As we know, the rallying genre has seen better days. Much like the real life sport it replicates, the ’90s was undoubtedly its heyday, as Colin McRae Rally set the standard for rally titles to follow. Ten years later, it’s now a very different story.
Milestone’s WRC series faced a torrent of critical backlash for its shortcomings, but with Codemaster’s DiRT series dominating the genre it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was no longer a place for hardcore point-to-point rally games. And yet there was clearly still a demand for them.
DiRT 3 brought rallying back to the forefront of the franchise after the nagging community derided DiRT 2 for its overabundance of ‘gnarly’ X-Games-inspired events, but it still wasn’t enough. For a rally enthusiast, DiRT 3 didn’t quite deliver on its promise – only a handful of rally locations were available, which were often disappointingly short at just 2 minutes long. WRC therefore had a distinct advantage, but its poor production values ultimately prevented it from living up to its potential.
Fortunately, Milestone managed to spruce up WRC3’s visuals courtesy of their in-house developed Spike Engine, but the question still remained: with Codemasters’ DiRT series proving popular, would a game based solely on point-to-point rally still suffice?
It was perhaps inevitable, then, to find that traces of DiRT have spread into WRC3’s wheel arches, which was initially concerning for a game that prides itself on ‘authenticity’, as Lead Designer Matteo loves to reiterate.
WRC3’s otherwise improved menus, for example, have now been draped with abominable dubstep dross in what seems to be a vain attempt to modernise the series. Likewise, the once analy accurate career mode seen in WRC 2, which included team management mechanics such as hiring and firing and securing sponsorship, has been scrapped in favour of the more accessible Road to Glory career mode, in which you rise up the ranks of WRC, compete with rival rally stars in mini-games and collect brightly coloured stars to earn car and stage unlocks. It’s a decidedly more arcadey approach in stark contrast to WRC 2’s sterile structure that, on the surface, appears to be aping Codemasters’ titles.
Speaking once again with Milestone’s Lead Designer Matteo Pezzotti reveals that this isn’t the case, however – WRC3’s heart is still firmly rooted in point-to-point rallying for the hardcore enthusiast, despite the added garnish.
“WRC3 will appeal to rally fans because DiRT doesn’t have the rally authenticity that we have in our game,” Matteo argues. “They don’t have as many tracks as we have – their special stages only last 2 minutes whereas our special stages can reach 6 minutes. I think that’s important for someone who wants an authentic rally experience, compete for the best times and experience different environments. Obviously our competitors don’t have access to the WRC license either, so we can add all the official cars, drivers and tracks.”
But it was the unveiling of WRC3’s new Challenges mode that managed to cause the most uproar within the community. Watching cars smashing through colour coded polystyrene walls instantly evoked flashbacks of DiRT 3, which made many wonder exactly what direction the WRC series was heading in and whether or not Milestone had finally succumbed to the pressure brought on by its DiRTy adversary.
Matteo defends this design decision: “We wanted to give something that would be more enjoyable for casual gamers. Most of all, we wanted to provide something different from the previous two games – we didn’t want to just copy Codemasters and make the same thing. You don’t play the challenges in a parking lot like in Gymkhana for example, you play them in a rally stage which makes it more difficult.”
Indeed, it seems that Milestone deserve more credit for their innovations in the racing genre: “SCAR: Squadra Corse Alfa Romeo was the first game to introduce the flashback option back in 2005. People from the press and the internet said that this feature was crap so we removed it. We’re not a company that copies other games – we try to innovate and you will see that in WRC3”, Head Designer Irvin Zonca adds.
“Of course we wanted to stick to authenticity and just have pure rally at first. But when we were thinking about WRC3 we wanted to avoid brand fatigue for people who already have WRC 1 and 2, so we wanted to add something different.”
Fortunately, these challenges don’t override WRC3’s core rally events and are seen as merely minor distractions in the run-up to the final head-to-head boss battles. “Our main goal when thinking along these lines from the design phase was to avoid the mistake of sacrificing the rally and make it a small part of the game. WRC3 is about rally – you have the quick races that are just pure rally and you have the championship mode which is the whole championship of the real WRC, i.e. pure rally”, Irvin explains.
“In the Road to Glory career, we have a mix. You have pure rally in the special stages and championships where you can drive Group B cars or cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s which gives you a different way of enjoying the special stages,” he continues.
