Like the greatest games of any kind, WRC 5 is at its very best when things have gone horribly, horribly wrong. It's the third stage on the final day of the Finnish rally, and the two second lead you've got over your nearest competitor would be looking good if that advantage hadn't come by getting a little too intimate with the scenery: you lost half the gearbox to a sturdy piece of hoarding near the start-line, the electronics were sacrificed to a church a couple of kilometres back so now you can no longer hear your co-driver and it's hard to see through the dimming twilight as your headlights have been scraped down the side of a tree. The service station couldn't be any further away, and yet you still manage to bring it all home. A Ford Fiesta has never seen such heroics outside of an Essex b-road.
If there's one thing that developer Kylotonn has brought to WRC for its series' debut it's a sense of fun. The current breed of rally cars aren't exactly the most spectacular the sport has ever seen, but WRC 5 wastes no time in pasting a smile across your face no matter what you're driving: this is a game that can make you feel heroic with nothing more than a 1.6 litre engine and a thin stretch of country road at its disposal. Compared to the often starchy handling that beset previous custodian Milestone's stretch on the series, WRC 5 feels positively alive.
It helps that WRC 5 is much more approachable than those entries that have gone before, and what's already out there: think more Sega Rally than Codemasters' exacting, excellent sim Dirt Rally. Even with all assists off, WRC 5 is a forgiving ride, inviting you to hack away at the steering wheel with all the unwavering confidence of an Ogier or a Loeb. There's ample room for the improvisation the discipline is built around, in other words, and WRC 5's gentle dynamics can usher you into flow state faster than other games of its ilk.
So yes, WRC 5 is a big improvement over its predecessors when it comes to handling. Elsewhere you sense there's slightly more of an affinity with the sport than before in the series, where too often it all felt like something of an obligation. The structure of the career mode is much the same - starting off in the junior category, you work your way up over two relatively short seasons to the top tier - but it does well to keep the peripheral nonsense to a minimum and get out of the way between you and the driving. The only management you ever need worry about is in the service station between stages, as you choose what bit of your battered car needs patching up.
The emphasis is on the action behind the wheel, then, and there's a fair amount of it too. All 13 venues of this year's WRC campaign are represented, and with five stages apiece it's a selection that's full of pleasant surprises, be it the downhill, sand-choked runs of Mexico or the terrifyingly fast flat asphalt of Poland. There's tangible variety in what's on offer as well, from the slippery snows of Sweden to the the smooth tarmac of Corsica (there's somewhat less variety in the backdrops, though, where it's a little too easy to get a Finnish forest mixed up with the back-roads of Catalunya). WRC 5 does a good job of communicating different road surfaces, and it's nicely faithful to the shifting terrain that's at the heart of the sport.
If WRC 5 pushes the series forward, though, in other ways it's still mired in its past. Like Milestone's games, the ambition isn't always met by the budget, or served by the execution. It's modest in its aims, and the only idea it can really call its own is a rewind feature that punts you back to the last checkpoint rather than allowing you to scrub back in time. The online side is equally unassuming, with stages being pulled out and highlighted for short windows of time to pool players together on competitive leaderboards (top prize, right now, is an officially branded t-shirt and cap, though I imagine that'll change when the WRC 5's play for eSports attention kicks off in January). WRC 5 is no-frills as well, and it has more than its fair share of rough edges.
On console I've experienced a couple of hard crashes, an AI glitch that made the result of one rally unsalvageable and signs of a less than generous budget throughout. On PC, compatibility issues have made it impossible to play using a number of the most popular steering wheels - although I wasn't impacted playing on Thrustmaster's T500. The technical issues are particularly jarring when the slick handling isn't matched by the frame-rate, which lurches too often under stress on consoles, and it's all offset by a soundtrack of engines that are just a little too reedy.
WRC 5 isn't the best driving game out there, and with Dirt Rally taking fine shape on Early Access I'm not even sure it's the best off-road game available at the moment. It is, however, a viable alternative to the more hard-edged simulation that Codemasters is pursuing, and as the only option on a generation of consoles starved of rally games it's a damn good one.
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