We’re no strangers to rally games here at Codec Moments, we’ve been avid fans since V-Rally in the mid-90s through to the latest officially licensed entries by Kylotonn. Of course, there’s a particular soft spot for the Colin McRae entries, and Codemasters’ last outing with DiRT Rally 2.0 is probably the finest simulation of the sport we’ve ever played. Now the combination of the undisputed champions of off-road racing games and the FIA’s licensing is finally with us and it’s a tantalising prospect. It fills us with anticipation and questions: Will we be as good as the Solberg’s? Can we dance a hybrid lightweight pocket rocket around cliff edges and through the snow? Where do we find the grip and confidence to go flat out? Should we focus on classic cars or the newest era? There’s so much to get excited for in EA SPORTS WRC given the pedigree that’s come before and the features it’s boasting that this should be at least a stage winner before even breaking the timing beam… right?
Dropping into the main menus after booting up and EA SPORTS WRC is very familiar – it looks a little like the recent EA F1 titles, combines a touch of the muted presentation style that Codemasters pioneered in this genre, and is a tad underwhelming. Yeah, not going to lie, it’s a straight line of options with a backdrop of a car and avatar. Sure, I’m not here for the menus yet first impressions are crucial and there’s nothing here that inspires and even makes you think you’re about to embark on winning the 2023 WRC Championship. Fortunately, begin a little navigation and you’ll find the core modes are covered – Career, Championship, Asynchronous Online, Training – and they all lead to what you expect. The latter is actually one element I wasn’t expecting to be included simply because I don’t remember a rally game that really goes into any level of training detail, though here there’s a concerted effort to run you through driving exercises across a variety of surfaces so that you learn the basics of controlling the car whilst rallying. It’s rather good even if you think you know what you’re doing. However, the majority of time is going to be spent in the career or championship modes, with the first one letting you run your own team over multiple seasons, and the second putting you in an existing driver/team combo.
Whilst the more recent WRC game entries have had a mode that focused on team management and car development, EA SPORTS WRC takes a slightly different approach. For one, it’s not as in depth as Kylotonn’s efforts, with the minutiae stripped away so that you can just concentrate on the calendar events. However, it feels bigger as it takes in a wider range of activities throughout the course of a season, whether you choose to begin your career in Junior WRC, WRC2 or the full fat WRC Championship. You start by selecting a season event length (yep, it’s free time friendly is this game!) and get assigned a benefactor called Max who is more like a shadowy behind-the-scenes evil genius than a team owner – they’re never present and only have their mood with you displayed over the full length of the bottom of the screen on a meter. Hit objectives and targets and their mood improves, miss them and they get annoyed. You can choose how lenient they are at the beginning, though even on the friendlier settings it’s much easier to frustrate them than delight. Mostly though it’s a mechanism to make you think about the staff and car budgets, not causing too much damage for repairs, and creating a balance of which race to pick each week. There is a team boss constantly chattering at you and initially providing good guidance, though after a while they start to grate with the repetitive comments and overly harsh criticism. Most of the time though is spent on the rally courses keeping things moving in the right direction with whatever overpowered monster you’ve bought… or built yourself.
The car builder is a nice surprise in that it’s got a bit of depth to it. Select a drivetrain and then pick from multiple mechanical and cosmetic pieces that mean there’s a decent chance to come up with a rally car that looks plausible though doesn’t mirror anything from real life. Adding engine, exhaust, suspension and all the aero parts needed is a matter of deciding where to trade performance and reliability off against cost, and is genuinely a decent exercise if you’ve got limited cash available. Once it’s put together you can customise the livery a good amount too, much in the same way as F1 2023 and even with the same sponsors, so clearly there’s some asset sharing going on alongside subtly creating the Codemasters Cinematic Universe. Upgrading is possible in the season through taking part in specific events which boost component performance or change in new parts, but once you’ve built your car that’s it. At least you can create for any class from the main menu and then access them in the career mode. EA SPORTS WRC calendar events are probably the most interesting way of approaching a season I’ve seen so far. It’s split into weeks with a number of options available to be freely selected in each one, though only one can be picked per week, and some (like official WRC rallies) take up 2 weeks, so there’s an element of strategy involved to make sure you’re picking the right ones for your benefactor targets, enough rest week’s for the crew, and maximising the income available to the team. Not everything can be done and ultimately there’ll be a compromise to be had, so make sure the negative impact can be absorbed when it comes to the year end summary. Let that take a backseat though because the pared back management sim is only there to support the main draw.
3… 2… 1… GO! It’s a familiar sound after the first couple of events and you’ll instinctively release the handbrake to blast off down the course. Your co-driver delivers the pace notes calmly yet rapidly, and you’re working the steering, throttle and brake with minor adjustments every millisecond to keep all four wheels on the dirt, tarmac or snow. Like most rally titles it’s thrilling and you’ll have a smile on your face as you get to understand the particular handling of the car and master predicting the twists and turns ahead on the road. Well… some people will feel like this, others will wonder what in the world they have to do to keep facing in the same direction after a relatively minor corner. For whatever reason the most recent racing titles from Codemasters and EA have shunned the use of the controller (by far the most common control input) and put the focus on delivering a sublime wheel/pedal setup experience. If you’ve got the right kit then EA SPORTS WRC is absolutely phenomenal to play; if you’re on a gamepad then be prepared for severe frustrations. I can’t pin down exactly what it is, but the config screens give a calibration menu and it seems that there’s too much turn on the wheels with the slightest movement of the analogue sticks. The merest nudge left or right puts about 50% movement in which causes the rear end to step out and has you spinning off into the bushes, or worse off a cliff and ending the event. There are ways of dialling out the effect, but it won’t remove it completely, and even having traction control and stability turned up full doesn’t really help. I felt the same way I did with the most recent F1 game – there’s a cracking sim here, yet I want the choice on which input method I use depending on the time I have to play, and one is simply not up to the task. It’s a mystery why given this is a developer that’s delivered countless DiRT titles in the last decade which are all brilliant on either control method. Right now the only reliable way to play is with the your bulky, space hogging wheel and pedals.
