WRC 5 brings together hardcore racing talent for its modest, fun reboot

Impressions of the series' debut on the new generation. 

Typical, isn't it? You wait an age for a decent rally game and then two come popping and spitting over the horizon, kicking up a stinging stream of gravel in your face as they course by. The excitement that met the stealthy Early Access release of Dirt Rally earlier this year told you all you needed to know about the appetite for a hardcore, dedicated off-road sim, and even though it's still early days Codemasters has excelled itself in providing one of the most exacting takes on the hot-headed discipline since the fabled Richard Burns Rally. And now, there's another rally game that's worth keeping an eye on, though this one's slightly different.

The officially licensed WRC series has been around for a while, in various guises - first with Sony and Evolution Studios, before that partnership went on to the similarly wild MotorStorm and then the more refined DriveClub, and latterly with Milestone's more modest reign that began in 2010. Milestone's games were acceptable, but never quite exciting - you sensed the small Italian developer didn't quite have the same affinity with the sport as it does with motorbikes in its more thrilling two-wheeled outings - and the yearly churn never quite sat right with an outfit with clearly limited means. By the time of WRC 4 last year, the games had become as predictable as the world title being won by someone called Sébastien.

60fps is the target, though there were stutters with (early) PC build, and it looks like the console versions might struggle to attain that too.

For the series' belated arrival on new generation hardware, there's a change in direction. And, well, on paper, it doesn't sound too promising. Have you heard of developer Kylotonn before? It's unlikely, and even if you have experience of games such as the woeful looking Motorcycle Club or The Cursed Crusade, your impressions aren't likely to be favourable. Based on its track record, the prospect of the Paris-based studio being the new custodians of the WRC series is hardly one to salivate over.

But even if Kylotonn hasn't much pedigree of its own, it's done well to ship in some from elsewhere. The roll call of talent brought in for WRC 5 makes for impressive reading: there's creative director Diego Sartori, who began life as a race mechanic before being hired by SimBin to work on GTR, GTR 2 and Race 07; there's game director Alan Jarniou, who worked on V-Rally 3 before taking senior roles on Test Drive Unlimited and its sequel; and there's Marcus Reynolds, another SimBin veteran who's a keen pedaller in his spare-time, and who's working on WRC 5 as the handling consultant.

It's a fresh start for the studio, and a fresh start for the series, with nothing inherited from Milestone's reign: WRC 5 has been made, from scratch and using Kylotonn's own engine, in a mere 18 months. "We got nothing from them," says Jarniou. "We didn't ask! The challenge is to start anew, and a new generation of the game."

One thing WRC 5 does share with its predecessors, though, is a sense of modesty. This remains a small game from a small developer - when it comes to production values, even Dirt Rally in its unfinished state eclipses much of what's here - and it's slim on features and options. There's a career that takes you through approximations of real-world stages, using your limited time resources to patch up the car at the end of each day in the service centre, plus the ability to tackle single stages or whole rallies on their own in WRC machinery, or in the slightly less powerful WRC2 and WRC3 sub-classes. Beyond that, there's nothing much of note.

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Rally's due something of a resurgence of interest when Toyota join the party soon - here's hoping they can break Volkswagen's current stranglehold.

What will make it, then, is how it handles on the tarmac, on the asphalt and on the snow - and all the varied surfaces that make up the World Rally Championship calender. Here, WRC 5 does a little more to distinguish itself, delivering a more fluid, more rewarding handling model than the slightly stiff one at the backbone of Milestone's games. The stages flow with more variety, too - there's less recycling of assets, and of entire sections of road - while each surface behaves in believable, satisfying ways. The gravel of Portugal has you sliding between sleepy villas, adverse camber kicking up a wheel on an apex before it comes crashing softly down again, while Sweden's snowy banks offer a softer, more slippery ride.

What really marks it out, though, is how forgiving it all is. Maybe it's a result of coming fresh from Dirt Rally, in which you need a deep understanding of how weight transfer works in tandem with different drivetrains to go well, but the learning curve in WRC 5 is amazingly swift. Within seconds you're sawing away at the wheel with confidence and what feels like flair, feeling like a hero flirting with danger rather than a heavy-footed fool who spends half their time picking bits of car off of the scenery. WRC 5 is still a believable approximation of the real thing, but it's Sega Rally rather than Richard Burns Rally that seems to be the touchstone here. It's a different approach to Dirt Rally, the hardcore credentials it's picked up from the sim veterans on the team tuned out for a broader audience.

"We should avoid the word simulation, and concentrate on the word authentic," says handling consultant Marcus Reynolds. "Authentic gameplay is tantamount to believable and authentic experiences, like the real world, without dipping your toes into a world of hurt by saying it does things that it really doesn't. It doesn't need to do those things if it's delivering a smile to your face and making you believe you're driving a rally car.

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There's night racing which is suitably challenging, and different weather conditions are also a factor.

"What we have now is something I believe people can play, have a thrill and have some experience of real world vehicle dynamics relative to the real cars, with oversteer, understeer, lift-off oversteer, and get them feeling like they've been sliding around on the dirt. If they get that, and get a smile on their face, then we've succeeded with WRC5. That would be the foundation for WRC6 - and hopefully we can start focussing on the finesse that we'd have liked to do on 5, but are unrealistic to do on 5. We've focussed on what mattered for 5 as a foundation."

If it's about delivering smiles, a short time with WRC 5 suggests it'll certainly come good. There's a nagging concern, though, that Kylotonn's best intentions could be trundled over by the yearly churn the studio looks to be heading into with the series - and a question mark remains whether it'll be able to escape the rut that Milestone's games found themselves in. Kylotonn is, at least, realistic about what it's able to deliver.

"We set a goal - we wanted a game that was authentic, fun to play and that people would enjoy," says Reynolds. "If we started off doing too much too soon you'd start with something very half-baked. I don't think we're doing anything particularly different - we're just doing the best we can. Technology moves on every day, and we're using that, all the experience we have, and trying to do the best we can, really."

This article is based on a press trip to Germany. Publisher BigBen paid for travel and accommodation costs.

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Martin Robinson

Martin Robinson

Editor-in-chief

Martin is Eurogamer's editor-in-chief. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.

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