In 1998, my family got a PlayStation. We were allowed one game each. My siblings chose Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. I chose Colin McRae Rally from Codemasters. I subsequently cheated and also picked Gran Turismo for my dad, but my point is that Colin McRae Rally is one of the most formative racers I’ve ever played. EA Sports WRC is the latest chapter in that long-running off-road odyssey. With the lasting legacy of the Colin McRae and Dirt Rally series at its core and a juicy injection of official WRC content – plus the strength of the cracking F1 games as a sister series – how could WRC go wrong? Easily, it turns out, as a range of performance problems and disappointing features have combined here to jam a banana in the tailpipe of WRC’s otherwise fantastic loose surface handling, impeccable audio, and killer car list.
WRC has seen Codemasters pivot from its traditional in-house engine to Unreal, a switch that was described as necessary in order for WRC to support the longest rally stages the studio has ever built. Those extra-long stages have arrived; at around 30 kilometres they’re around twice the length of even the longest routes in the previous Dirt games, and they are very welcome. I do enjoy longer stages like this (just like the Epic Stages in the previous official WRC games from Kylotonn) as they’re such satisfying tests of consistency and endurance, and they have a real feeling of occasion to them you just don’t get from quick, five-minute blasts.
However, this engine swap also appears to have introduced a range of nasty performance issues in WRC that I never came across in the previous Dirt series. The worst is the regular stuttering. I suspect I could probably ignore it if it was confined to just the pre-race camera pans across cars as they wait on the start line, where it is just annoying, but unfortunately it also occurs during actual racing. It’s a jarring experience. On Xbox Series X I encountered it whether set to 4K or 1080p, and there are definitely instances where the stuttering always repeats at about the same point on a particular stage. For a racing category where you’re barely able to blink for fear of a gnarly wreck, these micro-freezes are like being poked in the eye – and they definitely had a tendency to throw off my rhythm and reactions in complex corner sequences. The only freezing problems I want to encounter in a rally game are ones that can be dealt with on studded snow tyres.
Equally frustrating is the screen tearing, which is slightly less of a gameplay foul when it happens but unfortunately occurs far more regularly and is plenty distracting. This is not something I’ve noticed in Dirt, Grid, or the F1 series, but it’s rife in WRC – and it all contributes to a surprisingly sloppy look. It’s still playable, but it’s far from pretty at times.
All the World’s a Stage
I’m disappointed with the stage design overall, as there’s a lack of crispness to the surface detail, the vegetation is very basic, and roadside features really don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Forza Horizon 5-level this is not. I love how dust realistically hangs in the air for far longer than any other rally game I’ve ever played, but I hate that most shrubs are constantly clipping into the cabin of my car.
The fidelity here just doesn’t feel like a generational leap from 2019’s Dirt Rally 2.0, despite the fact WRC is only available on PC and current-gen consoles. In fact, in some areas it looks like it’s gone backwards. I’ve seen no glimpse of rabbits darting across the road or low-flying drones – things that added life to the stages in previous Dirt games. Tyre kick-up is great, but none of it seems to attach itself to my cars – I’m finishing muddy stages with a perfectly clean car. Is this a bug or by design? Because you can manually apply thick layers of dirt and muck to your cars while frozen in photo mode. Wet surface textures don’t seem as convincing, either, and the rain and water-splash effects are mediocre at best. Driveclub came out nine years ago. How have its rain effects never been matched? Codemasters even hired the Driveclub team after Sony axed them. I don’t know whether to be baffled or bitter.
Snow is also a notable offender, especially considering how great it looks in 2022’s WRC Generations from Kylotonn. In the latter, snow glistened and clumped on the verges of the roads. In WRC it mostly looks like dirt painted matt white. I had figured this might have been a side effect of the fact WRC boasts the nifty ability to customise seasons to race stages in different conditions (and that there was a summertime environment masked underneath the snow effect). However, it turns out Sweden and the equally snowy (but fictional) Nordic event Rally Scandia are actually the only two rallies in WRC I can’t select a different season for. So there’s no excuse for why this snow blows.
