Graphics: The car models look excellent; while they aren’t quite to the Gran Turismo 3 level of detail, extra elements make them distinctive. For example, both drivers are visible in the car and they are fully animated. On the outside, vehicles occasionally sport realistic extras like headlight rigs and air filter snorkels, as well as accurate representations of whatever tires you installed. Cars gather mud and take damage, though in a very videogame way. The damage looks interesting, but never quite real — the polygons just look shoved around. Part of the blame here goes to questionable impact physics, but more on that in a minute.
Beyond the cars, WRC looks only acceptable. All of the courses, by and large, are the same. At first, you’ll enjoy the expansive, realistically modeled landscapes, dotted with bitmapped and low-polygon scenery. But if you expect a different look for each country, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, each country has its own texture set, but all of the snowy levels look basically the same, as do all of the hot, dry gravel levels. Kenya is Australia with thatched huts, and with so many courses to take on, the sameness becomes a glaring problem. Also, poor visual shortcuts abound. Many roadside textures are distractingly repetitive, spectators are lifeless sprites (and there aren’t enough of them), and Finland courses are walled off by flat “forest” wallpaper on each side.
Every country is fitted with an introduction featuring impressive real-life footage and an announcer who details what to expect from the roads ahead. You’ll soon realize that he and his footage are lying: Though he says that Italy’s tarmac courses run through some residential streets, you’ll never see these neighborhoods. He’ll warn that the crazed fans in Argentina are so thick, they spill out onto the courses, but that never happens either. In fact, judging by how many people line the road, there is very little local interest in this tournament.
Interface: Neat, clean menus are just the beginning of a great interface. When you are driving, every possible piece of information is displayed around the corners of the screen. There’s an overhead map, turn icons to back up your co-driver’s narration, a trip progress bar, all sorts of time information, and of course, the speedometer/tachometer display. There’s so much information, in fact, that for some it may obscure too much of the course. That’s all right, because the game lets you remove all the pieces of the display individually.
You can also choose your camera position, but while most racers settle on bumper cam and chase cam, WRC gives you five positions to choose from. One of these is a pilot view featuring a detailed car interior and animated steering. You can even be a back seat driver if you want to; one of the strangest camera choices yet implemented in a racing game.
The only chink in the armor is the save system. First of all, the unlocking procedure is strange. Placing first within a country will not unlock that country’s courses for future play; it will unlock the next country’s courses. For example, if you dominate Finland, you’ll be rewarded with New Zealand’s courses; this doesn’t make any sense. You save manually and may do so after each race, which is appropriate. Problematic, however, is that it will prominently auto-save track times, and new players will misinterpret this to mean that their progress is being saved, when in fact it is not.
Gameplay: WRC would like to straddle the fence between simulation and arcade, but its feet are firmly planted in arcade soil. And after a dozen courses, you’ll find yourself falling asleep at the wheel. It’s actually quite a strange experience, because at first, you are having fun, barreling around the twists and turns, occasionally flying off into a gulch. After a while, you’ll become so used to the forgiving controls that you’ll find yourself zoning out, as every course offers up similar challenges and the damage model is lenient enough to let nasty impacts go unpunished. With minimal effort, you can come in first place on the normal difficulty level.
As mentioned, the damage model allows you to get away with too much bad driving. Whereas the threat of a shattered drivetrain should make you play cautiously, the truth is, you can Gran Turismo around these courses with wild abandon, whacking walls, stones, trees, and plunging into gorges without wrecking your car. The damage does come, but it is inflicted randomly, and not nearly often enough. Sometimes fishtailing into a tree is bad, but often it has no consequence. Also, no matter what you hit — cow, tree, or human — everything is as sturdy as concrete and you rebound right away.
On the other hand, there are a grand total of 81 courses, and that effort is admirable. The simulation of the entire event is appreciated, but more variety is necessary to hold interest. If there is mud on the track, I want to see it fountain up and slow me down. If there are tunnels and towns in the real Italy rally, put some on the course! Weather effects should affect my driving, and different road surfaces should play differently. The car configuration system is as simple as rock-paper-scissors. Unless you choose an utterly incorrect part (which is hard to do), you’ll perform just fine, and gravel feels like snow, feels like rain, feels like tarmac. It’s all the same power slides, and it will eventually rock you to sleep.
Multiplayer: The multiplayer addition is a nice touch, but isn’t anything special. Choose a car, choose a course, and go race. The frame rate and draw distance takes no appreciable hit, but the lack of interactivity (though true to the rally spirit) is disappointing. Some good old-fashioned “push your friend off the cliff” should be available here. The reason for this non-interactivity seems, at least partially, to be technical. In two-player mode, you are limited to bumper cam and hood cam, and the replays also only feature one car (the loser is always a ghost). Apparently, there just wasn’t enough room to hold two cars in memory. For two-player racing competition, you’ll find little reason to hold WRC in your memory, either.
Sound FX: While the sameness of the course layouts are a main factor in the game’s hypnotic effect, the sound effects seal the deal. During driving, you’ll be lulled by white noise from the gravelly road, punctuated by the incessant whine of the motor and the staccato sound of your transmission shifting. Hitting everything from flesh to stone creates the same metallic whack. Crowd sounds, though only heard at the beginning and end of a race, still manage to be repetitive. And finally, your co-driver talks like a real co-driver, but half the time he can’t call the turns quickly enough to be helpful; soon his voice just becomes part of the cacophony.
Music: There is no in-game music, so this criterion hasn’t been rated. Music will play in the menus, replays, and pause screen, pretty much everywhere except during the race. Some of it is trancey new wave; some selections are odd pop. All of it is very forgettable.
Intelligence and Difficulty: In order to race on the professional difficulty level, you must first unlock it, which means taking on the entire championship on the normal setting. There’s really no AI in a rally game; the only opposition is the clock, so it doesn’t take rocket science to polish that to perfection. Yet, it isn’t perfect. In fact, the times you compete against are so forgiving, you can even do a few fifty foot nosedives off the course and still have enough time to come in first place. The professional difficulty level, on the other hand, is a stiff challenge, so after vacationing though the whole championship on “normal,” if you still have it in you to go at it again, proper opposition is available.
Overall: Crafting 81 race tracks sounds like quite an accomplishment, but it seems less so when you actually dig into Word Rally Championship. It seeks to simulate the rally experience with details usually glossed over in competing games. The licensed cars are beautifully modeled, inside and out, and even feature co-drivers in the passenger seat, but with all of this attention to detail, the actual gameplay is too simple. It is very easy to race through the entire event and score first place, even with several bad wrecks, thanks to a too-forgiving damage model and terrain that all drives pretty much the same. The arcade feel is at first, charming, but it quickly becomes repetitive to the point of a hypnotic drone. WRC is a game that tries to appeal to both the hardcore and arcade racing camps, but ends up delivering an average experience to both.