Version tested: Xbox 360
Critics of WRC ace Sebastien Loeb – who has just won his seventh consecutive world title – will point out that the Frenchman has dominated an era that has seen the sport regress, with a competitive field somewhat lacking in the greatness of the past: no Vatanens, Mikkolas, Kankkunens, Sainzs or Mäkinens, say.
Those silly enough to doubt Loeb's genius will presumably also assume that an official WRC game arriving half a decade after the last one will find itself similarly able to impress with less effort.
The reality is very different, of course. You don't become a seven-time world champion of anything without an abundance of talent, unless you're somehow involved in an international Big Brother competition. The same applies to any rally game these days, regardless of licence.
First impressions aren't encouraging. Even before you're faced with the available play options – The Road to the WRC, WRC Academy, Single Player (with Single Stage, Single Rally, Championship, Time Attack), Hot Seat (Single Stage, Single Rally, Championship for up to four players) or Xbox Live – the welcome screen leaves little doubt that the general level of presentation is going to be functional. In reality, it's worse than functional, given that some of the menu progression is irritatingly awkward.
That functionality carries over to the visuals, because WRC is by no means DiRT 2 pretty. The 13 international locations are suitably representative of their real-life equivalents but, by today's standards, every visual element within the game – be it roadside furniture, track surface detail or car models – is little more than passable. You'd ask WRC to dance, sure, but only because all the cute games in the room had already been spoken for.
The soundtrack to your uneasy union won't help the romance blossom, either. While different vehicles – you'll find all supporting car categories of the 2010 season included, namely J-WRC, P-WRC, S-WRC and WRC (cheekily, historic Group B beasts are available via premium DLC) – offer varying engine notes, you might need an audio engineering diploma to tell them apart. A lack of refinement is also evident in the external sound effects library, which, while adequate (excepting a few elements such as the risible tyre screech), is a long way from the game-enhancing gloriousness of Colin McRae Rally 3's surround sound.
And all the time you're putting up with your co-driver's pace notes which, while decently comprehensive, are delivered with the conviction of a manic depressive robot who's realised existence is futile – only to comically burst into emotion the moment you fall off the side of a cliff or plough your bonnet into a boulder.
You'll be doing plenty of both. Off-road excursions are a way of life in WRC. The game may lack DiRT 2's splendour, but then it's not in the least interested in appealing to that game's demographic. The handling is demanding, even with driving assists, requiring constant concentration and the kind of precision most players rarely have time for these days. Take that time, and you'll find much reward beneath the game's apparent mediocrity.
And that's when you begin to appreciate WRC's inner beauty.
True, the mechanics at work here are a class or two beneath those of console rally sim favourite Richard Burns Rally, lacking that game's impressive meticulousness. Conversely, the drive is nowhere near as intimidating; after a short period of acclimatisation you can, for instance, easily play WRC via joypad.
The driving model isn't uncommonly refined, and the illusion is further hampered by an absurd and inexplicable misuse of rumble feedback. But when you're squeezing through the anorexic streets of quaint Catalunyan villages, skimming Sweden's ice walls or blasting along the treacherous, tree-lined tarmac of Alsace, the in-car experience is more than enough to fully engage the senses.
Embark on the career mode – preferably after graduating from the WRC Academy tutorial stages – and you'll undoubtedly find the early 'junior' cars nervous, skittish and, being front-wheel-driven, difficult to powerslide. There's not much joy in fumbling around with an underpowered Citroën C2 after you've already gone out with its vastly more experienced and fitter 320bhp C4 WRC sister.
The game tries to keep your interest throughout its many competition tiers via objective-based financial rewards, unlockable liveries, paint schemes, cars and further competitions (wisely available through partial, rather than full, completion of previous events) but much of what it does is rudimentary and nothing you won't have seen elsewhere. There are missed opportunities, such as the decision to forgo some GRID-style strategic sponsor decisions due to the uniformity of the choices available (in WRC, the sponsor selection effectively boils down to an aesthetic choice).
The basic presentation and text-based communication with your team also dents much of the atmosphere when out of the car, but there are positives. Get to the service area (a menu screen, of course) in between stages and you're shown your damage and the amount of time required for individual repairs to be performed within your 60-minute allocation. However, within a system that will be familiar to Colin McRae Rally players, Milestone has increased the detail so that you can, for example, elect to repair the convergence loss of your wheels but not bother with hammering out any rim deformation, or prioritise the fixing the major coolant leak and cracked radiator over a damaged fan.
You'll get an idea of the service area sacrifices you're likely to have to make via the game's decent damage system, which although seemingly unable to accommodate full retirements (it appears impossible to rip off a wheel, for instance) will progressively hinder your car's performance enough to render the distinction academic.
Elsewhere, you'll note other encouraging touches, such as a comprehensively tweakable HUD, the ability to determine the timing of your co-driver's instructions, a generous, well-paced Achievements structure, competent rally stage design (even if you'll spot the odd shared or even reversed section) and, not least, a promising online experience. Although difficult to adequately judge prior to the game's release, it appears sufficiently focused to provide consistently enjoyable 16-player (ghost) competition.
Conversely, this level of attention is at odds with a inconsistencies such as a six-stage limit to full WRC events, the absence of Super Special Stages and – most galling for rally fans looking to get their hands dirty – a car set-up system that is both generic and disappointingly elementary given the game's sim aspirations.
A lot of WRC 2010 is as predictable and inevitable as Loeb's seemingly unstoppable run of championships, then. It may let down the sport it depicts with an overall deficiency in polish, general lack of cohesiveness and a few silly design flaws, but a little more time spent in the service area fine-tuning its various elements and next year's edition could be spraying the bubbly while standing on the bonnet of its achievement.
For now, those prepared to invest the necessary commitment, ignore the blandness and live with the game's failings will find that – once on the dirt, gravel, snow or asphalt – WRC FIA World Rally Championship delivers moments that are indisputably thrilling.
7 / 10
WRC is released today for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.