“And then as an addition, not a main core of the experience, there are the challenges. I would like to say to people that they are just an addition – a beautiful addition because we put a lot of effort into them. It took us about one year to develop all the challenges and to decide what to include.”
Eight different types of challenges are littered throughout the Road to Glory career, ranging from drift challenges and simple rally school cone contests, to novel survival challenges where you must repair your car as it degrades. Forza Horizon-esque races against opponents in ‘special vehicles’ such as helicopters also pop up, along with the challenging Gate Contest where the objective is to avoid the red gates whilst smashing through the green. Trust me, it’s more difficult than it sounds.
And while some of these may sound a tad similar to DiRT 3, Milestone insist that Codemasters’ heralded series wasn’t a direct influence for WRC3: “Some challenges may look similar to DiRT 3,” Irvin admits. “But we didn’t start from what Codemasters did. We just started some brainstorming in meetings to decide what else we could do with the car. At first everyone was saying about smashing objects, so we started to think about fun things to do with the car. It was not about ‘oh someone is already doing this,’ we just wanted to add what we would like to add.”
“You will also find a lot of challenges that have never been seen before in a driving game. For example, in the survival challenge it is as if the car has a virus – the car will lose parts around the track and you have to collect repair icons to reach the finish line. It’s fun, fresh and new but most importantly just an addition.”
“In the career your goal is to defeat the seven ‘young guns,’ i.e. young drivers who are trying to reach the final showdown of the WRC season. The challenges help avoid you repeating the same type of events again and again. DiRT is more about Gymkhana, challenges and a little bit of rally, whereas WRC3 is more like 80% rally and 20% of additions.”
Comparing WRC3 to DiRT’s recent efforts is therefore futile. Whereas DiRT’s American twang caters for a separate audience with its nauseating narration, gnarly Gymkahana events and off-road buggy races, WRC3’s focus on real rallying evokes the quintessentially British quality originally found in Colin McRae Rally. Ironic when you consider that Codemasters are based in the UK and Milestone are Italian.
Personally, I enjoy both series for different reasons. If you want variety, then DiRT has it all and does it with unmatched panache, but if you want authentic point-to-point rallying that accurately simulates the WRC and all the excitement that comes with it then WRC3 is the clear winner.
Of course, despite WRC3 being arguably the most definitive rally game in recent years, there is still room for improvement for a potential sequel. Personally, I’d like to see the special stages include staggered starts with other competitors, night time races and dynamic weather, for a kick-off.
I therefore asked if there was anything Milestone couldn’t include in WRC3 due to time constraints: “Every time you finish a game there’s always something missing that you want to put in,” Irvin muses. “Probably…3000 special stages? But yes, definitely more special stages. We started creating special stages early on – if only budget was higher it would be nice to include hundreds of special stages.” Additional DLC will help to rectify this, however, as Milestone confirmed that we can expect an even balance between new cars and tracks in the near future.
As for the future of the WRC series, Milestone still aims to continue developing WRC games as a possible annual series. Licensing contracts are currently being negotiated for WRC4, and I’m told that they will be once again closely monitoring fan feedback for WRC3 to gather ideas for its sequel.
“Our aim is to continue with the series and to continually improve the authenticity and physics. We made a huge step forward from WRC 2 to WRC3 in terms of the tracks and layouts, physics and graphics.” Now that Milestone have this solid foundation, we will hopefully see their vision come to full fruition in future titles.
But even if they don’t hold on to the WRC license, Milestone clearly still have a passion for developing driving games in the future: “I love developing video games about cars, rallying or motorbikes which is an addiction to me,” says Irvin. “Since I am a WRC enthusiast I’d really like to continue the WRC games. With the assets we have at Milestone I think we could continue making rally games even without the license.”
If WRC 4 does become Milestone’s next project, then the stakes are seemingly about to be raised even higher. Rumour has it that DiRT 4 will retaliate by reverting back to a full-blown rally simulation, which would surely prompt further enhancements to Spike Engine in order to stay competitive. 2013 could therefore be a defining year for rally enthusiasts.
Our WRC3 coverage continues next time where we’ll be testing the closely-guarded Vita version, a platform which has been uncharted territory for Milestone.