It’s a shame, because WRC does feature more than 600 kilometres of unique roads, all carved up into more than 200 stages across 17 locations. That essentially equates to 30-or-so kilometres of road per environment, sliced into a one long stage that uses the majority of that distance (that can also be run in reverse) as well as a bunch of half-length and shorter stages that use segments of it. There are no Super Special Stages or rallycross courses but it’s still a ton of track – more than what’s available in WRC Generations and Dirt Rally 2.0. It just doesn’t always impress.
The Wheel Deal
Where I do remain impressed is with the handling, especially the loose surface driving on gravel, dirt, and snow. The sense of grip rally cars are able to extract from rough and dusty surfaces feels credible. The sense of weight as cars sail through the sky over jumps feels right on the money. Aquaplaning is simulated very well. In spite of all of the stuttering and the tearing it is a great drive, with the handling and force feedback largely informed by its killer predecessor, Dirt Rally 2.0. I do recommend setting the co-driver calls as early as possible, though; any later and you’ll occasionally receive important calls milliseconds before you hit a jump at full speed.
The only other caveat is the asphalt handling, which has been tweaked, but perhaps not for the better – at least, not for controller players. The sheer responsiveness of the cars on asphalt is acceptable on my Thrustmaster TS-XW racing wheel, but on a controller it’s extremely twitchy and very difficult to sling high-powered cars into drifts without oversteering instantly. I’ve tried dulling the sensitivity and adjusting the steering linearity but I don’t think I’ve found the right solution yet.
I have to give credit to the fantastic car list, which features over 70 cars from the ’60s all the way to today’s bonkers Rally1 hybrids, and all of which sound superb. Are there holes in the roster? Sure, but it covers a superb range of classes and eras – especially the ’90s. As long as you’re not a Toyota fan, that is; the title-winning GR Yaris is obviously here (and front-and-centre on the PS5 box), but there’s no sign of the iconic Celica GT-Four or Corolla WRC. I can’t figure out whether Toyota needs to be delivered a gift basket or a flaming bag of dog poo to get them to play ball. At this point I’m willing to flip a coin.
WRC also features a car-building system, where we can take a chassis from the current WRC, WRC2, or Junior WRC championship and build a custom car from scratch. Ultimately, I bounced off it a lot quicker than I thought I would, as the generic body panels are all pretty uninspiring. I’m just not really into the homogenised look of off-brand modern hatches. Could there have been scope here to include some restomod-inspired front and rear ends with a bit of ’80s and ’90s charm? I don’t feel like I’d be alone in saying the all-electric Lancia Delta Evo-e RXs are the best-looking new rally car in 20 years – and all because they look like a rally car built 40 years ago. Or, at least, they were until they both burnt to a crisp back in July.
For those of you who’d rather customise a real rally car, the good news is that WRC features a proper livery editor. The bad news is that it’s frustratingly under-featured compared to similar livery editors in other racers. For instance, you can’t mirror decals from one side of the car to the other, and you can’t cut and paste, or copy and stamp. The decals themselves are frustratingly assorted (basic shapes should be first and they’re not) and there isn’t even any letters or numbers. It’s a frustratingly finicky and imprecise process. Worse, they can’t be shared online.
Unlike Kylotonn’s WRC series, career mode here mercifully lets us jump directly into any level of the modern WRC championship straight away. However, like the livery editor, it feels a bit rushed and half-baked. Crash out mid stage and you’ll need to sit through all the event wrap screens before you can use one of your restarts. There’s some light staff management but it’s not engaging – certainly nothing like My Team in the F1 series.
The lack of a cherry on top is that there’s little personality to proceedings. Win a rally and you’ll get a slightly blurry trophy plonked in front of your car on an otherwise empty podium. Win the whole championship and you’ll get… a small graphic. I’ll concede I wasn’t expecting much, but somehow I got even less.