WRC

Dishing the dirt.

"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.

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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."

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The pace notes are entertaining, with your co-driver injecting the odd sarcastic barb or panicked scream.

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.

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