Since its launch earlier this year, the PlayStation Vita has been largely devoid of decent driving games. Sure, there’s the obligatory Ridge Racer to provide that thin slice of nourishing, easy to digest arcade action, but aside from a shoddy 3DS port of F1 2011 there’s been little in the way of serious, deep pan driving games.
Enter WRC3, which, as the title suggests, aims to fully replicate Milestone’s rally simulation on Sony’s struggling handheld system.
However, unlike Criterion who have heavily publicised their ambitious Vita version of Need for Speed Most Wanted, Milestone have been surprisingly secretive about their closely-guarded Vita version.
It’s surprising, because we’re happy to report that WRC3 on Vita holds up very well indeed against its console counterparts – it’s a true technical feat that can safely proclaim itself as the Vita’s first proper driving game.
But don’t just take our word for it. During our visit to Milestone, we were able to record some video to bring you the first ever footage of WRC3 on Vita in action:
From my first hands-on, I was genuinely surprised by how closely WRC3 on Vita resembled its big brothers. Visually, WRC3 looks superb on the Vita’s crystal clear screen - all the bells and whistles of Spike Engine have remained largely intact, sporting a similar level of track detail and lavish lighting techniques. It all ran at a steady 30 frames per second, too, perfectly capturing WRC3's enthralling sense of speed. I did encounter a few instances of slowdown during some of the intermissions before and after the rally however, but it remained solid throughout my playthrough.
It’s not quite identical, though. But minor quibbles such as less prominent reflections and small sacrifices to the track texture details aside, WRC3 looks every bit as good as it does on PS3, which is a testament to the capabilities of the preposterously powerful PS Vita.
Milestone’s Head of Development and Technologies and Lead Physics Programmer Stefano Lecchi explains exactly how the graphics were altered: “The rendering required some reduction in texture and material quality since the Vita has a little less power than the consoles, so we needed to remove some objects from the tracks and also remove some layers for materials, but nothing too drastic. We reduced the grass around the track for example, but we tried to keep the experience as similar as possible.”
“The Spike Engine was extended to support the Vita platform so it’s the same graphical engine but the actual assets had to be tweaked. So the code is exactly the same, it was just a case of adding a new platform to our engine”, Stefano adds.
Controlling the car felt satisfyingly fluid as I navigated the treacherous obstacle course that is Monte Carlo. While the physics again seemed very similar to the console iteration, the handling felt more forgiving overall, but this is most likely due to the Vita’s limited control inputs.
Steering with the Vita’s smaller analogue nub simply doesn’t offer the same precision as a standard controller, as Head Designer Irvin Zonca confirms: “The changes that you feel are probably due to the different way that the processor processes the physics because the code is really the same. It’s like when you play across PS3, 360 and PC – the code and the tuning is the same but the input changes a bit between the platforms.”
“For example, the 360 controller is very different from the PS3 controller because of the placement of the sticks and the response time for the console. We were expecting to have problems to be honest – we thought that we would have to tweak down the physics and were quite worried. But everything turned out fine.”
Sadly, although perhaps predictably, compromises had to be made in order to prevent the Vita version from becoming a stuttering wreck. The most significant omission is WRC3’s Road to Glory, which of course means that WRC3 on Vita doesn’t have a main career mode. You can still play through Championships so there is still some sense of progression, but it’s a risky move considering that Gran Turismo on PSP received significant backlash for not including a career mode.
Irvin believes that this was necessary in order to adapt WRC3 for the portable market, however: “Contents are different to suit the portable platform so we focused on single races and WRC championship,” he explains.
“For our first WRC title on Vita we wanted to focus on technology to have a solid experience while you are racing the tracks. We also decided it would be better to create really good visuals and physics – since it is on a portable console people are more likely to play it on the underground or in the car etc, so they are looking for a quicker gaming experience. We think that giving a very good quick experience is better than adding too much content without a solid base for the engine, graphics and physics because it’s always a trade-off of ‘what should I implement first?’"
Unfortunately, Milestone’s ambition to keep the graphics and performance on a par with the console games has meant that WRC3 on Vita will have significantly less stages, too. Only six locations will be available from launch compared to 13 elsewhere, comprising Rallye Monte-Carlo, Rallye de France - Alsace, RallyRACC-Rally de Espana, Acropolis Rally, ADAC Rallye Deutschland and Wales Rally GB. Each stage remained faithful with the exception of the Germany stage, which looked as though it could do with some touching up on the build I played. Fortunately, Rally Guanajuato Mexico, Philips Rally Argentina and Vodafone Rally de Portugal will be added post release as free DLC to soften the blow.
The car count has also been decreased. Only 11 out of WRC3’s 37 cars are bundled with Vita version, but this comes as a result of Road to Glory being dropped. All of the official WRC, Class 2 and Class 3 cars are in, but you won’t be able to drive the retro Group B cars that featured in Road to Glory for example. As with the tracks, hopefully Milestone can release some of the missing cars as DLC at a later date.
As for multiplayer, WRC3 on Vita will only support 6 players as opposed to 16 and the photo mode also won’t be included.
Speaking with Setefano reveals that the Vita could have quite easily stored all of WRC3’s data in reality, but this would have prevented WRC3 from running at that all-important 30 FPS: “We didn’t have any big memory issues on Vita, it was much more to do with performance issues”, he confirms. It’s for these reasons that Crossplay sadly won’t be available for WRC3 due to the differing content across the platforms.
It’s a shame that WRC3 on Vita has been so severely stripped of content, especially when you consider that it will retail for almost the same price as full console versions and the fact that Criterion have managed to virtually cram in Need for Speed Most Wanted on the same platform in its entirety.
It’s understandable, however, when you consider that this was Milestone’s first dabble with the PS Vita, which gave them their own objectives. “The Vita version is not a direct port of the main console version. The main console versions gave us the chance to include more content, but this is the first year we have been developing for the Vita hardware”, says Irvin. “I think we have achieved a very good result with the graphics and handling – the handling remains the same as the PS3 and 360 version so all the simulation aspects are there.”
Considering that developing for the Vita was uncharted territory for Milestone, you would expect them to face a host of technical challenges. This apparently wasn’t the case according to Stefano: “I think it’s been easier than we expected to program for the Vita, “It was more or less like the other platforms”, he says. “The PS3 tends to be a bit trickier to work with because its architecture is quite different to other platforms and PC, but the Vita fits in-between the Xbox 360 and PS3 in terms of difficulty. At the beginning we had some issues but we were able to work with Sony to quickly resolve them.”
“Vita is a powerful platform, so it’s not so far from the PS3 and Xbox 360 even though it’s a portable console. Porting over WRC3 was therefore not so difficult. We also thought it was a good trial for our supporters to publish a game on Vita so they could experience the game outside of their homes.”
From what I played, Milestone have done a commendable job with porting WRC3 onto the Vita that trounces WRC's last outing on PSP by remaining faithful to the source material. For avid racing game fans who want a rally game on the move, Sony could potentially have a system seller on their hands - WRC3 is by far and away the most realistic driving game currently available for Vita, which puts it in a class of its own.
Join us next time where we'll be taking a behind the scenes look at WRC3's unique artwork as we come to the end of the road with our interview with Milestone.