It's been a long and bumpy road for developer Milestone's WRC series. Released back in 2010, the Italian developer’s first WRC game was a valiant attempt to get rallying back on the gaming map after Evolution Studios’ (who are now in charge of the acclaimed MotorStorm series) successful stint of five WRC titles during the PS2 era but it was ultimately bogged down by limited resources, leading to a disappointingly mediocre reception. Indeed, as they revealed in our developer interview, Milestone certainly felt the pressure to develop a rally game from the ground-up, and their first attempt suffered as a result.
Unfortunately, WRC 2 didn’t fare much better a year later either, as critics slated the apparent lack of evolution from WRC. I was one of those critics, admittedly: “It’s truly sad to see the WRC series in such a sorry state – we can only hope that Milestone have the time and money to apply a lot more effort next time round” I concluded over on Made2Game at the time.
Add in some stiff competition from the likes of DiRT and the mounting apathy towards the WRC motorsport thanks to Sebastien Loeb’s nine consecutive wins, and some will argue that WRC games are no longer relevant – compare that to Codemasters’ reboot of F1 games at a time when F1 fandom is at an all-time high.
Thankfully, I’m relieved to report that Milestone has clearly taken feedback on-board, as WRC3 is a decidedly better game all-round.
It’s chiefly thanks to Spike Engine, a new in-house engine developed by Milestone that has tremendously transformed WRC3. Milestone’s unfortunate budget constraints meant that WRC’s graphics lacked the level of polish we’ve come to expect this generation, but WRC3 has been given a thorough makeover by comparison, with an emphasis on realism.
Lavish lighting effects are immediately striking, giving the visuals a more realistic veneer as sunlight shimmers through trees whilst highlighting the detailed terrain. Indeed, the various surfaces look more natural now, from the weathered tarmac to the loose gravel. Even the thick clouds of dust trailing behind the car have been drastically improved, an aspect that many off-road games seem to neglect.
Each car was also remodelled with impeccable detail, and they now look sublime compared to WRC 2. Keen to show off these new car models, the designers added the ability to freely rotate and zoom in to get a closer look at the cars in the selection screen – zooming in on the interiors reveals previously unseen intricacies, such as the rollcage and spare tyres.
A similar attention to detail has been applied to the presentation, too. Unlike most games that use conventional CGI images to decorate their menu wallpapers, Milestone enlisted the talent of Italian artist Andrea Del Pesco who provided a series of lovingly-detailed hand-drawn paintings, giving WRC3 a distinctive art-style that effectively encapsulates the spirit of rallying and Milestone’s Italian heritage.
Reflections are now more prominent from Spike Engine’s new lighting effects, and the damage modelling is particularly impressive – smack into a tree and the car will dynamically deform exactly as you would expect, adversely affecting the handling which you can monitor with the on-screen indicators.
Admittedly, WRC3’s visuals are still not quite on par with its big budget rivals. Some tracks suffer from blurry textures and trackside objects look downright ugly in places, but these blemishes are difficult to spot when you’re hurtling towards a narrow crest at terrifying velocity. Graphically, WRC3 is a significant step forward and is easily Milestone’s best looking game to date by a huge margin.
While many stages have been carried over from WRC 2, it’s fair to say that the majority of them are practically unrecognisable now. In response to feedback, Milestone has made the stages noticeably narrower compared to the unrealistically wide tracks found in WRC and WRC 2. This has a profound effect on the gameplay, as the stages are now more authentic, challenging and enthralling as a result.
It’s a stark contrast to the current competition. Unlike DiRT 3, for example, WRC3’s lengthy special stages are relentlessly challenging, with tight turns, rapid terrain changes and harrowing hairpin turns demanding your undivided attention at all times. Push it to the limit, and you will start to feel the strain on a wheel after a few strenuous stages - you really have to pay astute attention to your co-driver’s instructions in order to survive a stage intact.
Speaking of which, WRC3’s co-driver is much more useful this time round, delivering concise commands that now actually sound like they are being spoken through a radio. He’s also considerably more mild-mannered than WRC 2’s cynical co-driver who would berate you over each mistake.
