We wish they wouldn't do it, but do it they must. This annual ritual of churning out sporting sequels, we feel, utterly diminishes any sense of excitement to the point that trying to glean any sense of novelty from the game is rendered null and void. It wouldn't be a big issue were it not for the fact that everyone else has steadfastly adopted the same tactic so we're left trying to play spot the difference between four or more different Rally brands on an annual basis. Pardon us if we're starting the review off on a negative note, but it's a disclaimer worth mentioning from the off.
What's worse for these evidently hard working teams is that the punters out there have become less and less interested, despite the gradual improvement in quality. So, it's hardly surprising to see the law of diminishing returns kick in and watch as the sales of these niche titles drops year on year despite the ever rising installed base. If the excitement's not there for guys like us playing them year after year, the chances are all but the hardcore stalwarts will be clamouring for yet another rally title, not matter how good it is.
Don't let them go soggy
And you know what sucks even more? Despite the frustration of watching publishers shoot themselves in the foot by sticking to this dogged policy of development-by-numbers, the results, taken in isolation are often very respectable indeed. All we need now is that X factor. A sense of anticipation. That excitement of getting something new, something you've really had to look forward to. Gaming should never be something you merely take for granted, like the morning bowl of cereal. It may well be the greatest bowl of cereal you've had in your life, but you'd hardly be singing about it in the shower after. "Oh my my. These Kellog's Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. They are so yummy". Actually that's quite catchy. I'll have another bowl just to make sure...
Before this article descends into utter madness, let's address the task at hand. WRC 4. A Rally game so crammed full of features it's like the development team at Evolution has been determined to make sure no-one wants another Rally game as long as they live. But that wouldn't work would it? Who would buy next year's? The last thing we want to do, either, is turn the review into some kind of cheap fact sheet to pad out the word count, but even if you're vaguely into Rally games, this lot should at least pique your interest a little: online play for up to 16 players, 16 WRC locations across five continents, 100 stages with 'photo realistic' textures, all the cars and all the drivers of the 2004 season (something no other Rally game can offer), as well as the usual Point to Point, Super Special, Shakedown and Sprint stages to endure. And it is endurance, of the most brutal kind, but more of that later.
As a package it's almost too overwhelming to come to terms with. Where to even start? Of course, the usual Quick Race and Time Trial offer a hint of what's to come, but it's a mere sniff compared to some of the other modes on offer. The real meat comes from the Championship and Events modes, which will test the mettle of any remotely serious simulation driver. Playable for one to four players and via four different classes, you get to take on either the Super 1600 (a cut down entry level mode with Super 1600 cars), WRC Professional (the full championship with WRC cars), then the daunting WRC Expert (same again, but even harder), then the mighty Extreme mode which, as the name suggests, provides the chance to take on a cut down championship but with the Extreme series of cars. We're shaking our head just typing the words.
Months of struggle ahead
And as if that alone wasn't enough to keep you going, then there's always the Events mode to fall back on, featuring another four individually involving and taxing modes to plough through, making this another long-lasting Rally epic. Essentially breaking down the Championship into their constituent parts and throwing in more besides, Single Rally does exactly what you'd expect, allowing you to choose a specific set of races under the same four skill levels of the full Championship, Super Special lets you play the various enjoyable one on one races, Test Track lets you race on a variety of surfaces as well as general control exercises, while the superbly constructed Pro Driver Challenge acts as a kind of arcade mode, giving the player 11 distinct challenges, from Newbie, right through the ranks of becoming a pro, up to the Future of Rallying, which gives you the chance to try out super-charged Extreme cars - which in the past would've made an entire game on its own.
