Developer: Traveller's Tales
Release Date: April 18, 2006
We Americans have our sports of choice, from baseball, basketball, maybe a bit of hockey, that sport we've decided to call "football" despite it not involving much in the way of feet, and NASCAR, the great art of turning left for several hours. This sort of isolates us from a great many sports, including real football, rugby, and rally racing. I find few things quite as enthralling as watching some poor guy in a tiny, overworked car hurtling down what is only a road in the loosest of definitions at speeds that would make even strong men turn shades of green. So it is with great enthusiasm that I went for WRC: FIA World Rally Championship and was only marginally disappointed.
For those of you in the world who've not met rally racing (also known as "rallysport," "rallicross," and "off-road rally"), I'll provide you with a very quick, concise rundown. Rally does not involve man-against-man like most racing types do. Instead, two men — one driver and one navigator — sit down in a compact car and drive through trees, snowbanks, and mountainsides in an effort to get the best time of the lot. It's a bit like the Tour de France in the scoring; your time is slowly calculated over the entire race, which is broken down into "segments," to determine a winner.
Usually, only one car is on the track at once to avoid issues with collisions, since the paths are often tiny, cramped, and twisting through no man's land. The navigator does his best to call out turns and obstacles before his pal in the other seat drives over them at an insane velocity. Often, these are agonizing races, filled with demolished cars, wrecks, and personal injury to the occupants.
WRC takes this in a slightly different direction. Instead of the normal "checkpoint and segment" gameplay we've seen in this very underrepresented genre, you will instead race against "ghost cars" in an attempt to place against them. The idea feels like an attempt to remove the normal sense of isolation that rally racing brings with it; instead of sitting on a track all by your lonesome with only the clock to tell you how well you are (or aren't) doing, you actually have to deal with the ghosts. While your car goes right through them, they give you a tangible target to work against, adding a level of intensity to the process, since you know exactly how well you're doing compared to the drivers around you without having to check the split-time scoreboards after the fact.
The other change over normal rally, and the one that managed to grate me into nearly pitching my PSP across the room several times, ties directly into that: ranking unlocks. In order to progress through each championship tree of four or more races, you must take fifth place or better in the overall standings. If you come in sixth or later, the race is moot, and you will have to rerun it until you do better; no quarter is given. More so, your car always starts the race in the lower third of the cars overall at 10th place, with several of the higher-ranked cars already well ahead of you. Dumping you into the lower echelons of the pack creates a formidable challenge: Even on the lower difficulty levels, the ghost cars are excellent drivers, and if they pull too far ahead, you'll never recover.
The tracks are also rather unforgiving, with cars sliding all over on loose terrain, banging into rocks and coming to a dead stop, or going too far from level and rolling over. Often, sixth place is as good as you'll get, and that comes after several runs at a track so you can memorize the layout and find the absolute best lines. The A.I. drivers are of the nearly-killer-robot variety, more than capable of hitting every curve and never bailing out, though they are a little conservative around corners — which is a good time to catch up.
WRC's presentation is austere but functional, with simple but well-designed menus pulling everything together. The graphics are strictly PlayStation-era, with some jagged lines and low-quality textures on the track. It's a trade-off, though, to keep the framerate good and high with no slowdown to be noted anywhere, which is exactly what you'd ask for from a racing game. Pop-up and draw-in are nice and limited too, though you're not likely to be looking too far down the road at any time.
The audio, on the other hand, calls very little attention to itself with generic engine sounds and equally uninspired music. It generally winds up being very ignorable overall. I also can't find any complaints about the controls; I've always had a tense relationship with the PSP and driving because the analogue "nub" doesn't respond very well and feels horribly unnatural, but I did well enough with the pad to get by. Braking is firm, acceleration is easy to gauge and manipulate, and the handbrake feels like a normal auto handbrake. Don't expect huge spins and flips and whatnot here, since this is closer to authentic racing.
What people may miss most in WRC are the options. While you do have the ability to race multiplayer (ad-hoc only, so I couldn't test it very significantly) and in a small number of single-player modes (Championship, Time Trials, Single-Race), most folks will go straight to the Championship mode and try to get the unlockables, which include new cars and tracks in relatively high counts. The problem is the game mechanics: the "get fifth or better" model will lock you to the single available starting track for quite a while as you get used to the play.
For those of you who are coming in from titles like Colin McRae or Richard Burns, prepare for a bit of a jolt: These cars are completely non-customizable beyond their paintjobs. Gone are standard things like tweaking the brake sensitivity, the steering delay, or the suspension "hardness" — you get a car, and you run the race with it. While you can select a specific WGR driver and a sponsor, this has nothing more than a cosmetic effect on the game. It is kind of a thrill-kill when you know what could be adjusted to make the race less difficult, but you have no options to do so. There is also no concept of vehicle damage, which is a staple of rally racing — and racing in general. Even if you roll these dirt rockets onto their roofs or hurl them off a cliff at high velocity, nothing more cracks than a sound effect or two, and the car will keep on trucking at full speed.
Your appreciation of WRC: FIA World Rally Championship will come down to how much you enjoy the specialized kind of racing it presents. Fans coming from other games will most assuredly enjoy what's presented, taking into account the small list of caveats that come with moving to the portable platform and the unusual approach to scoring and proceeding. Other players may want to test the waters in PC or console iterations before they move this way, just to make sure this is something they'll find fun and interesting. This will make no converts to the rally sport field, but those already singing with the off-road choir will get a blast out of the ability to drive like a maniac through the mountains when they're away from home.
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