Since acquiring the WRC licence from French developer Kylotonn, hopes have been high for EA and Codemasters’ long-awaited follow-up to 2019’s DiRT Rally 2.0.
The second DiRT Rally game gained a loyal, bobble-hatted fanbase thanks to its convincing recreation of driving sideways on gravel, snow and asphalt stages. Although EA SPORTS WRC isn’t a direct sequel per se, developer Codemasters has retained much of the DNA that made DiRT Rally 2.0 so popular; with enjoyable physics, genre-leading sounds and a whole service park full of rally fever.
I’ve sampled an early PC build of EA SPORTS WRC ahead of its November release date, testing out the majority of the game’s content. And the question on everyone’s lips is: can it live up to its predecessor?
EA SPORTS WRC overview
WRC has all the authentic bells and whistles one would expect from an officially licenced product. All 13 of the 2023 season’s locations will be represented in-game (the Central Europe Rally will arrive as free post-release DLC) with four bonus locations based on other popular rallies also included from the off.
Naturally, all manufacturers from the WRC, WRC2 and WRC3 classes will also make an appearance, with their respective Rally1 Hybrid, Rally2 and Rally3 cars. Every Career mode rally also features intros voiced by WRC reporter Molly Pettit, adding another layer of authenticity to proceedings.
Not only that, but WRC pays homage to the history of rallying by offering a comprehensive list of the sport’s finest machinery; from emblematic vehicles like Colin McRae’s Group A 555 Subaru Impreza and the Group B Audi Sport quattro S1 (E2), to lesser-known bobble-hatter favourites such as the Renault Maxi Mégane and the Mitsubishi Galant VR4.
Codemasters has even included the still-born ‘WRC Plus’ Volkswagen Polo from 2017, highlighting the studio’s keen attention to detail. You can use the game’s vehicles across Career, Championship, Quick Play and Time Trial modes, with online Moments scenarios placing you in the middle of the WRC’s most notable events.
For example, one sees players trying to pedal Colin McRae’s hilariously broken Subaru Legacy RS through a Rally Finland stage – echoing the Scot’s crashy performance at the 1992 1000 Lakes Rally.
Regularity rallies are also available to try, adding a whole new dimension to the game while minimising the chances of a McRae-style exit.
Surprisingly, Codemasters has moved away from the trusty Ego game engine it’s used since 2007. Forming the basis of the F1, DiRT Rally and GRID series, the developer’s proprietary tech has been swapped out for Unreal Engine.
On the surface, it’s a positive step, given that Unreal Engine pushes in-game stages north of 30km in length, helping elevate the endurance aspect of a typical WRC experience. Trust me, the 26.68 km of Guanajuato Rally México’s El Chocolate test is the kind of challenge rally fans will love and hate at the same time!
However, Unreal Engine can also be notoriously resource-intensive, requiring a decently specced PC for optimal gaming performance. During my playthrough of this early version, for example, I experienced frequent jerkiness and screen tearing, even when I reduced resolution and other advanced graphics settings.
And there’s nothing more jarring – or frightening – than random frame drops when scaling a Finnish crest at over 100 mph. The extra horsepower required is also one of the reasons WRC will not be appearing on last-gen consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, releasing for PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S instead.
In fairness, when the game runs smoothly on Ultra graphics settings it looks very pretty, and although I tested this preview build using a resolution of 3440×1440 initially, dropping it to 2560×1080 didn’t help an awful lot. Better optimisation ahead of release would go some way to addressing what is one of very few weaknesses in WRC.
Now that the negatives are out the way, let’s focus on the positives – and there are quite a few. Based on this early build, I believe that EA SPORTS WRC could be this generation’s finest rally game. It’s a bold statement but let me explain why.
First up; the sweet exhaust notes of the DiRT Rally series are present and correct, with the Rally1 cars sounding particularly vicious. (That off-throttle anti-lag sound: wow!) But it’s the way the cars feel that pleases most, with one high-speed run on a Chilean stage proving to be particularly memorable.
Piloting Ott Tänak’s Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid through the narrow gravel lanes of the Yumbel test, I instantly felt the connection between the car and road, steering M-Sport’s machine left and right through the tight early sections, shifting the car’s weight to help open up the next sequence of corners.
Turbo flutters plus exhaust pops and bangs came to the fore when viewing the action from the third-person view, while the cockpit camera was dominated by transmission whine and the sound of stones hitting the Ford’s tubular steel chassis. It was immersive, to say the least, with WRC’s gravel handling model arguably surpassing that of DR 2.0’s.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, DiRT Rally 2.0 handled the ‘dirt’ part of rallying very well. The feeling on asphalt, however, left much to be desired. Pleasingly, Codemasters has made a step forward in this regard, with early indications suggesting the cars feel much weightier on the grey stuff.
Traction now breaks in a more predictable manner, with the 2017 Ford Fiesta WRC on the fictional Rally Iberia stages proving to be an irresistibly delicious combination – especially on the Botareli test.
Dancing the car on the limit of grip through the heavily cambered roads (think Rally Catalunya) is a joy, with the downforce created by the previous generation of World Rally Car inspiring confidence as the speeds rise.
Threading the car’s huge body kit between barriers and rock faces was exhilarating – and tricky – with the game providing just the right amount of feedback from the front tyres to keep me out of harm’s way. Well, until I got too confident…
Co-driver calls arrived a little too late for me on the most sinewy stages, however, even on the earliest setting. Simplified pacenotes are available to rally newbies though, with – for the first time by developer Codemasters – the option of either a man or a woman.
One huge addition to WRC is an all-new photo mode (all the images here have been created using it), which reminds me somewhat of the F1 series’. It’s a little clunky to use in fairness, but the results speak for themselves.
WRC recognised my wheelbase, pedals and handbrake peripherals first time, with the out-of-the-box force feedback settings feeling a little too ‘grabby’ for my tastes. Toning down some of these effects helped speed up my counter-steering inputs.
However, I had to re-calibrate my Heusinkveld Sim Handbrake every time I started the game – not a major issue at all, and one that will hopefully be addressed ahead of release.
Gamepad users can feel confident they’ll be catered for too, as WRC handles extremely well with a controller. Naturally, the best way to play the game is with steering wheel and pedal peripherals – especially when driving the ferociously powerful Rally1 cars.
All in all the current build of EA SPORTS WRC has a lot going for it. It ticks several boxes, with genre-leading sound, visuals and physics. Without doubt, it’s a step up on Kylotonn’s WRC Generations, especially with the addition of ultra-detailed – and lengthy – stages.
Despite some performance issues in this particular build, EA SPORTS WRC looks set to be the new gold standard in rally games, offering superlative sounds, visuals and, above all else, physics.
It’s been four years since we last saw a WRC round on these shores but it’s hopefully time to look out those bobble hats once again.
EA SPORTS WRC will be available to buy on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S and PC on the 3rd of November, with those who pre-order digitally able to play the game from the 31st of October.