“Track drivers see the same corner thousands of times, rally drivers see a thousand corners one time,” reads one of the insights on WRC 3’s numerous loading screens. It’s a message that succinctly sums up what a rally game should ask of its players: control, adaptability, and a healthy respect of the unknown. While developer Milestone seems to understand the brief, the derivative way in which the game’s elements have been combined keep it from hitting all the right marks. Unimaginative construction of a game based on a sport all about flow and flair is not going to win many fans.
As with previous games in the series, an emphasis has been placed on the realism of the handling model. Everything from suspension stiffness to brake distribution and maximum steering angles can be edited to suit both your driving style and the kinds of conditions you can expect in your next race. To the game’s credit, adjusting these variables has noticeable effects and makes them something worth fiddling with for racing game veterans. Changing the suspension stiffness to hard, for example, allows you to navigate level surfaces much faster at a cost of significantly reduced stability when things get bumpy.
On a less positive note, no matter what you do, all of the game’s cars have a lightweight, feeble feel to them. No amount of tinkering with the front and rear differentials or traction distribution can completely remove the sensation that you’re controlling a high-powered hovercraft, rather than a loud, mean, aggressive rally car. The issue is not so bad when driving the game’s lower-powered cars, but it’s especially pronounced as soon as you step into an official WRC vehicle. And while you can certainly work your way around tracks with practice–the lightweight feel allowing for precision driving as you throw cars into hairpins and through technical sections of fast chicanes–the handling doesn’t quite live up to its uber-realistic billing.
The best way to test the handling model is in Road to Glory mode, a streamlined version of WRC 2’s Road to the WRC that does away with the likes of sponsorship negotiations and staff hiring. As it should be, the focus of Road to Glory is getting behind the wheel and proving yourself a worthy competitor at the top level. Events are spread across seven geographical areas, such as Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific, each with its own resident star driver acting as what is essentially an end-of-level boss. Beating all seven stars unlocks the Ultimate Battle, a final event that has you racing against all of them at once in a final showdown. Throw in a mix of traditional rally events, novelty distraction events, and a simple car modification system, and there’s just enough to keep you interested.
Different Road to Glory events have different rules about what type of car you’re allowed to use, meaning that current WRC cars, as well as classics from the ’70s through to the ’90s and smaller 2WDs, must all be mastered. And that’s part of the problem; you simply don’t spend enough time in a specific car for you to fall in love with it. Falling in love with cars, getting to know their handling and tuning options, and thus enjoying greater success in races are essential ingredients in any racing game that considers itself a simulation–they’re invaluable.
Combined with the constantly changing vehicles is a default difficulty curve that resembles a cliff. This is great once you grasp the mechanics, but it can be incredibly frustrating early on. Without exaggeration, a single botched corner adds enough time to send you plummeting from first to seventh: great for veterans who want a challenge; less great for newcomers who just want to get around the track in one piece. And given some of the event types on offer in Road to Glory, newcomers are clearly one of the target audiences.
Alongside the regular rallies are special events designed to test specific skills and provide some relief from the intensity of simply driving as fast as you can. These include the block smashing Crash n’ Run, the avoid-the-cones Rally School Contest, and races against aerial vehicles (including a helicopter and hang glider) known as Top Rally. Clearly, pages have been taken from the Dirt book of game design, but unlike in Codemasters’ rally game, such events are more chore than charm in WRC 3.
The problem is that they just don’t demonstrate enough inventiveness to get you excited; not once do you feel as though you’re playing something you’ve never played before. Aside from the Drift Contest and block smashing stages, your goal is the same across all of these distraction events: drive as fast as you can. You can’t help but feel that a massive opportunity has been lost to serve up some diversity. It’s just another example of good intentions, but unimaginative construction.
Aside from Road to Glory, WRC Experience is your only other option in single-player. Select a car, select a series type (from single race to full WRC championship), and head straight out onto the track to race. The championship series is a serious commitment, with all the countries involved in the real-life WRC included, and each event is made up of either six or seven stages. However, this is also the only place where you test yourself against the likes of professional drivers such as Loeb, Araujo, and company.
If you’ve three other friends to play with, WRC Experience is the best way to set up and play multiplayer games, thanks to the inclusion of hotseat play. The nature of a rally means that hotseat is a realistic and welcome addition, rather than a lazy concession to local multiplayer. Whether you want to play a single stage or commit to an entire championship, hotseat lets you race against your friends and adds some spice to a game that lacks much in the way of genuine excitement.
Online multiplayer is also available, with up to 16 players facing off in the same events available in WRC Experience. Most interesting are the Super Special Stages, which see two drivers racing on the same track at the same time–the gimmick being that the drivers start on different portions of the track, crossing onto the opponent’s side halfway through. It’s fun in places, but no substitute for the excitement of playing against friends locally. Also, bear in mind that you need a GameSpy login to play online through your PC.
Where WRC 3 does show significant improvement over last year’s game is in its visual quality. The terrible environmental textures of WRC 2 have been replaced by graphics that at least feel as though they belong in this generation and are no longer typified by fuzzy, low-resolution grass, trees, and rock faces. Despite the improvement, however, WRC 3 is still no match today’s most visually impressive racers, such as Dirt and Forza 4, especially when it comes to the quality of the vehicles themselves and particle effects like dust and rain.
While there’s no lack of passion for the subject, and there are some neat ideas on show, WRC 3’s problems are in the execution. Tighter graphics, improved game modes, and more race types would help things greatly, as would a more refined handling model. As it stands, the series is the best it has ever been, but it’s still not quite good enough.