with unroaded planets wracked by extreme temperatures, meteor showers and atmospheric pressure unlike anything ever experienced on Earth. On the corner of the first checkpoint, Lindsay flipped his rover, snagging the vehicle on a rock that immediately broke his scanning systems and left him driving blind. By the time of our chat, though, he’s laughing. Exo Rally Championship is a racer for those who like to roll with the punches, quite literally - an anecdote generator for players who adore the challenge of preparing for the worst, and then adapting to changing circumstances on the fly.

Where Exo Rally Championship is going, you don't need roadsWatch on YouTube

Which makes it all the more surprising that it evolved out of a fairly chill traversal game. Exo One combined the swooping motion of Tiny Wings with the relaxed contemplation of Journey. It took you to alien worlds, yes, but its primary mode was wonder - punting you in a gliding craft through boiling cloud formations and over mountaintops in pursuit of momentum and euphoria. It was the pleasant fantasy of somebody who’d fallen asleep reading Asimov to the accompaniment of Rush.

“I worked on it for so long, for five years,” designer Jay Weston says. “And I was itching to do something different. I thought getting on the ground of alien planets was just gonna be a bit more relatable and realistic.” While it’s typical for driving game developers to tilt towards the arcade end of the spectrum as their settings get wilder, Weston did the opposite: leaning into his admiration for simulations like Dirt Rally and iRacing. There’s undoubtedly something grounding about combining the abstraction of a sci-fi backdrop with the familiar fundamentals of real-world offroad events, like the Baja 1000 and Dakar rally.

“The Exo One craft was designed to go through anything,” he says. “Blast over whatever planet you’re on. I liked the idea of going with the exact opposite and having to face the extreme challenges of all these different weather, gravity and surface types thrown at you.” As such, the idea of a direct sequel quickly went out the window, sucked away into the vacuum of space. “We started with the Exo ball, and it was kind of fun,” Lindsay says. “And I think I was more sold on the idea of that initially. But as soon as we dropped in this rover and I controlled that thing, I knew it was just so much better.”

“We can explore terrains that are kind of an optimal driving experience, to incredibly slow, almost Mudrunner type things where you’re having to battle for every inch.”

The decision had enormous knock-on effects for the shape of the planets that players would drive across. Exo One’s levels were designed entirely to accommodate the peculiarities of its traversal system - made up of undulating hills that facilitated the curving trajectory of a craft only in loose touch with gravity. Offroad rally, by contrast, is the dangerous art of driving through terrain unprepared for your presence, and simply dealing with what comes.

“That really appeals to me,” Weston says. “We can explore terrains that are kind of an optimal driving experience, where you’re going 300 kilometres an hour on long, flat plains and frozen lakes. Everything from that to incredibly slow, almost Mudrunner type things where you’re having to battle for every inch that you cover.”

After Exo One’s indestructible orb, Weston and Lindsay have enjoyed experimenting with a whole new world of failure states. “On a sphere there are no wheels that can break off,” Weston says. “You can’t puncture a tyre or damage the suspension.” The tension between top speeds and the catastrophic crashes they enable will be familiar to fans of Dirt Rally - where achieving the best times requires you to push ever-so-slightly beyond control, into a zone where you can feel the car threatening to take off beneath you. “The challenge will be trying to walk that line of risk and reward,” Weston says. “Pushing the rover to go as fast as you can without crashing it, and trying to navigate things like meteor storms at the same time.”

It’s also a level of challenge that the pair are still tuning. “Currently, if you make a mistake as you go over a hill - you didn’t survey the stage properly and there’s a rock on the other side and you misjudged it - it’s likely game over,” Lindsay says. “But I love that sort of difficulty. It just forces me to try and try again, try and get better.” The idea is that players who keep their heads, take calculated risks and plan properly - using their time-limited drone flyover to its fullest potential - will come out on top. And in some respects, Exo Rally’s desolate, wide-open tracks are actually more forgiving than their real-world equivalents.

An in-cockpit view in Exo Rally Championship showing a strange green space-lake on an alien planet
Image credit: Future Friends Games

“With something like Dirt, you only need to get a few inches off of an extremely narrow road to end your entire rally,” Weston says. “Whereas because [an untamed planet] has no roads on it, you’ve got heaps of creative freedom. You can drive the rover all over the place and pick your own route. And if you go wide on the corner, usually you’re just losing time compared to your opponents.”

An onboard service drone, meanwhile, can attend to some of the rover’s breakages while on the move. Snap off a wheel in a bad landing, and the drone can fly out to attach another one. So long as you slow down enough for your robot helper to catch up, that is, and don’t accidentally smash it against a nearby boulder while it’s attached to your flank. Exo Rally’s simulation makes no exceptions for drones.

Most helpfully of all, when the rover is spinning towards disaster, racers will have their thrusters to fall back on. Playfully borrowed from the landing craft of the popular imagination, these jets can be used to adjust your course in midair, or simply to boost you up a steep hill. And they’re subject to a pretty astonishing amount of nuance.

“If you want to use your thrusters as a safety net, you’ll put in a whole bunch of fuel and probably never run out, but it’ll weigh your rover down a lot and it’s harder to lift off,” Weston says. “Or you can play it completely differently and put hardly any fuel in your rover, which means you’ll be much lighter.” With a featherweight rover, you’ll be able to pull off creative tricks like boost-brakes and death-defying jumps over rocks. Since your fuel naturally diminishes with use over the course of a race, it’s easy to imagine an uptick in daft stunts toward the end of an event, as your rover gradually becomes more buoyant. But should you suffer a fuel leak, you risk being left with no thrusting capacity whatsoever.

Avoiding the streaks of a meteor shower in Exo Rally Championship
A space buggy in Exo Rally Championship passes some alien trees while a huge blue planet rises in the background
Image credit: Future Friends Games

Still, it could be worse: an oxygen leak is much more frightening. “We’re planning on some pretty hairy moments,” Weston says. “Where your oxygen’s running out, and your team will be on communication saying, ‘We’re coming down in the dropship to pick you up.’ And the player can choose whether or not to try and make it over the finish line or just retire.”

The precise nature of the metagame that links Exo Rally’s races is still to be defined. But you can expect to work your way up from a two-bit team to a well-funded operation, and to choose which repairs to make during time-limited periods between events. Weston and Lindsay are also toying with an optional permadeath mode, in which the aforementioned oxygen leak could end your career. There aren’t many existing genre expectations to conform to in the field of offroad exoplanetary racing, which is what makes Exo Rally Championship such an intriguing prospect.

It’s a game that, in a broad sense, belongs to an exciting recent trend toward alternative driving games - from Jalopy’s East German rattletrap simulation, to Euro Truck’s mundane logistics, to Snowrunner’s churning terrain. But like all of those games, Exo Rally also stands alone, its team hoping to elicit feelings no other driving game has before.

It’s a concept that, for me, taps into the underexplored transportive potential of simulation as a whole. Yes, it’s a great technical achievement to have computers mimic our real-world motorsports down to the mudguards. But as Looking Glass realised when they set out to make System Shock, it’s a greater artistic achievement to simulate things that have never happened, and perhaps never will. To ground us in spaces we’ll never visit. And in this case, to create memories of impossible drives that mingle pleasingly with recollections of boring motorway journeys in our brains. If you ask me, it makes for a lifetime of more interesting daydreams.

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