WRC 3 FIA World Rally Championship Review (or Dirt Road Anthem)

Short of jumping out of a balloon from some 23 miles above the ground, being a professional rally driver is one of the craziest and most dangerous things that you can do for a living. They drive through forests on narrow dirt or snow-covered roads only feet from sideswiping a tree or sliding off a cliff. It is the ultimate demonstration of driving and car control.

This year, developers Milestone and publishers Black Bean Games are back with their third installment of their WRC series. I thought last year’s game had some promising gameplay but needed some work to bring graphics and sound up to the standard set by its competitors. Were they able to leap to the top of the class this year?

Gameplay

Having reviewed WRC 2 last year, I really expected more of the same from all aspects of the games with just a few tweaks to improve upon last year’s edition. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development team at Milestone’s changes are evident pretty much from booting up the game and not just in the gameplay.

The big game mode this year is Road to Glory. It’s not like last year’s Road to WRC where you build your rally team from the ground up to get from regional rally events to the WRC. In Road to Glory, you progress from region to region competing in small events before facing off against the local “rising star” in a head-to-head race. Completing events gives you reputation points based on your finishes and ability rating (points accumulated for driving fast, cleanly and/or spectacularly). Reputation unlocks new races, cars, car upgrades and paint schemes.

In addition to the typical rally modes (single stage and rally), Road to Glory has some unique game modes such as target smashing, reaction times, and more. Between the general format of Road to Glory and the addition of these non-traditional game modes, Road to Glory reminds me of Dirt 3’s Dirt Tour mode. I suppose if you were looking for a rally game to use as a benchmark, Dirt 3 would be the best option available. However, for the licensed WRC game, I’d expect a career mode that pushes you to get to the top levels of the WRC. Road to Glory seems a bit too arcady for a game trying to be a simulation. It’s also a disappointment that these game modes aren’t available outside Road to Glory. I probably wouldn’t play them much but I’d like to have a chance to smash blocks as the legendary Sebastian Loeb.

The classic game modes haven’t disappeared. You can still play a single stage, a single rally and a WRC championship season under the WRC Experience banner. It seemed a bit odd to me that the WRC Championship mode wouldn’t be front and centre on the main menu rather than lumped in next to Single Stage and Single Rally. Fortunately, from the championship option, you can pick the SWRC and PWRC championship seasons too. Like with the arcadey Road to Glory game modes, I doubt many people would choose them bit it would be nice to have the option to play a support series season.

It’s also worth noting that in addition to reworking the Road to WRC mode into Road to Glory (though it’s more of a deletion of Road to WRC), the WRC Academy has been removed. The first two editions of Black Bean/Milestone’s WRC series had the driving school feature to acclimate new players to rally driving and taught them the basics of navigating various corners, terrains and hazards. I could have used that this year for dealing with jumps.

On the plus side, actually driving the cars has a much smaller learning curve than WRC 2. Last year’s handling model, especially on 2WD (R2 and R3) cars, was difficult to get a handle on (pun intended). This year, I found driving far more intuitive and cars easier to push to the maximum. Powersliding cars doesn’t come as easily as Dirt 3 but I wasn’t losing much time or speed as a result. The actual driving experience, which is just ever so slightly important in a racing game, is definitely improved from last year.

If I had one major complaint that permeates this game, it’s that this game looks and acts as though it’s a port of the console version of the game. When you start the game up, forget about your mouse because you don’t use it. Navigating the menus are done with your keyboard. Looking for options, whether it’s tweaking car settings prior to a rally stage or looking for options on the main menu, is accomplished by using one of the F buttons. The menu controls are all highlighted using XBox colours. As an example, to select something using, the game illustrates this as the down-and-left Enter on top of a green circle. Options? That’s F2 on top of a blue circle. Want to go back a screen? Esc on top of a red circle. Navigating through the various aspects of the car in the setup menu? F5 typed over the left bumper silhouette and F6 on the right bumper.

Realism

I broke this out separate of gameplay last year and I’ll do it again this year. Unfortunately, not many of the issues I had with the prior year’s game have been addressed this year.

Like last year, all the 13 WRC rallies are represented, including the famed Monte Carlo Rally. Unfortunately, all the rallies are significantly shorter than their real-life counterparts. While a WRC rally is over 300 km of special stages and at least 15 stages (usually between 18 and 22 stages), a WRC 3 rally is only seven stages long and no where close to 300 km.

While I can appreciate the that not everyone would be willing to grind through a 300 km rally, other racing games, like F1 and NASCAR games, have scaling options. If you don’t want to run 20 stages per rally, run a rally at 25% of the total length. I’m not even asking for stages that are 10+ minutes long like most rally stages or recreations of actual rally stages. It’s just odd that a simulation of the 2012 World Rally Championship doesn’t rally push the endurance of players like their F1 and NASCAR equivalents do.

In keeping with rally event realism, you always know your competitors times as you go through the stage. As rallies have staggered starts to stages, only the last car starting would theoretically know how fast the other cars have gone. Dirt 3 will start you in a different spot in the running order and only give you split times with cars starting ahead of you. On that note, you will never see evidence of another car on the stage except during the head-to-head stages. If the other cars are starting ahead of you and you’re faster than them, couldn’t you see the dust or damage left in its wake if not the car itself? If a nearly 18 month old game can do that, can we get that added to WRC 4?

