I’ve not played an official WRC game since 2001’s World Rally Championship back on the PlayStation 2, I was resolutely a Colin McRae fan and found the licensed games to be disappointing in comparison. Things have changed a lot in the last 14 years with the sport itself altering to match the economic times, and the games going through several iterations and developers. The latest version made by Kylotonn Games and published by Bigben Interactive features all 13 rally events of the 2015 season, the Junior, WRC-2 and main WRC categories, and the current vehicles themselves, but is it a contender for any kind of title?
If you’ve never watched a rally event or played a rally game, the purpose is to move from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Pairings of driver and co-driver navigate long off-road courses that challenge their ability to read the conditions and react to whatever the tracks present. The fastest team takes the stage win, and total times for all stages are added together to give the winner of the rally. Events take place over several days with the cars being setup for the next stage, and usually repaired, overnight. The World Rally Championship (run by the FIA) in its 2015 form is the main feature of WRC 5, and has you driving challenging courses in Finland, Australia, Mexico, Poland and Wales to name a few.
Let’s start with what’s important for a driving game, the handling – and fortunately it’s solid here. The cars feel good and relatable to controller inputs, and there’s a definite link between the pressure you apply to the throttle and the spin up of the wheels. It should be, the configurable controls mean that you can tune the feel to your liking, though this is also the area the first letdown happens. With any racing game my first point of call is to put accelerate and brake on the right analogue stick; I’ve been doing this since Gran Turismo. In WRC 5 you can’t assign them because the stick is reserved for camera control, which only works in specific views anyway, and means if you decide to remote play on the Vita you’re stuck controlling the car with non-analogue inputs which makes things… interesting. It’s not the end of the world, more an odd restriction given that you can change everything else.
Getting into the action in the Junior WRC series I rocket out of the starting gate, hurl myself into the first hairpin bend, and watch the centre of the screen tear in two as the game engine fails to keep up with the speed. Oh so disappointing. Having not seen this effect on many PS4 games yet, and knowing WRC 5 is on Vita and PS3, I struggled to understand why it was manifesting, but worked to ignore it as the rally progressed… as well as ignoring the framerate slowdown on some corners too. It’s annoying yet not game breaking and mainly happens in the heavily wooded areas. Over time it’s easy to just drive through, it won’t affect your performance particularly, but then, neither will the competition. I found it initially thrilling to be winning rally stages only tenths of a second ahead of my opponents, then I realised after a couple of bad runs that my time didn’t really matter. As long as I didn’t make horrendous mistakes and park at the side of the road, I’d still win by a few tenths. Double checking it by restarting an event and shaving several seconds off the previous time gave the same effect – it really removes the impetus to go flat out through each stage, and instead shift that focus on to preserving the car.
Crashes and running off the road is where damage happens, and as the suspension is made out of sticks of dried spaghetti (or might as well be), you’ll be spending time in the service areas fixing the damage that rock caused when you brushed it at 3 miles an hour – well I assume mph, there’s no choice to switch to imperial from metric. Hit an obstacle at higher speed and it’s like the laws of physics are rewritten specially for that moment in time as you bounce off in exactly the same direction you approached at exactly the same speed… unless it’s a small bush, that will stop you dead. Forget seeing any spectacular crashes when you over cook a corner, or overestimate your abilities, this is all about keeping within the confines of the course and staying there. That’ll be why the reset to track is so severe at times too, so try not to cut a corner or you’ll be warped back to a stationary position in the middle of the road. That’s if you’re not slapped with a 30 second penalty that will ensure you stand absolutely no chance of winning the overall event.
I could go on further with the things that are just wrong: the lack of ambient sounds; no controller vibration providing road feedback unless you run off track (and despite a strength setting in the menus); loading out to a headquarters between every rally without a need to visit it; your co-driver stating the next corner is “right to minus” when he means “right 2 minus”; no help text for what the car settings even mean; your opponent “D. river” who might be Sebastian Loeb without the license rights. However, it does do the core gameplay well. Snow, ice, sand, gravel, mud, tarmac all handle very differently and you have to adapt your driving style to each event, and to the changes in surface within a stage. When it’s all flowing and you’re in the groove expertly pulling off handbrake turn after handbrake turn with only your co-drivers voice guiding you, it feels great. Enough that despite the flaws I’ve felt compelled to work my way through the lower ranks to try and earn a contract for racing at the top level.
There’s also the multiplayer that you can’t miss because it dominates the main menu with reminders of the current timed competition and the start of the next Esports season, so it feels like it’s gearing up for longevity. Online competition is a standard synchronous ghost race event where the lobby of players battle for the fastest time without being able to ram each other off the track. It works well and with every country and track available to use there’s time to be lost in here. It needs a tweak on what starts the action though, waiting for everyone to hit “ready” means there’s always someone not paying attention and holding things up, and in some cases making you quit out to join another session unless you want to be stuck there forever.
Being the only rally game on PS4 and Xbox One you’d think WRC 5 would be the perfect title to capitalise on the enthusiasm of the sport’s fans, and use that base to provide a deep and rewarding experience. It does, to a degree, but also feels a little soulless at times. It’s the niggly things that spoil the game and take you away from what it does do well, the driving. There’s fun to be had hurtling through forests and up mountains, just as long as you stay rigidly within the confines of what the game thinks you should be doing, and it’s that freedom to push the boundaries and track limits that’s missing here. “When in doubt, go flat out” isn’t the mantra here, which is a shame because it’s the closest a rally game has structurally come in years to resembling the masterpiece that Colin McRae 2.0 was.
WRC 5 is available now on PS Vita, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC.