The WRC series has been around for a while now on the PlayStation 2, seeing several entries find success in Europe. While the first game in the rally racing series was released in America, subsequent entries have found release overseas only. That's about to change with the upcoming debut of the WRC for the Sony PlayStation Portable. We had the chance to play a preview build of the handheld version of WRC: FIA World Rally Championship and are excited about the game's potential.
First things first--if you've never played a rally game, here's the deal: In rally racing, it's man and machine against the clock and the environment. Unlike NASCAR or Formula One racing, rally events are time-trial races, where cars aren't trying to pass one another on the track, but rather post the best times for each stage. The thrill and challenge of rally racing is the various conditions in which these races take place. World Rally Championship racing is a truly worldwide sport, with races taking place from snowy Sweden to dusty Mexico and many countries in between. WRC drivers, in turn, are perhaps the most skilled race drivers on the planet, able to demonstrate blinding speed in practically any driving condition.
That speed and precision is playable in WRC thanks to a number of different game mode options. There's the quick rally for when you just want to dive into a random event in any of the game's 16 cosmopolitan locales; time trial, where you can run individual stages to set your best time; single rally, which lets you compete in the rally of your choosing; multiplayer for up to eight players; and the heart of the single-player game, the championship mode, where you fight to win events and valuable points to prove you are the top WRC driver.
WRC conveys many of the essentials of rally racing. While racing, you're technically the only car on the track at any given time, and you're still racing against a clock, which will determine your position after each round. The key difference with WRC for the PSP--and one that rally purists might find strange--is the use of ghost cars on the track during rally events. As soon as you rocket off the line, you'll likely catch up to a ghost car of another competitor. In order to progress on to the next stage of a championship event, you'll have to finish in a certain spot (in fifth place or better at the lowest difficulty level, for example). This means you'll need to pass at least five of these ghost cars during a single three- or four-minute run. Your aggregate time is still recorded across the entire event, which is pretty true to the sport, but the ghost-car twist hearkens back to arcade racing titles like Sega Rally.
The game features four levels of difficulty, two of which--novice and professional--are unlocked immediately. The main difference between the two difficulty levels is the speed of your competition. While even rally newbies will have little trouble besting the competition at novice level, we were very impressed with how stout the opponents were at professional level--and there's two more levels of difficulty above that. Considering how easy the original PS2 WRC game was, it's clear the series has come a long way in terms of challenge. One thing that is noticeably missing at the default difficulty level are any car-tuning options--we couldn't find any option to change tires or mess with gear ratios in between rally stages, nor is there any option to repair damage incurred when slamming into mountains. It's possible that these features are available at the higher difficulty levels but, based on what we've seen, it seems that WRC is focused solely on the driving aspect of offroad racing.
Thankfully, WRC's driving model is quite compelling. The cars slide all over the track, as you might expect on surfaces such as slick ice and loose gravel, and it's difficult to cope with their extreme power at first, which feels just about right. You can roll cars, fall off cliffs (though they'll often reset onto the track after a few moments), and even incur damage while slamming into objects at high speeds. It's not clear whether damage affects performance that much, but you will definitely notice cracked windshields or hanging bumpers after just a few ill-timed turns. The overall feel of the cars is bolstered by the game's very attractive look and solid frame rate. The cars feel powerful and fast, whether barreling down narrow bridges or snaking your way up mountainous tarmac switchbacks. Cars are nimble under braking, yet feel appropriately heavy during the periodic jumps you take in locales like Finland. About the only downside to the physics are those occasional times when you run into a tree or other stationary object and awkwardly come to a dead stop. In all, the challenge of WRC can be imposing, but the driving model feels just about spot on.
Of course, the driving model is bolstered by the game's impressive-looking graphics; it's fair to say that WRC is one of the more remarkable-looking driving games yet seen on the PSP. Every environment, from the dusty Australian outback to the icy mountainous roads of Monte Carlo to the rainy backwoods trails in Finland, look utterly unique and true to life (or at least, true to what we've seen in WRC broadcasts). Light and shadow effects are especially effective and really convey a sense of depth to the tracks, as do the variations in road surface and elevation. It seems there's a new challenge to take on around every bend in WRC's courses, which is just as it should be in a rally game.
Sound is more important in rally games than in most driving genres, because of the presence of the co-driver, whose job it is to provide directions for the driver. These directions include things like upcoming turns, dangerous spots on the road to avoid, and anything else that needs to be brought to the attention of a driver so he can adjust his route accordingly. Pace notes are simplified compared to those in the Colin McRae series, forgoing the numerical system to designate turns in favor of simple differentiations such as "easy right," "hairpin left," and so on. Beyond the all-important pace notes, WRC's audio package is straight-ahead, with unique engine sounds and a musical soundtrack that includes bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Walkmen.
WRC is an FIA-licensed product, so you can expect it to have a full slate of car manufacturers to drive, including Subaru, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, and Skoda, as well as a roster full of WRC greats such as Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm, Petter Solberg, and Gilles Panizzi behind the wheel. Sorry Colin McRae fans, the Flying Scotsman has got a game series of his own and doesn't appear in WRC (and besides, beyond a one-off stint with Skoda last year, he hasn't been a WRC driver for a while now).
Multiplayer in WRC is one of the game's most promising features. Up to eight folks can compete via the PSP's ad hoc Wi-Fi capability in events such as wireless time trial (where players race simultaneously) and a number of turn-based events--time trial, single rally, and championship--which will let you compete against your friends on a turn-by-turn basis. We had only one copy of the game on hand, so we couldn't check out the multiplayer for ourselves, but we're very curious to find out if you can save multiplayer championship seasons and return to them later.
As rally fans, we're happy to see the WRC series returning to the States on the PSP, especially in such an attractive (and portable) form. The game is currently scheduled for release in April, so be sure and check back for our full review soon.