Review: WRC3 - FIA World Rally Championship

Prologue

You wouldn't call a Plumber if your electrics failed at home. Similarly, your Electrician may not be best equipped to mend that leaking faucet. It leaves me somewhat bemused then as to why some of the larger and more respected video games news/reviews outlets have persons making judgements on titles who appear, frankly, unqualified. In the cosy world of A Band Of Gamers, the writing resource (for now at least) is small, so we must cast our review nets wide and not "specialise" too much in any particular genre. With relatively few members too, the ABOG opinion is easily lost in the cyber-world amongst the big trees out there, so our criticisms and ponderings do not impact too greatly. From the opposite perspective however, when the "big guns" make a noise about a game, good or bad, it gets heard. Buying decisions are made on these same comments, which makes it really quite important to have the right guy (or girl), making the call on scores and reviews, especially from the perspective of Developers, Publishers and Retailers.

Some of the reviews I've recently read of Milestone's WRC3 have prompted me to dust off the keyboard, in an effort to ensure at least you guys within ear-shot get an informed appraisal of the game. If I had a label, it would read "Driver". Which is why I don't do RPG reviews. And use words like "Prologue" to open an article. Glad you are still with me: let's fire her up!

Introduction

October 2012 saw the release of WRC3 for PC, PlayStation 3, Playstation Vita and XBOX 360. Developed and published by Milan based Milestone S.r.l., this is the third WRC release since their first in 2010.

The title reflects the FIA 2012 World Rally Championship season, with all the cars, teams and drivers you would come to expect. So, is WRC3 a roster update, or a proper successor to last years WRC2? Are we talking simulation or arcade? Stay tuned.

Game Modes

From the title screen, three options present themselves: WRC Experience, Road To Glory and Multiplayer.

As you might expect, WRC Experience is the full season mode, which offers various vehicle category specific options, such as Class 2, 70's (vintage rally cars) and of course the full blooded WRC. The seasons are customisable, allowing the player to add or remove stages or even entire rallies to suit our own preferences. There are, thankfully, pre-programmed calendars for each vehicle class, making a full rally season only a few clicks away.

A disappointment in WRC Experience for me was being forced to play as a real-life driver: an option to use your own career character would have certainly been preferred.

Prior to each stage, car set-ups can be adjusted to suit the player's driving style. Stage specific sets are pre-loaded, which takes care of essential adjustments for the stage's surface type. Adjustments there-after are for fine tuning purposes. I found all the stock set-ups quite adequate and never really needed to adjust them.

Between stages, as in real rally, each player has the option to repair any damages. Time is a limited resource, and again the recommended repair options as suggested by the game are generally exactly right. Take the absent engineer's advice and you will be good to go!

Graphics & Audio

Immediately, graphical improvements over WRC2 are obvious. The stages have a real-world aesthetic and the cars have never looked better.

The game's lighting effects are excellent and compliment the detailed scenery with emphasis on realism. Sunlight flickers through the trees and reflects nicely from the road ahead, as you hurtle though, striving for that green sector. Very impressive, and a significant enhancement in the series. Road surfaces differ greatly in both appearance and performance. Tarmac looks worn and pitted, gravel looks loose, snow shimmers from below and flitters down from above. Puddles, large and small, add to the overall character and variation of each stage.

Fans gather along the rally route and trucks trundle along near-by over-passes, which add to the immersive feel of WRC3's stages. Some areas are less densely populated than others, but generally the stages fit well: special stages and towns are more vibrant than mountain trails, as you would expect.

Graphics throughout the game are of a very high standard. From the hand-drawn backgrounds of menu pages (a nice variation on the usual CGI's), to the weather affected stages of each rally, there is very little that disappoints here. There is a current bug affecting the livery of the pre-order 70's Mini DLC, which I assume will be fixed in any forthcoming patches.

A minor graphical gripe is with the car interiors. Whilst each model and interior is different, too many cars use the same steering wheel graphic. More variation would have been preferred, but in truth this is a less significant detail.

Once on track, the rally world can be furthermore enjoyed by configurable HUD options, allowing the player to remove any distracting overlays. Personally, I prefer the HUD elements removed completely, which is a welcome option in WRC3.

Even without the HUD elements, players remain fully briefed by the resident co-driver as to any damages, road conditions and of course the stage layout. Navigation calls are very accurate and delivered with purpose and brevity. Follow the co-driver's advice: if you are warned of a hazard, take notice! Of the many hours seat time I've had thus far in WRC3, not once have I been disadvantaged by following a co-driver's call. Bend radius, length, distance and camber are all called, along with specific hazards like water, rocks and barriers. There are multiple voicings too for your navigator, which is a nice variable. Within the main menu options, the co-driver's calls can be adjusted for timing: my preference is for slightly early, which provides more thinking time and allows you to position your car more effectively on the track, in preparation for upcoming turns.

Each stage has a rather generic voice-over introduction, which I do not particularly care for. Nothing is missed by skipping the narrative, so why bother including it? Doesn't really serve much purpose.

On the whole, the cars of WRC3 sound great. Each car sounds differently. The stark contrast between the 70's Mini and the 2WD Pro Civic is a good example. Where the Mini flutters along like a butterfly on a summer day, the Civic by contrast sounds brutal with heavy bass on my simple 2.1 speaker system. Over-run, road surface noise, crash impact and the rest are delivered with clarity. On occasion, with a collision or scuff against a solid object, the audio can cut in and out in too harsh a way, almost over-emphasising the impact. This is infrequent, but worthy of comment.

