The FIA World Rally Championship is entering a new era with a new champion for the first time in 10 years, but the official game continues to feel like more of the same off-road action. Milestone has made some intelligent changes from last year’s game, but many of its more flaky mechanics remain untouched, and some good elements, including classic cars, have been removed entirely. The thrill of the perfect hairpin powerslide is still present, but WRC’s core content sorely lags behind its competitors.
Like previous WRC games, and indeed the majority of racing games based on an official series, WRC 4 places you in the shoes of an up-and-coming driver seeking to reach the pinnacle of his chosen discipline. You begin the game by naming your driver and co-driver and selecting a manager to guide you through your career. You shouldn’t spend too long choosing your manager, though, because you’re simply choosing from a selection of photos rather than making a decision that has any real influence on your career progress.
If you’ve played previous WRC games, starting yet another Career mode from the bottom of the ladder in the slow, understeering Junior WRC cars seems like a waste of time initially. Thankfully, Milestone has recognised this problem, making the initial seasons shorter to speed up your progress towards the actual World Rally Championship. Junior WRC has only two events, but the seasons become slightly longer as you progress through each support class, eventually reaching a full complement of 13 rallies in the WRC proper. If you’d rather race full seasons in all of the car classes, you can do so via the Rally mode outside of Career mode. The rest of Career mode feels old-fashioned, with slow first-person 3D menus and the usual setup of choosing team contracts and reading emails from your manager.
WRC leans more heavily towards simulation than Dirt, but it’s still accessible thanks to the typical suite of optional assists, such as braking.
Once you’re out in the mud and gravel, the handling feels very similar to last year’s game. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a rally game, with a heavy emphasis on maintaining momentum by sliding the car through tight corners. WRC leans more heavily towards simulation than Dirt, but it’s still accessible thanks to the typical suite of optional assists, such as braking. The biggest control differences from last year are noticeable only if you have a steering wheel. WRC 4’s wheel support is a significant improvement over wheel support in the previous installments, with full support for 900-degree wheels and H-pattern shifters, offering a much more authentic experience if you’re equipped to take advantage of it. If you’re a steering wheel user, this is a game that you absolutely should check out.
Other areas of the driving experience have not been updated in any meaningful way. The co-driver voice is exactly the same monotonous one that has been featured throughout the series, and the cars still don’t feel noticeably different in snow or rain. There’s definitely a little more oversteer in adverse weather conditions, but it’s nowhere near as much of a challenge as in some other racing games. Most of Milestone’s efforts have gone into improving the stages that host the rallies. All of the countries and special stages have undergone an extensive graphical overhaul. Every single object and surface has been retextured and altered to bring the series’ graphics up to date. There are more fans and trackside objects, creating a much better atmosphere and sense of place. The presentation still doesn’t match up to the high standards of other racing games, but it’s not quite as dated as before.
In particular, the lighting has improved dramatically, with different times of day looking significantly different, creating a variety of visibility challenges. The game also features cutscenes that use footage of the real WRC, while some spectacularly over-the-top orchestral music gives each event the feeling of a big occasion and does a surprisingly good job of pumping you up before the start of a stage.
As well as completely reworking the graphics for returning stages, Milestone has thrown out some of the less enjoyable road layouts from previous WRC games and replaced them with completely new configurations. These new routes are much narrower than before, creating a more authentic feeling of the danger faced by real rally drivers and the bravery and skill needed to overcome it. They are also much more challenging than before, but most of the new rallies are constantly winding one way and then the other, giving you very little opportunity to enjoy these powerful cars at high speed. There are plenty of routes where you never need to go above fourth gear in your six-speed gearbox. Thankfully, Rally Finland and other courses with a reputation for speed in real life are not quite so slow, so there is some respite to be had from the constant hairpins that dominate the rest of the game.
When you’re done competing against the clock in single-player (WRC 4 still doesn’t have AI cars on the stages at the same time as you), you can take your off-road antics online. WRC’s multiplayer offering has always been basic, and that continues here, with a simple lobby system for ranked and unranked matches, which can be single stages, a full rally, or a longer championship. Players race on the same stage, at the same time, without staggered starts, so you see ghosts on the course rather than having the opportunity to catch and pass cars which left the gate a few moments before you. The offline multiplayer is similarly basic and only features the returning hot-seat gameplay where you take it in turns to set times on a stage.
WRC 4 continues Milestone’s trend of satisfying but unremarkable rally games. Some key areas have clearly been worked on, but the core experience still lags behind Dirt when it comes to capturing the pure excitement of off-road racing, and Career mode is nothing that we haven’t seen dozens of times in other racing games. There simply isn’t enough originality. If you own a steering wheel, the handling has enough depth to provide some great entertainment, but the tweaked courses aren’t enough of a step forward for the franchise.