Assuming you’ve got the right setup then it instills a confidence that has you pushing the limits of the car and testing the adhesion of the tyres as you barrel around forests and tiny hamlets. I’m repeating a bit from above, but it needs saying again, EA SPORTS WRC is absolutely phenomenal to play when it’s at its best. Smack it in cockpit view and tune out the every day noises and you’ll find for 5 to 10 minutes it’s just you against a logging track and the clock. I really love those moments. The shift to fully licensed drivers, teams and events means a more faithful recreation of the modern day sport, and there are longer stages than we’ve seen in the previous DiRT Rally titles. This is enabled by the move to Unreal Engine 4 from the in-house EGO engine and it’s a mixed blessing. Yes, there are longer stages to go at but it comes with some performance problems. Outside the cockpit view screentear is quite noticeable a lot of the time, and there are frame hitches fairly regularly that you really don’t want when you’re threading gaps between rocks at over 120 mph. I don’t think the weather effects are as good as they were on the last generation instalments, and though I’m not looking for extreme conditions, the rain and snow has been something to add to the immersion in the past. Then there’s the ropey looking crowd and basic shrubbery once you’re past the edges of the track… as well as upcoming edges of bends showing through rocks and walls. It all detracts from getting fully behind what should have been a triumphant return after 4 years.
At least it sounds good with the roar of each type of car delivering throaty or whiney notes depending on the era and the class. They all definitely handle differently too and where there’s a floaty, disconnected feel through the pad, force feedback wheels definitely let you know the difference between dry tarmac and sheet ice… typically as you’re heading for a resounding thunk into a tree trunk. Sitting with the interior view you’ll get the squeaks and rattles of the frame as well as the road noise, and it’s oddly comforting as a reminder that the vehicles are thin shells designed to be as quick and nimble as possible. Each core competition event is announced well, if a bit generically, and the pace notes are usually absolutely bang on time, as well as being clear to hear. It’s what you expect as a minimum to be fair, and it’s done consistently. I also like the soundtrack that’s used across the menus and replays, it evokes a chilled electronic vibe that’s still got tempo and suits the race preparation well. There’s not an insistence on using EA SPORTS music label for this title so the chances of knowing what’s making it to your ears is slim, and that’s good because it’s not about the tunes, it’s about the track.
From a quality of life perspective EA SPORTS WRC does feel a touch clunky at times with the things that should be easy to get to being just that one step too much. Take the Rally School as an example, you select your next tutorial from the end of the last, but the cursor resets to the beginning of the list each time and you have to scroll across all the completed ones first. Why? Tuning setups are similar in that heading to that menu gives the option of Repairs, Tyres and Tuning (and in a rally you’ll likely be doing at least 2 of those each service area), yet selecting one and completing the action then pings you back to the main options rather than the sub menu, so it’s a journey back in to it. They are strange little inconsequential decisions that just make it slightly more fussy than it needs to be. Don’t get me started on the bug that resets all your tuning options to zero when you load a stage so you get stuck not being able to get beyond 1st gear. I can’t help but feel there are missed opportunities elsewhere like not making the most of the Moments mode which is effectively the multiplayer component. There’s a genuine variety of events to tackle, single rallies in different locations and eras, with some mimicking real life scenarios, and they’re great. However… why lock multiple ones off to EA Play subs? The game costs £70 already. There are no longer any daily or weekly challenges to inspire coming back frequently and trying something new (most look to be on a 3 – 4 week cycle), and XP isn’t awarded based on finishing position in the table, so there’s little to no incentive to replay if you’ve already got a gold medal worthy time. What does the XP do anyway?! Other than a meter in a number on the menu screen I’ve not got the foggiest. Not that having the fastest time means anything when clearly there are glitches in the leaderboards with the top ranked completing 6 km circuits in less than 5 seconds.
Sorry, feel like I went a bit ranty there, though that’s the dilemma I have in summing up EA SPORTS WRC. There is an ethos of hardcore in the game that’s admirable because it’s not an easy sport, but that shouldn’t be at the cost of accessibility; the two can go hand in hand. The handling model for a controller is not right and will alienate new players, and they miss out on some of the best feeling rally gaming ever. Yet the presentation standards aren’t where you expect the publisher and developer to be and it feels like it has been rushed out to meet the end of the official season. There are patches coming to fix some of the bugs, though no mention of tackling the controls or graphical problems, so will this ever realise its true potential? That’s the real question because when it is played as intended this is one hell of a game, it just seems to want to make it difficult for the masses to discover its thrills.
A PS5 review copy of EA SPORTS WRC was provided by EA Sports PR team, and the game is out now on PC, PlayStation and Xbox for around £70. Tuning and control mapping patches are due on the 12th December 2023, so we’ll see what else arrives with them.
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