The fact that the rally mode in Gran Turismo 3 has been the most compelling rally racing experience on the PlayStation 2 so far says something about the genre's popularity. The simple fact is that this king of extreme sports doesn't have the following in the US that it does elsewhere in the world. To be fair, though, the few rally games that are currently available for Sony's console haven't really done the sport any justice. Evolution Studios' World Rally Championship, however, does. The game believably re-creates the thrill of speeding over impossibly rough terrain, and while an exceptional level of driving talent is required to successfully negotiate the game's many turns, bumps, and dips, players of all skill levels will enjoy World Rally Championship for what it is: a fun racing game with just the right amount of realism.
Like many realistic racing games, World Rally Championship is officially licensed by the FIA, the sport's governing body, which allows the game to boast actual teams, drivers, cars, and racing events from last year's world rally season. The entire game largely revolves around a career mode that re-creates an entire season of rally racing. Here, you'll pick from seven cars from real-world manufacturers like Peugeot, Ford, Subaru, Citroen, and Mitsubishi and race throughout the entire season with that car. You'll play as one of several famous drivers like Mitsubishi's Tommi Makinen or Ford's Carlos Sainz, and you'll be guided through each turn and bump by that driver's real-world navigator, who'll tell you how sharp and how far away the next turn is and warn you of any impending adverse road conditions. While a selection of seven cars might pale in comparison to the number of vehicles in other driving games, every car in the game is one that rally fans will instantly recognize, and any differences in performance between them are included to give the cars character, not handicaps.
This career mode spans 14 individual and completely unique rally events, each of which is split up into five segments, which means that the game has a whopping total of 70 tracks. These events span the globe, including rallies in New Zealand, Cyprus, Corsica, Italy, Finland, Sweden, and other exotic global locales. There are also five hidden bonus tracks that you can unlock by finishing the game on its hardest setting. Just like the real thing, you race against the clock, not other drivers, so you'll never actually see your competitors on the same track as you. Instead, you're timed on each segment, and at the end of each event, the quickest driver is crowned the winner and given 10 points for placing first. The driver with the most points at the end of the 14 rallies walks away with the championship. Interestingly, the game also tracks manufacturer points, so even if you don't end up being the overall winner, other teams from your car's manufacturer might have scored enough points to earn the constructer's cup. Of course, that also means that skillful drivers have the opportunity to post a perfect victory: a personal championship and a manufacturer championship.
The sheer number of races in the game's career mode reflects the attention to detail that you'll find in other aspects of World Rally Championship. The game's 70 racing events all take place during different times of day, they'll have varying weather, and they'll consist of courses made of asphalt, gravel, or even snow. What's more, all these courses stay true to the characteristics of their real-world counterparts, and they never get repetitive. Cyprus' many turns, rocky roads, and elevation changes make it a particularly slow race, while Finland's long dirt tracks make for extremely fast (and harrowing) drives. You'll have to employ all your driving skills to navigate some of these areas, as most of the courses require you to take the best driving line throughout every turn in order to finish with the quickest time.
Before entering any race, you're allowed to perform a shakedown to get a better feel for the course. These trial runs become handy once you start fiddling around with your car performance elements. The game lets you modify your gear ratio, brake strength, steering speed, tire compound, and suspension stiffness, and any change you make results in a tangible difference in performance on the track. Some of these changes can be severely detrimental to the way your car behaves, though. For instance, choosing a stiff suspension setup on unpaved roads will slow you down significantly. Likewise, choosing a soft setup on asphalt will hinder your steering ability noticeably.
Rally racing can be hell on your car, and it shows in World Rally Championship. At the end of each race, your car will be caked with the dirt, snow, and other types of grime that gradually coat your paintjob throughout each racing segment. You'll also notice busted headlights, bent bumpers, and even a cracked windshield or two if you're too careless. And although most of these damage effects are purely cosmetic, the game does penalize you for being overly rough with your car. Specifically, your car has five different elements--steering column, axle, transmission, radiator, and oil pan--that are susceptible to damage and will affect your car's handling characteristics if damaged. While there are five damage indicator icons that'll light up when you've damaged your vehicle, physical abuse of your car is also denoted by wobbly wheels, small clouds of steam, and even black smoke from your engine compartment. A car that is damaged badly enough will even make horrible grinding noises as it struggles to finish the current race. The game has five different perspectives--two in-car views, two first-person views, and a third-person view--so choosing the one that fits your driving style best should help you keep your car in one piece.
The rest of the visuals are on par with what you'd expect from a PlayStation 2 game, though many of the environments look especially good. Almost all the courses' clipping horizon is drawn far off in the distance, and an interesting technique that brings distant objects into focus is used in place of the more traditional fade-in method. Most notable about the courses is how expansive they are. Though you're not allowed to stray beyond the course's main road, you can easily make out how vast your surroundings are. Some of the roads hug the edges of cliffs that fall into the Mediterranean, while others crest mountains, letting you see for miles in every direction. The game's replay angles really give you a good sense of just how open the environments of World Rally Championship are. However, it should be mentioned that one of the rally events--Finland--looks markedly out of place when compared with the other 13 races. The courses in Finland are made up of a road that has a flat tree-textured wall on either side of it, and it looks bad enough to jar you out of the game. It's almost as if that particular rally event wasn't designed for World Rally Championship at all. All the remaining courses look spectacular, however, and the car models look just like the real-world pieces of aluminum and plastic they represent.
The game has a two-player multiplayer mode, though it leaves something to be desired. There are only 10 tracks to race on, half of which are circuit-based. What's more, you don't actually race against each other--you technically race against the clock simultaneously. That is, you'll be racing ghost cars. You can't collide with each other, and the cars themselves are just white silhouettes. Still, there is a large enough variety of single-player tracks in the game that you'll never be left wanting--besides, rally racing isn't about bumper-to-bumper driving. The sound effects are somewhat muted, but otherwise perfectly acceptable. Each car's engine noise and exhaust note sounds completely unique, and you can easily tell what kind of surface you're driving on simply by listening to things like the loud squeal of tires on asphalt or the rattle of thousands of pieces of gravel bouncing around the wheel well. For the most part, the music that plays during replays and the options menus is passable, save for an upbeat track from the latest New Order album.
It's interesting to note that this game has already been released in Europe, and it almost didn't make it to our shores because of a publishing decision by Sony. Thankfully, Bam Entertainment picked up World Rally Championship's publishing rights in North America, which means that US fans of the sport won't have to miss out on this exceptional rally game--one that has no equal on the PlayStation 2.