My only new issue would be the names used for some of the WRC support classes. On official rally documents, SWRC (short for Super 2000 World Rally Championship) cars are entered as Class 2. The championship is called SWRC but will be renamed WRC-2 starting next year. In game, SWRC is only ever referred to as Class 2. Is referring to SWRC solely as Class 2 correct? Yes and no. Next year, I hope that WRC-2 is referred to as WRC-2 and not Class 2. This probably is a bit nitpicky but I don’t know too many people who follow rally who call SWRC by the Class 2 moniker. Similarly, PWRC is called Class 3 in the game. WRC Academy doesn’t exist as such. Two-wheel drive cars homologated under R2 rules are called 2WD Rookie rather than Class 6. However, there is no WRC Academy running only the Ford Fiesta R2 used for the Academy.

Graphics

Some areas have improved while some don’t seem to have been touched. The car and damage models have been overhauled. The cars look great and deform realistically when you run them into guardrails and trees. The guardrails even bend when you hit them (though there seems to be only one deformation change but I don’t see many other racing games try armco deformations). The weather effects are pretty cool, especially the rain beading up on the car during the Rally GB.

The colour palate is a bit more vibrant this year than last. However, it’s still not unrealistically vibrant which is to the game’s benefit. The menus have been given a complete overhaul. Rather than the predominantly black and white menus of WRC 1 and WRC 2, respectively, this year’s menus resemble something more of a comic book or graphic novel style. The menus have drawings of cars in action. Apart from the car and location selection screens, the menu icons look like hand drawn posters.

While Milestone has made some nice improvements on the graphical side, I’m still not liking some of the environments. The tall grass near the side of the road, while rendered in 3D, sticks out like a sore thumb. The plastic orange fencing appears as a solid orange fence until you get close enough for the holes in it render in. Textures on the ground appear painted on with a faux 3D effect. (The road textures looks pretty good though.) While covering the environment with a fresh snow or rain makes the environment look realistic, the dry weather environments are what’s keeping WRC 3 behind the rest of the racing genre in terms of graphics. Improving them will get it graphically on par with the rest of the genre.

Remember my gripe about this being a console port? Your graphics setup isn’t even in the game. Apart from changing what’s on your HUD, everything else is adjusted outside the game. You have to do it from the startup/splash screen before you actually start the game. Your screen resolution and anti-aliasing are adjustable via drop boxes while you have check boxes for high-resolution textures, v-sync, particle effects and shadows. There are no degrees for the check box graphic controls, just on or off.

Whether this is just my own circumstance or fairly common, I don’t know. However, my laptop was reasonably high-spec for a non-gaming laptop when I bought it two years ago. It can run WRC 3 without breaking much of a sweat. The load on the RAM and CPU is less than a third of the strain than Mass Effect 3 despite maxing out graphics and screen resolution (for my screen anyway). I think there’s still some room to push the limits on PC. That’s another thing that indicates to me this is a console port.

Audio

I’m not a fan of the mix of electronic music that makes up the soundtrack but that’s because I don’t like electronic/club music that dominates Top 40 radio stations. However, the fact that the game has a menu soundtrack longer than one song is a massive improvement over WRC 2. Mind you, it was the realization that they’ve added to the soundtrack that made me think that someone from Milestone read my review of last year’s game since they’ve gone back and worked on menus, music and updated some of the stages.

Like last year, the car engine audio is lacking in that distinctive race car note. If you’ve ever seen a race in person, you know that you practically feel the car drive by as the sound of the engine vibrates you as it goes by. There’s no such throaty engine sound from the naturally aspirated engines. The turbocharged engines have no distinctive turbo whine or wastegate chirping. The cars sound more like road cars run hard rather than race cars with noise dampening removed and exhaust with minimal muffling.

Overall

WRC 3 is definitely a step up from the prior year in terms of graphics and audio. Driving the car is more intuitive than last year. This should be rated higher than last year’s game. The problem is that they’ve stepped back in other areas.

I can’t rate this year’s game in a higher bracket than last year when it de-emphasizes the actual WRC championship. Road to Glory worked when as a part of Dirt 3 because it didn’t have the licence to recreate an actual championship. WRC 3 could have streamlined last year’s Road to WRC (by cutting out some of the human resources work [they should look at Codemaster’s F1 Online game for a template to use for that]) and scored high in gameplay. It wasted the potential of the license with the big game mode so I can’t rate WRC 3 higher than next year.

The potential is still there for a great game. Improving the environment graphics, making the cars sound like rally cars (especially the WRC cars) and putting in a ladder or progression system to get you to a WRC with your own team or earning a contract would help this game crack the 7.0 threshold.

Gameplay: 6.5/10
Realism: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Audio: 6/10

Overall: 6.8/10

WRC 3 was reviewed on PC but is also available for the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3. Your impression of the game will change depending on your PC specs and which platform you played the game on.

Our game review scoring methodology is explained here.

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