These days you’re more likely to see a VW Golf slip-sliding in a supermarket car park than on the living room TV. The heydey of rally sims has well and truly passed, and the remaining player base is among the most unforgiving of gaming subcultures.
That’s just the first of the hurdles that FIA World Rally Championship 5, the latest game in the WRC series has to face up to. Competition is stiff: DiRT Rally by racing veterans Codemasters is the critical darling of this niche market. The reputation of WRC is woeful by comparison and gamers have, justifiably, accused the series of resting on the laurels of its license.
With a new developer at the helm, French studio Kyolotonn, hopes for the series have been raised, but after slinging myself around in WRC 5 many of the issues that have plagued its predecessors clearly linger on. Rallying should be an exhilarating mesh of mud and machine, but WRC fails to find the sweet spot. Instead, it careers off course into the all-too-familiar woods of mediocrity.
The game’s basic setup hasn’t changed a great deal since WRC 4. Single player consists of a quick stage option, allowing budding drivers to tackle an individual circuit of their choosing, or career mode, where the aim is to work up from junior rallying to world rally champion.
Changes here are small, but welcome. Some of the fat has been trimmed from career mode, with less focus on management, and more focus on the driving itself. It’s still possible to join a team, each with their own preferences for your performance whether that be ‘keep the car in one piece’ or ‘win, no matter the cost’, but you no longer have to pick a manager to shepherd you through the process.
Other than selecting the team and carefully choosing necessary repairs between races, all players need to do is saddle up and put pedal to the metal. Specific tweaks to the setup of cars have also been simplified for players, with complete setups for tarmac or gravel available at the press of a button.
Once you’re in the driver’s seat it’s the road, not the garage, that matters. WRC 5 features the 14 stages of the 2015 World Rally Championship. From Sweden to Mexico, there’s a mix of ice, mud, gravel and tarmac, as well as circuits which range from narrow winders to those with a less angular setup.
The circuits themselves are more fiction than fact. Faithfully modelling, for instance, the 1,400km of the Monte Carlo stage would be absolute madness, so by necessity the tracks themselves are shorter. Most circuits can be completed in between three to five minutes, which is the ideal length if, like me, you’ll have reduced your car to a scrapheap on wheels by the two minute mark.
Other than feeling occasionally contrived and less organic than I would like, I haven’t any great complaints to make about the environments other than their lacklustre presentation. WRC isn’t a looker and, other than the odd particle effect, lags way behind the sumptuous-looking DiRT Rally. Cars lack reflections from the outside world, leaving them disconcertingly matte.
Trees are clearly two flat surfaces arranged to look almost three dimensional - a trick that’s more 2000 than 2015. Weather effects are also underwhelming in the extreme and never leave you feeling lashed by rain or snared by snow.
WRC 5 is plain where it can’t afford to be. Without multiple cars on the road, weapons, power ups, bright colours and dazzling cityscapes, any rally game must make the most of its visual strengths. Even if those strengths consist of the mud beneath your tires.
Let’s get physical
As a general rule, if your racer doesn’t look good, it had better feel fantastic, but WRC 5’s curious mixture of arcade and simulation left me unconvinced.
Without adjusting any of the difficulty settings, something immediately feel off about the game’s physics. Whilst turning corners I felt inconveniently gripped to the road, making the all-important game of slip and slide impossible to get going. Everything feels rigid, as if the car and road just had an uncomfortable conversation about their dying relationship and are now lying on opposite sides of the bed, backs turned.
The game engine suffers similar problems when managing collisions. Possessing as I do all the motoring prowess of Hans Moleman, half my time was spent skidding into rocky outcrops, but the car’s response was surprisingly limp and only resulted in the kind of dramatic barrel roll I would have expected once or twice.
In my frustration I cranked up the difficulty to the highest setting, ‘simulator’, which seemed to decrease torque and increase the possibility of the wheels rebounding around tight corners, but the lifeless physics remained. Inaccuracy is one sin, but the cars of WRC 5 suffer an even worse blight for a racing game: joylessness.
Kept on track
This physical ineptitude isn’t helped by the game’s irritating habit of mollycoddling you back on to the track after the most minor of deviations.
Part of the fun in rallying is watching those stupefying moments where your car, in complete defiance of the laws of good motoring, decides to take a detour into a tree 30ft down a nearby ravine. Unfortunately Nanny Rally wants to spoil your destructive fun and send you to bed without dessert. Milliseconds after leaving the track you’re replaced on the track without the satisfying crunch that should follow. Some of these invisible boundaries are placed so close to the road’s edge that clipping the inner section of a hairpin will see you replaced on the tarmac, shirt tucked in and hair combed neatly.
In other moments where the game judges that you’ve made an infraction it applies a 30 second penalty to the timer, but WRC 5 can’t seem to make up it’s mind which to apply in any given situation, and sometimes just throws in both for good measure.
Changing the settings to relax the boundaries around the road seemingly had no effect, and by constantly herding me toward the road, the game achieved two things: number one - immediately make me want to fling myself off the road and cheat at any given opportunity, number two - make me feel trapped in an open space. Not ideal.
Driven to insanity
It wasn’t just forces outside the car that perturbed me, the very worst came from inside. Your co-driver’s toneless instructions are unbearable.
Whenever you slip up by smashing into an object or going slightly off-piste, your mindless companion repeats the same two responses: ‘That was dodgy!’ or ‘Ouch!’ both of which become eye-poppingly annoying very, very quickly. My co-driver would even offer the latter when I was travelling at a very reasonable speed down the middle of the road. Perhaps he too was sick of the sound of his own monotony and was slamming his head against the passenger window in a desperate attempt to make himself shut up.
Even worse, instructions from the co-driver sometimes suffer an inexplicable delay, and only appear once you’ve slammed headfirst into a cliff face, making you ever-so-slightly wary of his commentary from that moment onward.
If it ain’t broke… oh wait, it is
I wish I could provide a more comprehensive view of the game’s multiplayer modes, but unfortunately, more bugs prevented my progress. In offline multiplayer, participants take turns to race, and the player with the fastest time is victorious. Online multiplayer sees many players tackle the same track simultaneously, but other cars are only visible as transparent ghosts which can’t collide.
Bar a handful of successful races, the game would crash when entering multiplayer mode, and even crashed a couple of times when I was mid-race. Online play is broken, plain and simple, and until Kyolotonn release a patch to make it playable, this can be considered an offline-only game.
WRC 5 verdict
Whether a rushed release is to blame or not, WRC 5 doesn’t pay attention to the details that rally fans value most: great handling, immersive weather and co-drivers that don’t make you want to end it all a la Thelma and Louise. Its real-world sportsmen and officially licensed teams are smokescreens that do little to disguise a middle of the road racing game with some unforgivable bugs.
If you’re determined to follow in the footsteps of your rally heroes by taking on miniature approximations of this year’s stages, then I’d suggest you wait until the game comes down in price. If you really can’t wait to get your teeth stuck into handbrake turns at 60mph, then it’s almost impossible to recommend this over DiRT Rally, which exceeds it in almost every regard.