What makes a rally game? Speed helps, as do puddles, and patches of muddy track. Long drifts are essential, and the thing has to look right. You want to thunder into woodland and over ice. The cars, with their glaring sponsorships, should resemble sculpted dollops of Colgate wrapped in Christmas lights - or futuristic toys. Oh, and those racks of headlamps, as if a vampire hunter were competing, are a must. With EA Sports WRC, Codemasters supplies all of this. Plus, the studio, constitutionally incapable of making a bad driving game, is now armed with the official World Rally Championship licence.
The new game centres on a career mode, in which you are assailed not only by curves of gravel-topped treachery, high in the mountains, but by the tight turnarounds of the calendar. You can only choose one activity per week: a race, a rest, a motor show, a talent hire. But opting for one means missing the rest. You make your plans, and the pressure mounts. To begin, you have a choice between Junior WRC, WRC2, or the unfiltered punishment of pure WRC. You then pick a driver, and are acquainted with the disembodied Keith Taylor, your chief engineer. "Pleasure to meet you in person, finally," he says, as the camera lingers over a laptop in a vacant office.
It's less than stirring stuff, and I can't be the only one who misses the days of the hokey racing game story, in things like TOCA Race Driver 2. The CGI cutscenes in that game had a dreamy look, stalled and stolid, but Codemasters knew that a narrative didn't need to be great - that it wasn't fuel but rather engine oil, and could get away with being crude so long as it kept things moving. Here the drama, if that is the right word, is greased by money; and away from the rumbles of the track, the tension arises when the stuff runs thin. You have to please your team's benefactor, Max, whom I like to imagine as a serene Swiss in leisure knitwear, who made his billions in environmental conservation, as opposed to, say, arms dealing. Keep Max sweet - by staying under budget and on the podium, mainly - and you will receive an according grade.
Max has five emotional states, progressing from "Angry," "Unhappy," and "Happy" through to "Delighted" and "Ecstatic." (You can top up his contentment by fulfilling certain goals: complete three hospitality events in a season, finish fifth or higher in a certain competition, and so forth.) Your own journey with EA Sports WRC may slalom through those same zones. If you are a newcomer, tenderly dipping a toe, you may begin in anger, as your roof grazes the forest floor or your doors are chewed by uncaring rock. Give it time, though, and you get a feel for the handling.
The difference between a 1972 Lancia Fulvia HF and a 1997 Ford Escort Mk VI Maxi is vast: like going from a boot of Italian leather, warmly broken and rich with give, to a New Balance running shoe, with its springy sole and double-knotted refusal to slip. What's more, the stages (of which there are some 204, with 12 of the 13 official WRC 2023 locations present and correct) offer a catalogue of vivid textures. Try driving a 1964 Mini Cooper S in Sweden, among snowy spruces, and note the hard, flinty smoothness of the turns. The weather, too, though not dynamic, plays a fine supporting role. One run, along a sunny alpine ridge, feels starkly different to a similar setting after the rain; you go from sliding neatly round dry and crumbly bends, as if the course had been dusted with instant coffee granules, to a pebble-crammed slurry of doom.
Should you come loose, you have a number of options. One, you can attempt to doughnut your way into facing the right direction. (If you have somersaulted from a lofty peak, this becomes a pretty steep challenge.) Two, you can reset your car's position, with a time penalty. And three, you can quit and enroll in the Rally School. This helpful mode teaches you the basics: juicy starts, off-throttle oversteer, deciphering the arcana of pace notes, etc. The best tests of your resolve are the Regulation Rallies, wherein you uphold an average speed for the stage, and are penalised for exceeding it. It's as though the game were balancing a biscuit on your snout and telling you to wait.
Codemasters is capable of delivering sober and satisfying challenge, as it proved with Colin McRae Rally, on the PlayStation, before dishing up softer thrills with Dirt; here the studio is in Dirt Rally territory - calibrated and tuned to the verities of the sport, while offering a way in for those that want it. One advantage of having the official licence is that Codemasters has room to go back in time. This year, WRC is toasting its 50th anniversary, and (although Kylotonn cheekily jumped the gun, in 2021, with WRC 10) the new Moments mode pays a lovely homage to its history. You can race Sébastien Ogier's win at Rally Guanajuato México, back in March. You can venture to 1992, and relive Colin McRae's daring turn at Rally Finland, in his battered Subaru Legacy RS, its doors crunched and curling off into the wind. (In an odd touch - presumably down to rights issues but imbued, nonetheless, with a tint of Macbethish prophecy - McRae is referred to as "this Scottish driver.")
Working in Unreal Engine 5, Codemasters has conjured not just a worthy rally racer but a real place to be. You can feel it by the pricking of your thumbs, as the vibration conveys shifts in surface, and you can hear it in the little details - the rats-in-the-tank rasp of turbo flutter, as you ease off the pedal, and the unwavering calm of your co-driver, foretelling the coils ahead. It's enough to make anyone fall for this weird sport, for its deep love of control and its flirtation with artfully losing it. You get so used to giving yourself up to drifts that asphalt becomes a grounding shock, like playing with Scalextric.
The only thing that ruptures the spell, at least at launch, is patchy performance. When you're screaming through a drizzled-on stretch of Estonia, at 120kph, you don't need the frame rate to break into a turbo flutter of its own - or, worse, lock entirely for a stomach-dropping second. It's a nasty reminder that your time with EA Sports WRC is as dependent on technology as the sport on which it spins. This will, with any hope, be smoothed in the coming weeks. As for the coming years, Codemasters has an excellent base to build from. As Keith would say, there is always room for improvement. And if Max were to get his hands on this game, he would be Delighted.