EA Sports WRC is coming soon, and I’ve had the privilege of putting in some hours on its final version ahead of the rally sim's November 3 release. We’ve already tried an early version of the game, which was slightly flawed but extremely promising, and now Codemasters’ new rally-centric passion project is getting a shot at the big leagues.
I called the early version of the game Dirt Rally 3.0 by a different name, and that holds true in the final version. But where this new release truly differs to the rest of Codemasters’ rally titles is in the minutiae of gameplay. There’s an all-new career mode centered around keeping your mysterious billionaire benefactor “Max” happy with smart budgeting and good driving. This includes a car-building system where you can pick and choose engines, gearboxes, suspension, seats, steering wheels, and body panels to maximize performance and minimize cost, as well as a variety of events all designed to mimic the real day-to-day of a pro driver.
So, yes, we all know EA Sports WRC drives well. But does it play well?
Building a Career
The centerpiece of the new WRC game is an overhauled career mode that tries to blend team ownership along with driving. There are several moving parts to a successful career, and it starts with choosing a car and series.
From the start, you can choose any one of three car classes: WRC Rally1, WRC Rally2, and Junior WRC. Of the cars, you can choose to start with a pre-built machine from the real world or opt to build-your-own car with a selection of parts. It’s not like Need for Speed or Forza Motorsport where certain parts add horsepower or reduce weight, but rather, the components you select determine reliability and service costs. That gets to the next big point of the career mode: Budgeting.
OK, don’t panic; WRC isn’t suddenly an accounting simulator. The budgeting system is present but not very punishing, and fortunately extremely easy to manage. It centers around keeping a mysterious billionaire benefactor happy with your habits and performance, and it’s all visualized by a bar that goes from Angry to Ecstatic. Obviously, the goal is to keep your overlord happy, and there are various ways to do that. Meeting the easy budget goals is only enough to maintain the relationship. Performing well in competitions and completing so-called “hospitality” challenges help further your case.
The structure of the career is based around weeks, and the budget is largely dependent on your choice of car parts and team members, each of which consume a certain amount of credits on a recurring basis. This is where the linearity of the game forms, with the player only able to do one task every week. Those tasks include competitive events and invitationals that allow you to drive historic WRC cars, but might be better spent resting current crew and hiring new crew. The events don’t cost money to enter, but any damage is deducted from your budget.
I started my career with a custom-built WRC car I christened the Homer WRC GT-R Rally1 Edition. The custom-built vehicle function is cool, but doesn’t seem to have a huge bearing on gameplay. As long as you pick decent parts (not too cheap, not too expensive), you’ll be fine. There’s a livery editor too, which makes the exercise largely about personalization. But what is supremely cool is the ability to choose engine location, which makes a colossal difference in how the car drives. My home-built Homer GT-R Rally1 is mid-engined, which makes it eager to rotate and unstable. Rear-engined cars exacerbate that character but add traction, while front-engined handle most like traditional rally cars.
From there, you progress based on seasons, and you can go for as long as you like. It’s a lot like the F1 franchise in this respect, and allows for a lot of late-game craziness. It is a little clunky and confusing at first, and consistent events for your chosen class of car are strangely sparse, but it’s an overall decent attempt at making career mode more interesting than just going to a rally and winning. And if career isn’t your bag, there’s more for you elsewhere.
The Spirit of Rallying
There are six other game modes to try, if you don’t feel like appeasing a shadowy billionaire. The classic modes are there, like Championship, Time Trial, Multiplayer, and Quick Play but there are several new modes within and around them. One is the Gran Turismo licensing school-esque Rally School that teaches you everything you need to know about driving in WRC. Another is Moments, where the game challenges you to recreate iconic moments from rallying history. Then, there are Clubs, player-run leagues that I was unable to sample before this review.
Within Championship is a new mode called Regularity Rally, which is a form of rallying that is about hitting an average speed and time rather than going as fast as possible. Along with that, there are 18 locations, 204 rally stages, and 78 cars to choose from for any of the modes. Suffice to say, there are many ways to peel back WRC’s gameplay.
Meandering through the game is rewarding, and in stark contrast to the austere career mode. You can pick almost any rally fantasy you like, from Colin McRae’s 1998 Subaru Impreza WRC, to Walter Röhrl’s Group B Audi Quattro. There is a theme that the lower-classed cars are much more fun and natural to drive, however. Piloting a Rally1 GR Yaris feels like too much fast-forward, where a simpler NR4 or Junior Rally car is more organic and loose. The WRC cars feel like they’re breaking the laws of physics, which might actually be accurate if you watch modern WRC onboards.
But I will echo exactly what I said in our preview rundown: The game is genuinely incredible to drive. It’s not a total simulator, but it balances simulation and immersion perfectly. The force feedback is excellent on most cars, and is a step-change improvement over Dirt Rally 2.0. Now, there’s much more organic heft and inertia, and more self-centering force that helps communicate slides more accurately. Yes, that odd Codemasters sense of weightlessness is there, but it serves the experience rather than feeling awkward.
Where the gameplay shines is loose surfaces, while the tarmac model needs work. Greece’s thick gravel feels like it scrunches beneath my fingertips in force feedback, while Sweden’s snowy, icy surfaces lighten steering loads and allows for long, gentle slides. Tarmac, however, feels springy and odd, and the grip drop-off is too pronounced, making judging cornering speeds versus pace notes difficult. Some slides are too easy to save while other, gentler slides result in an uncorrectable spin. The asphalt demands perfection, and while it's difficult, it’s also exhilarating to get right.
But the graphics issues I experienced on my fairly powerful PC (RTX 3080 GPU, Ryzen 7 CPU) during the preview still existed in the full release. When stages reached small villages, framerates on my recommended Ultra settings dropped to below 20 frames per second. Sometimes, when going slightly off-track, the game would stutter for a half-second or more. Dropping the quality down to Medium mostly fixed it, but then the game looked awful. High graphics is where I landed, where I still struggled with frame drops but could play the game. The game looks good, but not good enough to warrant such bad performance. Let's hope that Codemasters addresses these shortcomings soon for the PC audience.
A New Era for Rally Games
Immersion is number one for EA Sports WRC. But it doesn’t sacrifice physics, feel, or realism for the sake of it. The rally stages are treacherous, narrow, and true to the real thing. The cars are fast, each take a different style, and all require bravery to drive quickly. Codemasters' first WRC title may not unseat Richard Burns Rally as the perfect off-road simulation that a certain subset of old-school sim racers still cling to—and, frankly, I'm not sure anything could. But as a rally game, nothing else touches it.
The result is one of the most fun single-player racers I’ve played in a long time. I’m the kind of person that dusts of Forza Motorsport 2 and Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed for a lazy Sunday, so EA Sports WRC is a truly unusual game for the current era. It feels mostly complete, despite some framerate issues, and has a ton of value for $49.99. Rally fans have waited a long time for a WRC game like this. It is truly the real deal.
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