My only gripe is that Milestone seemingly forgot that female co-drivers exist in WRC. Selecting your car displays a photo of the real life driver and co-driver – a neat touch, and yet if you select an all-female team you’ll hear the same male co-driver dishing out instructions in-game. To my knowledge, there are currently no transsexual drivers participating in the WRC.
For newcomers, WRC3’s steep learning curve is undeniably daunting, however – don’t expect to even place in the top 10 after the first few tries. Yes, you can alter the driving assists and the gruelling nature of rallying is what makes it so endearing, but some simple tutorials or a rally school that teaches driving techniques would have helped make WRC3 more welcoming to newcomers.
Of course, any rally game would be redundant without a solid driving model, but this is another area that Milestone endeavoured to enhance following fan feedback. As we learned from the Lead Programmer himself, Milestone completely rewrote the tyre physics and the difference is immediately apparent from the moment you set off.
Cars feel weightier and more planted, allowing you to use real-world rally driving techniques to really throw the car around and feel the weight distribution through the corners. True to life, WRC3 demands a very technical driving style - feathering the throttle is crucial for success as the tyres struggle to find grip on full power, and there's now a discernible difference between the different types of terrain as you transfer from the grippy tarmac to the loose dirt and gravel.
Better still, the handbrake is now finally an asset rather than a hindrance – unlike in WRC 2 where the slightest dab of the handbrake would send the car spinning out of control, slides can now be controlled through conservative use of the handbrake. There’s no better feeling than performing a successful Scandinavian flick around a tricky hairpin.
WRC3 finally feels comfortable to play on a wheel too, thanks to the responsive handling and accurate force feedback. Don’t expect WRC3’s physics to be that of a full-blown simulation, however – instead, it parks itself neatly in-between the arcade ‘awesomeness’ of DiRT and revered realism of Richard Burns Rally.
It’s a shame, then, that WRC3’s audio doesn’t quite live up to the overhauled graphics and physics. That’s not to say improvements haven’t been made, though – the engines, crashes and environmental effects all sound markedly better than before, and yet the engine sounds still sound too weedy, lacking the raw savagery of a rally car needed to complement WRC3’s gratifying sense of speed.
Structurally, WRC3 is a game of two halves in single player.
WRC purists will feel most at home in the WRC Experience mode, which allows you to play out the official WRC championship in its entirety. Here you get to drive as one of the official drivers and experience rallying in its purest form in point-to-point time trials across 13 real world locations, with the option to customise championships – whether you want to dip into a few stages from each location or take on an entire season.
All of the official Class 3, Class 2 and WRC cars, including the WRC game debut of the Volkswagen Polo R and Proton Satria Neo, are available and can be tuned in-between stages -, ideal for making repairs and adjusting the suspension and gears.
Each location is well distinguished, from the rain-soaked mud bath in Wales to the cobbled streets of a small town in Mexico and the sweeping snowy cliff edges of Monte Carlo. The Monte Carlo track is particularly notable, as Milestone used extensive location scouting and satellite imagery to model the stages, a technique which we hope to see utilised for every location in future games. It’s just a shame you can’t alter the time of day and weather – we can only imagine the extra challenge the ability to drive at night would bring.
At 83 stages there’s certainly plenty to plough through, but sectors from stages in each location tend to repeat, making the experience become slightly samey. I would also say there's an overabundance of hairpin turns in the track designs, clearly placed to ramp up the difficulty.
In an attempt to invigorate the series, we also have the Road to Glory mode which, as much as Milestone may deny it, was seemingly influenced by the potent popularity of Codemasters’ DiRT series.
