EA Sports' expert motor racing studio, Codemasters, has finally got its hands on the World Rally Championship licence. EA Sports WRC is the first officially licenced World Rally Championship game from the British game developer since 2002's Colin McRae Rally 3.
EA Sports WRC is the spiritual successor to Dirt Rally. Codemasters split its off-road Dirt franchise a few years back, with the Dirt Rally games catering for the more traditional rally fans and the Dirt games continuing with a more arcade-friendly off-road racing experience.
WRC sits firmly in the Dirt Rally camp. This is a serious and relatively unforgiving special stage rallying. There's no gymkhana, no stunts, no circuits and no head-to-head racing. It's just the driver versus the track.
The game features 17 locations, each with 12 routes. That's 12 of the 13 WRC 23 locations, with the 13th, the Central European Rally, being added as an update post-launch, and five fictitious locations.
Some of these rallies are 20-30kms long through mountain passes on gravel, mud and tarmac during snow and snow, day and night. Powered by Unreal Engine 4 as opposed to Codemasters' traditional Ego Engine, this is a big departure for the studio, allowing for longer stages and bigger environments. But this decision has come at a price.
I had a preview copy of WRC and experienced performance issues that made it difficult to properly judge the game. It was an incomplete build, but the stuttering, especially when you are running it on a high-end gaming rig, was more than I could bear.
Sadly, this stuttering is still present. The developers are aware of it and have issued a statement stating it is being addressed. Right now, on almost every corner, there's a tiny stutter. You get used to it, but at first, I found it distracting enough to regularly lose control of the car.
Visually, though, WRC is a great improvement over the efforts of the previous World Rally Championship licence holder. The immediate environment is very detailed, and, most importantly, the road surface is intricately modelled. But, if you get the chance to snatch a look, the surrounding terrain is a bit sparse. Where there should be dense forest, there are well-spaced trees plonked onto a generic-looking ground texture.
On PC, the game utilises upscaling technology, including Nvidia DLSS and AMD's FidelityFX, to allow even more modest machines to get the most out of the game. The PC version supports a controller, with cars still easy to handle, but the best experience is still via a racing wheel.
The physics and handling are, as you'd expect, spot on. Any mistakes (apart from those caused by an unwanted stutter) are your own doing. If you are used to arcade racers, WRC will humble you.
Exercising a bit of restraint and discipline, however, will pay dividends. A good special stage, following the co-driver's pace notes, perfectly sliding around hairpin bends, powering over jumps and negotiating treacherous terrain, leaves you with a warm feeling inside. But WRC doesn't just throw you in at the deep end.
There's no racing line, and there's no rewind. There are some braking and acceleration assists on top of the usual ABS and automatic gearchange assistance, but that's it. The game puts the player in control of the car, but via the Rally School feature, tries to impart enough help to set you up for success. The Rally School lessons taught me the importance of braking at the right time, cornering, and finishing with a complete special stage for graduation.
With Codemasters' WRC now completely integrated into the EA Sports ecosystem, the game is as feature-packed as the publisher's other sports titles. There are multiple game modes to try.
The quickest way to get into the game is via the Quick Play option, which can be played single-player or up against others online. As well as joining online players' championships, you can set up your own to compete in multiplayer or solo. It's here that you see the wealth of choice that the game offers up. There are over 200 stages, and you can choose the weather and time of day as well.
You can also choose from 18 different car classes across the three modern WRC tournaments, plus classic and special cars. There are nearly 80 cars to try, each with its individual attributes. I found picking a lower spec car to start with allowed me to get into the game without the frustrations of negotiating some of the more treacherous rallies in an over-powered car.
Time Trials let you either choose from some pre-picked selections or any one of the included rallies. You can only choose to race along wet or dry surfaces (only dry for the snow stages) with no time of day or weather settings. It's a great way to sample the various stages and cars, though.
Moments are season-based classic stages inspired by real events from WRC history. Something more for real-world WRC fans. The meat, of course, is with the game's career and championship modes. From Junior WRC through WRC2 and onto the World Rally Championship, players can test themselves driving and running a rally team across gruelling rally seasons, either progressing in the career mode from the bottom or just jumping into the main event. The Championship mode allows players to race as real drivers from the 2023 season, which honours the late Craig Breen, who appears posthumously in the game.
WRC is not a game that easily opens itself up to casual players. It takes a bit of time to get to grips with cars that, at least at first, seem to have a mind of their own. I recommend the Rally School to newcomers and veterans who have been away for a while. A bit of adversity makes success even more rewarding.
The level of choice, the general quality of the visuals and the car handling physics make the current performance issues easier to overlook, though it will be much better once they are sorted out. EA Sports WRC is still a game that I'd recommend to rally fans. It's the best WRC game in years and will only get better with Codemasters' post-launch support.