Road To Glory

First of the three main game modes is Road To Glory, which is essentially the career option. Being such a fan of the WRC2 career mode, I was looking forward with anticipation to the career in WRC3. With regret, the complete re-working of the career between WRC2 and WRC3 has come as a great disappointment.

This year's release opts for a much simpler format than WRC2, working on a reward per stage basis only, rather than the previous team management structure, which I at least found very engaging. Gone is the staff management, sponsor negotiations, R&D choices and season progressions, all replaced with a "golden star" reward tally, awarded in accordance with your performance on each stage. WRC2's career had you running the team, managing the budget and making decisions on R&D paths, all supporting a greater degree of immersion to the game. WRC3's career is, unfortunately, much less engaging.

The best example of the career mode changes is evident in the management of car Sponsors. In WRC2, as your global level increased based on rally performance, staff appointment decisions unlocked Sponsors for negotiation: the higher the Sponsor level, the higher the potential reward, based on Sponsor objectives dictated prior to each rally stage. Sponsors this year are simply unlocked with stars and have no bearing what-so-ever on rewards. They are entirely pointless.

Cars, upgrades, paint schemes, sponsors, and additional rally stages are all unlocked by collecting stars. Stars are earned dependant on your finishing position on each stage, along with "Ability Points" bonus stars. Your driving performance is assessed "live" while you drive, as you receive points for green sectors, clean sectors, jumps, drifts and, surprisingly, environmental destruction. Driving related rewards I could accept, but points for excessive drifting or knocking down barriers? Why?

On the highest difficulty, Road To Glory presents a very significant challenge. Stars are hard to earn, which can be tackled in one of two ways: replay stages over and over to shave your time down (not really appropriate for a rally game), or move on to other stages to earn "easier" stars, then return to previous stages with an upgraded car.

Much is lost in WRC3's career, which is a real shame.

Multiplayer

Online multiplayer is generally implemented well in WRC3, with slick and functional options, menus and lobbies.

Stages are run on an individual basis, with your nearest opponent depicted as a switchable ghost. The usual "opponent leaves the game as he's getting a kicking" this year has penalties for the departing party. Their next race will see a time penalty applied and the stage victory is handed to the remaining player. Milestone have clearly taken note of frustrations with other racing titles in head-to-head multiplayer sessions, and have made steps to try mitigate "rage quits". Prior to each stage, a sensible voting system else a random track option is used for selecting the next venue.

Multiplayer has yet another levelling system, broken down into car classes, which is improved by participating in, and better still winning, online races.

There are some missing options to Multiplayer, such as "force in-car view", but more importantly, "force all players to use same difficulty settings". Without the leveller of vehicle difficulty, lobbies become a mix of all-aids-on versus all-aids-off, which is unfair for those looking for a simulation experience. I begrudge having to dumb down difficulty settings to have an even race, and refuse to do it, settling for a lower win/loss ratio in favour of enjoying the more realistic elements of the vehicle handling model.

Physics

This is the big one for fans of driving games. If the physics are borked, it's game over. Does WRC3 deliver? In a word (or two): HELL YEAH!

The core game engine, car dynamics, environmental impacts and immersion are all first rate.

Cars handle exceptionally well, and behave exactly as you would expect. Wheels lock up under aggressive braking, more so on loose surfaces, and tyres struggle for grip with too much power applied. Incremental throttle and brake inputs are key to quick stage times: much is lost by just planting the throttle and not getting away from hair-pins smoothly and progressively. Road surfaces offer greatly varying degrees of grip, so each must be approached in different ways. Dry tarmac feels worlds apart from snow and/or loose gravel, so your driving style must be adapted to suit the conditions.

Vehicle weight is another very important aspect of modelling realistic handling, and again WRC3 performs well here. Each car has a mass that can be manipulated to your advantage when approaching bends. Positioning the car on track feels natural and fluent. I never once felt the handling physics had compromised my performance, more so that my car control (or lack of it), had been the major factor in that huge crash.

Force Feed Back provides a very accurate feeling of how the car is handling. It is important to set the wheel up properly (not using 900deg rotation, for example), but when dialled in, the cars feel compliant and communicate forces very well through FFB effects.

Vehicle damage is simulated again with excellence. Parts hang from cars, windscreens crack, and all major components can become individually damaged, all represented both visually and audibly. Handling and performance are significantly affected by damage, so great care should be taken to keep your vehicle in the best possible condition. A "rewind" feature is available as a convenience for those who prefer a more arcade play style.

Off-track moments could be handled better by the game engine, which is at best inconsistent. The automatic "spawn to track" can on occasion cut in far too early, whilst driving completely off the road, off a bridge and coming to rest on rocks at a 45deg angle sometimes takes a while to trigger the effect.

Every car handles and sounds differently with it's own unique character. Let it not be said that all cars are the same. WRC3 gives us greatly differing car behaviour models, which is enhanced further by the various performance unlocks. Upgrade an element to your car and the effects are immediately apparent.

Conclusion

If you live in the country and need an off-roader as your daily driver, don't buy a small 2-seater roadster then complain it doesn't do the job. "Horses for courses", as the saying goes. Looking for an arcade racer? Plenty to choose from. Prefer something more simulation orientated? You just found it.

Rest assured, my praise of this title is not simply on the basis of it being a driving/racing game. I have many redundant similar titles sat around that would not receive such generally favourable comment. With WRC3, even with the minor flaws and a significant backward step with the career mode, it achieves enough to warrant the acclaimed title of "recommended". For the enthusiast, "essential".