This redesigned career mode has you playing as a rookie driver trying to make a name for yourself against ten crudely-drawn drivers. Road to Glory completely ditches the authentic approach found in WRC 2 where negotiating sponsors and building your team was the order of the day, replacing it with a more streamlined system that relies on the tried and tested game mechanic of collecting brightly coloured stars to progress. Stars are rewarded based on both your finishing position and bonus skill points, which reward you for flamboyant driving such as executing jumps, drifts and, surprisingly, environmental destruction. It's hard to shake off the feeling that traces of DiRT was spread over WRC3's bodywork during the development of Road to Glory, which is reinforced by the inclusion of Challenges.
Presented as an addition to the standard time trial rallies, these novelty challenges have you smashing through colour-coded polystyrene walls or nursing a decaying car to the finish line in a game of survival, for example, before the final head to head races with each rival on a super special stage. Thankfully, they don’t overshadow WRC3’s core credentials as these challenges are merely fun distractions that represent a relatively small proportion of the game. Besides which, hardcore rally fans can still fall back on the Road to WRC if Road to Glory causes too much offense.
But perhaps the most glaring evidence that Road to Glory is enamored with DiRT stems from the dreaded d-word. Yes, you guessed it: WRC3’s soundtrack consists of…(whisper it) dubstep. Of course, music taste is always going to be subjective, but I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that WRC3’s headache-inducing soundtrack is unequivocally woeful and jarringly out-of-place. Moving on.
Like WRC Experience, Road to Glory is unapologetically challenging, as you have to earn a set number of stars to unlock stages. There’s therefore a fair amount of grinding as you are forced to repeat earlier stages to improve your performance in order to achieve more stars and progress. While the challenge is certainly welcome, repeating some of the earlier stages, which often plonk you in plodding rally cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s, becomes a chore. It’s also disappointing to find that the aforementioned cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s, including the notorious Group B rally cars, aren’t accessible in the WRC Experience mode, although this can be rectified by selecting the free roam option in Road to Glory. It’s not a perfect solution however, as you have to unlock every location in Road to Glory before you can select any car and track combination.
While Road to Glory is a more accessible, streamlined career mode that offers some variety to those who tire of playing through time trials, it’s still no substitute for the comprehensive career found in previous WRC games, however, and is indicative of Milestone attempting to follow the mainstream – a tricky feat to pull off for a developer that prides itself on catering for the specialist market. It may not have been an entirely successful experiment, but credit to Milestone for attempting to branch the series out.
WRC3’s online multiplayer remains largely unchanged from WRC 2. Cars and stages from WRC Experience can be played in single stage or full rallies in time trials against up to 16 players represented as ghosts, and you can also compete in the head to head super special stages. There have, however, been some curious compromises.
Bewilderingly, the host can no longer select a stage, instead relying on either the game or player votes to decide which stage to play. But even the voting system has been botched, as WRC3 will still randomly select its own stage even if the votes are clearly favouring a different stage. Nevertheless, the ability to see your competitor’s live progress on the track in ghost-form ramps up the intensity compared to tackling the stages on your lonesome.
A new Milestone
Spike Engine has provided Milestone with a solid foundation to build upon for future titles, but there's still room for improvement when it comes to the inevitable sequel. Principally, WRC3 still doesn't fully encapsulate the atmosphere of the WRC motorsport. Strangely, the stages still feel lifeless, depriving the rallies of crucial immersion.
There are no staggered starts for a kick-off, robbing the sense of being on a journey with multiple competitors. I want to drive past crashed competitors and avoid random hazards like in WRC: Evolved. I want to see helicopters soaring overhead recording the action. I want to see cheering crowds sounding airhorns and scrambling suicidally across the track to get a closer view of the action. Previous WRC games managed to incorporate these elements many years ago, so it’s surely about time Milestone followed suit. Technical additions such as changeable/dynamic weather and night time racing are also on the wishlist, but this will hopefully be a natural progression for the inevitable sequel.
We’re therefore eagerly awaiting to see how WRC4 will evolve the series if a release is on the cards for this time next year, but we can at least now forgive and forget Milestone’s initial false starts as WRC3 is hands-down the most definitive rally game since Richard Burns Rally made by rally enthusiasts for rally enthusiasts. Third time lucky, Milestone.