So, having dispensed all that information, and filled ourselves with so much expectation, how isn't this the essential rally package? Well, in truth, it's simply going to be out of reach for most gamers unless they're prepared to invest a serious amount of time into it. Last year's version we found similar issues, although at least the entry level was distinctly accommodating. This time around, it seems as if the game is expecting you to be exceptionally proficient from the word go, which to us is a dangerous tactic commercially. Sure, the hardcore racers will lap it up and no doubt get a huge amount out of the game, but for those used to the kind of challenges presented in Colin McRae, Rallisport Challenge, or even TOCA Race Driver 2, it's way off the scale in terms of difficulty. The Burnout and Need For Speed crowd won't know what's hit them.
What's odd, is that if you didn't know better, you'd assume you were doing well. A full race taking a good racing line, with maybe the odd slip up here and there, can put you so far down the pecking order it's tough to imagine what kind of superhuman racing droids Evolution employed to do the pre-release testing. Evidently, if you're a mere mortal, you need not apply here unless you particularly enjoy learning every course inside out before you can even compete. Surely the idea of differing skill levels is to deliver the kind of challenge required? Beating the gamer around the head the second they saddle up is just dispiriting, no matter how many features the game provides. Tragically, from our experience, making games too daunting is the quickest way to move players onto something else. Of course, if you're a very experienced driver, you can discount all of these observations because you're going to have a ball; in every other aspect the game hits the spot bang on.
Too hot to handle?
In terms of the handling, it's a very different system to the McRaes and the RSCs of the world and might take a bit of getting used to. If anything it's the toughest of the bunch, often feeling deceptively assured, and yet it can also feel like even the slightest miscalculation on your part will have you careering off the track. There still remain the old complaints that it feels like the whole car is being steered on central pivot, and that getting away from a standing start takes too long. Still, many fans of WRC are exceptionally vocal on the merits of this handling model. It's not our preferred system, but some of you still insist it's the best. We'll agree to disagree. Still, we have to express how absolutely spot on the force feedback feels, and really delivers one of the most perfect sensations of rattling over cattle grids ever! Kudos, also, goes to Evolution for pinching Codies' excellent between-race repairs idea, with time allocated to each bit of the car you've trashed. If it's a good idea, you may as well pinch it.
Visually it's hard to find too many faults, and although it's slightly ambitious marketing fluff to describe the tracks as having "photo realistic textures" (maybe on a 14" Aiwa portable blurro-vision TV through squinting eyes), it's still a huge advancement on any other Rally game on the PS2. The tracks really are wonderfully constructed achievements (cardboard cut out trees aside), and deliver a palpable sense of being in the middle of bloody nowhere in inclement conditions on the side of a mountain and seconds away from certain death. Gone are the draw distance issues of old, and the whole spectacle is often breathtaking with stunning vistas viewable from various camera angles, including surely the best in-car view ever, that on certain tracks seems to make it easier, as opposed to the disorientating mess of other games.
In fact, on a presentation level in general, Evolution gets top marks, with brilliant replays (which we'd really rather you could just click X to exit from, please guys) and some excellent musical accompaniments to spice things up. In terms of the engine audio, though, we're still convinced a swarm of bees were descending on us during some races. If that's what these cars really sound like, then fair enough, but just be prepared to endure the bewildered giggles of anyone within earshot wondering why you're engaged in a Hive flying simulator.
Until we get a retail copy that allows us to go online with the general public, we're not really in a position to accurate assess the relative merits of this mode, but once Sony gives us the nod we'll be keen to update this review with some of our musings on this most anticipated of modes. For the record, expect 16 player support and an online time trial mode that lets players race any stage at any time either just against the clock or against other racers. If you make the Top 100 you can also upload the times, which, while welcome seems an alarmingly small leaderboard.
You know the score
Having overcome our initial reservations about wading knee deep in Rally mud yet again, it's evidently a top-notch package for those with the necessary skills to really make the most of it, and a pleasing improvement over the last version. If you don't consider yourself a very skilled racing gamer, then be aware of the pitfalls ahead. This is not for the faint-hearted, and although it leads the field in arguably every area in terms of PS2 Rally games, there are minimum entry requirements that even regular gamers will have issues coming to terms with. Danger! Hardcore racing ahead...