Exbleative founder Jay Weston grew up with an eye on the dune racing adventures of Dakar rally and the theatrics of trophy truck racing, where vehicles that could laugh off an artillery shell push the limits of possibility. T3 lightweights churning through sand for 7000 miles. Stocky monoliths snaking through nature like ballerinas with hydraulic calves. It might not seem the logical next step to the average Exo One player to follow up that meditative space exploration game with an ultra-hardcore sci-fi rally sim, but you can see why it makes perfect sense to Weston.
Exo Rally Championship is quite the elevator pitch to anyone interested in loose surface racing. Chucking thruster-laden buggies over untamed planets where extreme weather like meteor strikes and volcanic eruptions are the norm. Babying a stricken car with any number of specific ailments to limp over the line to get to the next service area. Working your way up the order, starting at a minnow team, and seeing your talents for this very specific type of racing rewarded with better vehicles.
For those of us who’ve ever watched a Scandinavian flick tutorial video, there aren’t many who wouldn’t be moved by it.
Not only is it great to see a driving sim take such a creative leap in a market dominated by juggernauts like Forza, which play it relatively safe from one release to the next, but it's also exciting to see such a clever marriage of setting and racing style. Of course, Dakar-style rallying is going to be more fun on planets whose geography isn’t bound by earthly rules. That just opens up so many possibilities.
I get a taste of that the first time I shepherd one of Exo Rally Championship’s unruly buggies over an otherworldly landscape. It looks like dawn—maybe it never gets any lighter than this here on the host planet—and strong winds are blowing over violent rocky formations. No pace notes, no reassuringly calm Welsh co-driver for company. Just a beacon in the distance and my guess as to the best way to get there.
I’m in trouble almost immediately. There’s an extra layer to the handling model that I have no muscle memory of or eye for. When the buggy gets airborne on this low-gravity, extremely bumpy planet, you need to maintain control of it using thrusters (mapped to the right stick in this early preview build shared with PC Gamer). There’s a subtlety to it that rewards deft inputs. My too-rough efforts send me rolling around in the tundra, doing untold damage.
And then the meteors start falling.
I’m in quite a bit of trouble now. Already lolloping around in the terrain, I'm unable to avoid a particular meteor strike site and take one right to the thruster fuel canister. I’m leaking thruster fuel now, which means I’ve even less control when I get up in the air. I look for the flattest possible route to the waypoint in this hinterland of stalagmites. There is none.
The next time I pop a couple of wheels off terra firma, I cannot counter the momentum. I’m a sitting duck for the next meteor, which lands with race-ending damage. It’s safe to say even at this early stage of development, Exo Rally Championship will be a pretty hardcore sim experience.
"That’s exactly what we want," Weston says. "But because it's so open, you've got a bit more leeway. There are some bits where you're threading between trees and rocks, and you must be very precise. But there are other bits where you can really let it kind of hang out. Much bigger slides."
It’s a style of racing that speaks to Weston’s passion for Baja buggies and trophy trucks. But what those real-world vehicles can't do is right themselves in mid-air. Thruster management is a mechanic with even more depth than simply adding another layer to the handling.
"We've been playing a lot with the RCS fuel levels,” Weston says. “I think something that is a bit more of a struggle than it should be right now is that the amount of RCS fuel you carry greatly influences how easily you can launch off the ground.”
Currently, a full fuel tank means your buggy will struggle to leave the ground, but a slight jump can send you airborne when you’re down to 10-20%. That fine detail is something you have to consider as you gun it across a meteor-pockmarked lava field.
"On the one hand, a lot of fuel means much more stability, but it means you can't use your RCS quite as effectively," Weston says. "We're following the [real-world] rally rules quite closely on the event format. You've got, you know, two stages and then a service stage."
That means you have to choose how to use your resources in a race, too, as you can't refuel at the end of every stage. Go all out with the thrusters in stage one, and in stage two you will have to race with an ultralight buggy that can't redirect when it gets airtime.
But thrusters and fuel levels are just two ways your buggy can go wrong.
"We want to go totally nuts with the damage system," says Weston. You can get tire failures, wheel failures, toxic gases leaking into the cockpit, and computer systems overheating in the baking sunlight of particular planets, which require you to race between shady spots like a desert gecko. Engine blowouts. Gearbox failures. Overheating brakes. It's a lot!
And this is one of the biggest draws of Exo Rally Championship. Because what I remember about my exploits in rally games isn't the stages I aced; it's the scenarios where I barely made it home, forced to adapt to driving without headlights or anything beyond third gear. The damage we take often provides the drama and the triumph in this genre. And taking that concept to a sci-fi setting, where both the vehicles and environments are well beyond what we’ve had to contend with in Richard Burns Rally (IYKYK), is a tasty recipe for creating those memorable stories.
There are plans for a pretty deep career mode for those stories to live in, too. Exbleative hasn't finalized the exact mechanics at this early stage, but the concept is that irresistible rags-to-riches journey from hopeless backmarker to the pinnacle of technology and performance. You’ll develop a relationship with your team boss through written dialogue exchanges and receive advice and status updates mid-rally—which might make it all the harder to do the dirty on them later and leave for that better team.
And if this seems like a total departure from Exo One, there’s still some obvious shared DNA. "I thought about Exo One 2, but the first one took five years, and I was ready for something a bit different," Weston tells me. "[But] I wanted to stay with alien planet, science fiction. I wanted to stay in that same universe [as Exo One]."
When making the first Exo game, Weston says, he "originally prototyped [it] as a racing game." But in that game, where you would surf a malleable glider down the slopes of planetary dunes to build up speed and momentum, there was little freedom in creating the environments. "I couldn't explore treacherous, craggy, jagged plates of rock." The awkward terrain directly opposed the game’s main mechanic: "It was like, 'well, you can't really have this either cause you've gotta use the gravity mechanic to build up speed.'"
After the release of Exo One, Weston started prototyping a version using a rover instead, and the possibilities he saw there led to Exo Rally Championship.
"I'm just super excited about all the potential," Weston says. "Even just if you think of the different landforms, like the geography to race over, you know, everything from the dunes and mountains and canyons to much more alien landform shapes you'd never race over in any traditional game."
Just take it from me: go easy on those thrusters. And definitely don’t get hit by a falling space rock, right in the fuel tank.
Exo Rally Championship hits Steam Early Access in 2024.