"It's not only about racing. It's about rallying. That's something different."
I'm sat in a hotel meeting room in a mildly scruffy corner of Milan, just around the corner from the offices of the motorsport game specialist Milestone. Irvin Zonca, physics game designer, is explaining - with soulful enthusiasm - what this independent developer discovered about the spirit of the World Rally Championship when it started working with the sport's teams and drivers some three years ago.
"The 'rally' word is also used to mean a gathering. So it's something that moves a lot of people that work together, where everyone does their part for success, for victory. It's really an environment, an ecosystem."
Sentimental? Perhaps, and most of it could be said of most other forms of motor racing, too. But we'll let Zonca off. Partly because Italy has a very long and fine tradition of injecting sentiment and passion into the sometimes dry, clinical world of motorsport. Partly because his words also reflect the heart-warming story of a dedicated independent team getting a crack at one of the most prestigious - if neglected - licences in its field and responding by substantially raising its game.
But we'll let Zonca off mostly because his original point is spot on. Rallying isn't racing. It is something different. And that is something most recent rally games have lost sight of.
It's been five years since Sony and Evolution released the last officially-licensed WRC game, and also five years since the last instalment in the Colin McRae Rally series before Codemasters steered it into the thematically muddy DiRT. Enjoyable as the DiRT games were, pure time-trial rallying got drowned out in all their X-Games noise and fictional wheel-to-wheel racing, not to mention in the brash arcade fantasies of the SEGA Rally revival or Evolution's MotorStorm.
More on WRC
What happened? Why has it been so long since we had a proper rally simulator? And - with no offence at all intended to the plucky and passionate Milestone and its publisher Black Bean Games, the companies behind the recent, increasingly accomplished SBK titles - how come no bigger players have stepped up to the challenge?
"Probably because the type of game is very difficult to realise," says game director Fabio Paglianti (a man so profoundly Italian he was seen sporting a neckerchief at E3 - and getting away with it). "The rally experience is completely different. You don't have any challengers beside you. Your challenge is to beat yourself, beat the track.
"Many rally games have changed the paradigm of the rally to get near the public, game fans... The WRC licence is based on the idea that you respect the paradigm where you are alone on the track. So it's a very strong choice for a game," Paglianti says. He points out an interesting contradiction: WRC as a sport may still be big business, but as a gaming experience, it's purist to the point of being niche. Populism has led the big boys astray, and Milestone is here to get us back on the straight - well, far from straight - and narrow.
So Milestone's WRC is just you, the car underneath you, the track underneath the car and a timer ticking away in the corner of the screen. It's rigorously simple, but it comes in thousands of permutations: 13 rallies in 13 locations around the world, 78 stages covering 550 kilometres over 40 different surfaces, and 60 vehicles (though many are the same make and model) across four classes of car.
And it's never the same twice, as Zonca says: "One of the mottos of rally drivers is that a driver that races in circuits sees the same corner thousands of times. A rally driver sees thousands of corners one time."
To give you some sense of progression through this exhaustive database of corners to slide round, the game's 55-event single-player mode will lead you through the career of a rally driver, beginning as a "newbie" starting your own team in the Junior championship. You'll then take your driver and team up through the Production and Super-2000 classes, moving from local to national, regional and continental cups.
All the while you will be earning credits and experience, and attracting more attention from the official WRC teams. But it's not until you reach the WRC itself that you get to join one of these teams and sit alongside the likes of Sebastian Loeb, Kimi Raikkonen, Ken Block and Petter Solberg. (There will, of course, be a quick play mode that allows you to try their cars right off the bat.)
There will be two multiplayer modes, too: a simple hot-seat offline mode where you and your friends set times in sequence; and synchronous online multiplayer that features no collision, in order to respect the rallying "paradigm", with other players represented by ghost cars. It supports 16 players with absolutely no lag, boasts Zonca.
Moving to rallying from circuit-racing presented Milestone with two significant challenges. The first was to write an entirely new physics engine to house a handling model that could cope with the bumps, surface changes and loose, handbrake-heavy, drifting driving style of rallying. It also needed to satisfy simulation enthusiasts while remaining accessible to casual fans of the sport.
"The fact is that you have to give a model that can be handled by a newbie, while keeping the game fun to play," Zonca says. "We started saying, OK, if I apply this aid I will be prevented from skidding. But one of the most beautiful things in WRC is to drift, skid around corners. So why prevent the player from doing this?
"So for example, even if I apply the stability help, it will be impossible to spin in a corner, but it will still be possible to arrive at the corner, brake, making a Scandinavian flick, making the weight shift from one side to the other, then taking the apex, accelerating, exiting the corner with a powerful drift... It's really important."
It's also looking more and more like a success. At E3, WRC's handling had the right feel, but was often unpredictable. Weeks later in Milan it's taking shape beautifully. I try the game on Finnish dirt, Swedish snow, Jordanian sand and German tarmac, and grip is finely modulated, progressive and surprisingly subtle, with noticeable rather than pronounced surface feedback.
The swishing, graceful slides on snow are particularly delicious and easier to control than some games' representation of power-sliding on tarmac. On a console pad, with some driving aids turned on, it's a surprisingly accessible; on a steering wheel (WRC will support every wheel imaginable) with the aids removed it will bite your hand off. But, crucially - and unlike, say, the difference between such set-ups in Forza 3 - it feels like the same game each time.
Milestone's other, even more daunting challenge was creating the stages themselves. Actual stages being far too long to represent in a game, the team had to craft every one of those 550 kilomtres themselves, trying to capture the characteristics and spirit of the actual stages while making sure they'd work from a gameplay perspective.
"So we analyse with deep research of the real location of the rally, go along the track and take photos to understand the characteristics of the ground, the vegetation, the landscape, what you can see from the road..." says Paglianti. "And then, when we have all these elements, we started to recreate based upon various stages. It's not exactly the same, but they have some links to the real ones. Also we put along the stages the typical elements, for example in Finland there's a very famous jump in the rally and we recreate the shape of that jump."
This, based on 24 stages available to play in Milan, is where Milestone has struck gold. Previously bound to transcribing real-world circuits, the studio has found in the freedom of WRC a real talent for creative and exciting track design.
In Sweden, you thread your car down terrifyingly narrow gullies of packed snow, watching walls of ice slide by as you drift past the apex. Germany offers a tight, urban, tarmac complex winding around a Roman ruin that suddenly opens out into a thrilling high-speed sequence through picturesque woods. Jordan is a hair-raising test of guts, the track a ribbon of loose sand winding along the tops of dunes with precipitous drops on either side.
The only thing more amazing than the sheer number of corners Milestone has created is how many of them are memorable and interesting. WRC's stages are credible, but condensed and dramatised in a way that will really help the game escape accusations of dryness.
There are rough edges here; graphical polish is variable, with Finland's watery autumn sun and muddy forests looking very atmospheric, but the Jordanian and German stages needing a few more passes to come up to scratch. Unforunately, you can't expect Milestone to be able to match the visual pyrotechnics of, say, Codemasters' EGO engine. The sound, however, is already excellent.
But it's how WRC feels in your hands, and the feeling Milestone exhibits for the sport, that really matter; especially so after a five-year wait for the return of true rallying to the videogame form. On those counts, you've every right to be optimistic.
WRC will be released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 8th October.