As we wade through the insane pile of unreviewed pre-Christmas releases and wonder just why publishers are so intent on releasing 40 per cent of the year's games in one month, we stumbled across WRC 3, one of the many non-essential titles that are now languishing in the nation's sale racks and bargain bins. But how could such a high profile first party title get so lost and underperform so dramatically compared to previous incarnations? Was it really that bad or just one of those B-list brands that can't excite punters to buy the revised version on an annual basis? We were curious enough to find out, one way or the other.
Having had our interest in the overpopulated rally genre revived by the exceptional Colin McRae 04 and the immense promise of Rallisport Challenge 2, we were prepared to give the 'official' game the benefit of the doubt seeing as no-one's bothering to release games for the next few weeks. On a superficial level WRC is an undeniably fine, well presented, slick little game with a level of polish and playability that you'd expect from a first party studio such as Evolution. So how come it's languishing under the burden of lower than expected sales and a perception that it's simply not as good as its competitors?
It's got everything... or has it?
On a superficial level, WRC 3's got everything Codemasters and company would love to have - the official license, which brings with it all the real-life drivers, cars and 14 stages from across the world. It's also arguably got a far superior graphics engine that enables Evolution to display every course at a far greater degree of detail, as well as a (largely) spectacular draw distance that allows the team to show off some stunning views - and all at a mostly very nippy frame rate that delivers a great sense of speed.
To cap it all, it's presented to Sony's typically glossy standards, with a decent front end, a couple of cracking Primal Scream tunes and plenty of TV-style intros that set the scene in a way that the competition can't. So what's wrong with it?
If you'd never played a rally game before you'd probably be more than happy with it. The Novice difficulty level provides an exceptionally easy route to the podium, and we found ourselves winning every single race at a canter - more than 20 seconds ahead at every single stage. Not only is your car repaired automatically after every race, but the handling is easily the most forgiving we've ever come across in a game of this type. Think Burnout 2, and your ability to cane it around every corner, with only a slight tap on the brake necessary to negotiate those tricky hairpins. On top of top of that, it's surprisingly easy to avoid crashing, with most tracks feeling like a procession as you blast round as fast as possible.
Hard to fail
Whereas most rally games will punish you the second you go off the track, WRC 3 almost seems to make it hard to spin off or crash, with some hilarious recoveries possible. While this certainly puts it firmly in the realms of the arcade camp accessibility, it feels a world away from CMR04's assured handling where you felt like you had to concentrate on every detail thrown at you. The fact that we could play WRC 3 with the sound turned down speaks volumes for it - you simply couldn't get away with that in other rally games.
But our lengthy 14 stage marathon through Novice difficulty could not prepare us for Professional mode, which - for reasons hard to fathom - decides to make the CPU players fully 40 seconds quicker per race than on Novice, meaning that you're no longer 20-30 seconds ahead of the pack, but 20-30 seconds behind every single race, and languishing back in 15th place or thereabouts. Double-You-Tee-Eff?!
At first we assumed that this must be some kind of anomaly - that we'd soon get into our stride, but race after race we performed just as well as we had done previously, barely slipping up once yet always way down the rankings. After a few rallies it was evident that there's something seriously amiss with the balancing, and that the folks responsible for the QA and testing are either experts at this game and didn't realise the kind of vertical spike in difficulty that exists between the two settings or have just plainly not bothered to do their jobs. And what makes it even more comical is the fact that there are two more difficulty levels to unlock beyond the default Novice and Professional. Quite how any reasonable driving game fan (and having played most of the games out there over recent years that should mean us) is supposed to stand a chance is something we'd be interested to know.
What makes it even harder is that damage suddenly becomes an issue on Professional, meaning your performance is affected quite seriously if you smack up your car too much. Sure, that's a given in every rally title, but WRC's is a more generic system that just seems to result in the car as a whole being 'damaged', with broken windows and black smoke emanating from somewhere, rather than CMR's where individual wheels and areas of the car could become affected to very noticeable effect. And unlike CMR's system of allocating time to repair individual areas, WRC just makes you soldier on until the stage is over - normally three parts per Rally, so the ability to make amends just isn't there.
We weren't expecting WRC 3 to simply be an official facsimile version of Colin McRae, and in many respects we applaud Evolution's more accessible approach - much as we admired Sony Liverpool's Formula One last summer. But making the game either too easy or too hard is a shortcut to the player returning the game straight back to the shop and moaning to his mates, and ultimately means they miss out on the unlockables, such as the various enhancements to the car, Concept cars or the Extreme mode.
And the game's not without its bugs either, with one memorable track in Spain resulting in us becoming stuck in the scenery in the same place on our first three attempts, before exasperation allowed us to avoid it. What's worse is there's no reset button - great when the game's own internal 3-2-1 mess up counter doesn't kick in for whatever reason.
Wooeeerrgh... wweerrrgh... blleaaagh
As for the sound, well... amusing would be the kindest way to describe it. As an EG staffer observed, the engine noise sounds like a Wookiee being sexually molested, or at best a swarm of bees doing a hairdryer impersonation. The pace notes are functional enough, but after a while you tend to ignore them once you realise the Burnout style handling lets you take care of almost every corner anyway.
Without digging too deep, WRC 3 will strike casual observers as a solid effort that stretches the PS2 technically (but whatever you do, don't play it on a big widescreen telly as it doesn't do it any favours whatsoever), while providing an accessible entry point for the perceived masses. But peel away the layers and it's evident that it's not the best rally game out there by a wide margin, and Evolution has a serious amount of work to do to bring its next effort up to the standard of the impressive competition.