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.
WRC is released today for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.