I am driven by my stubbornly held belief that if cinema is made for action movies, then by the same measure, video games are made for racing. Like much of what the medium has to offer, they give you the chance to extend your reality – to simulate things you can’t, but wish you could do, in real life. For me, that’s flinging myself at life-threatening speeds through the slick snowy terrain of Sweden in a souped-up rally car.
All racing games are arguably a test of confidence, but rally games perhaps more so. Compared to the clear corners and open straights of racetracks in more traditional motorsports, it takes a lot of practice and a bit of prayer to throw yourself so quickly around high-speed barrier-less tarmac corners without the fear of puncturing a tyre or taking a 50-foot dive.
At the same time, I find rally gameplay incredibly meditative – even with your co-driver’s perpetual pacenotes, talking your ear off like a mad mathematician, there’s some level of zen you reach within the constant and meticulous steering readjustments, in your hyperfocus on the details of the terrain, and in the largely solitary nature of the sport. In my experience, 10-minute tracks go by in a flash. I’m hypnotised by my isolation. I’m at the risk of losing hours to the Finnish countryside. These declarations may not be direct compliments to EA Sports WRC, but the dependable genre from which it rather clunkily emerges from.
At its base level, EA Sports WRC is simply satisfying – there is great delight in winding through Spanish hills, paintwork shimmering under the blistering sun; or tracking through the forests of Indonesia at night, your headlights bouncing off the canopies. There’s a real pleasure to getting that right track with the right car and the right tyres, and just blitzing your way through the turns, and over the crests, and around the hairpins.
There’s a lot the game has to offer, too. After creating your character, adjusting any initial settings, and choosing from the preset difficulty options – of which there are many – you can jump right into any of the modes it offers: from Career and Championships to Moments and Time Trials. Quick Play lets you jump into online multiplayer lobbies. Rally School is an option for the inexperienced, which offers a dozen lessons ranging from basics to more complex manoeuvres, and Builder and Customisation hubs where you can design your own vehicles or finesse your decals.
But EA Sports WRC rarely feels celebratory of the sport in a way that previous rally games have – often, it feels designed out of obligation.
I Want to Be the Very Best
Career is the game’s premiere mode, where you play out your own WRC season on your way to becoming the inevitable champion that you know that you are, with the game allowing you to pick from three categories: Junior WRC, WRC2, and WRC proper, each corresponding to a different set of vehicles.
From here, you accept an introductory offer from your mysterious benefactor, who communicates to you solely through your very British chief engineer, Keith. Once you’ve signed on the dotted line, you can choose or build from scratch your own starting vehicle, and hit the dirt. After a test drive, you can tweak your difficulty settings – AI performance can be scaled up or down, Hardcore damage can be toggled on or off, and you can control how many rallies your events are comprised of. Equal accessibility is afforded to newbies playing on controller as it is to virtual revheads rocking Fanatec wheels.
Any of your time off the track in career will be spent in the Team Hub menus, where you can select events via the calendar, check your benefactor budgets, as well as manage your staff and garage. Eventually, once you’ve read through a seemingly endless series of tutorialising, you can jump into Season 1, Week 1, and get to racing in rallies, building up your brand and appeasing your benefactor by keeping your escapades under budget.
From the jump, the game’s career mode lacks the intuitive approach that lets you jump in and out of gameplay smoothly as in other racing games. (Thankfully, the game’s modes outside of career let you do that just fine.) For the first hour, I was stuck hopping through menus and reading tutorial messages, then forced to keep my custom car collecting dust in the garage while I putted around in other vehicles. This dynamic never really goes away.
More often than not, you’re pointed (or nudged by warning popups) instead towards other events that progress your benefactor’s optional objectives and then left to drive borrowed cars or buy vehicles from different classes to be able to compete in specific events. I spent many in-game weeks resting crew members I hadn’t even used, and it didn’t feel like I was building up anything kind of relationship with my car or my team. Those anticipating an endlessly replayable career mode may be disappointed to learn that the same events are repeated in subsequent seasons, too. It all feels a bit corporate.
In 2022, EA’s own Need for Speed Unbound left realism behind and opted for a cartoonishly overblown and effects-heavy street art aesthetic that made it newly stand out. Tied to a newly acquired licence, EA Sports WRC isn’t afforded the same freedom. What’s gained in merchandising is lost in personality – the aesthetic vibrancy once found in Dirt is forfeited to oppressive WRC branding. The monolithic blue-orange-white colour palette and single typeface that synergises the game’s menus with every other piece of WRC merchandising afford it the sensibility of a tie-in game. It’s here that the game’s title becomes telling: two brand names smashed together, with little grace.
In going for total authenticity, there are attempts to marry the game with the real-life rally experience, as well as its broadcasting identity. Once over the finish line, you’re tasked with driving beyond this point and safely docking your car with the Marshal. Your co-driver reads out your final time at the end of a rally (to the first decimal point!), which adds a slight degree of liveliness to the default voice actor’s otherwise asinine directions. (He’s lacking the flavour of veteran co-driver Phil Mills, whose warbling voice led great character to the Dirt Rally 2.0 experience.)
Still, it’s an entirely novel addition – you never get any qualifying comments (a “great job”, a “better luck next time”) for this time read to really add anything substantial. At the bookends of major events, a disembodied announcer sums up your positioning, as if commentating a televised version of your performance; at the awards ceremony, they even thank an imaginary TV audience. They’re small additions that infuse some character, but their implementation largely feels uninspired, delivered with little enthusiasm.
As much as the game tries to appeal to an authentic WRC experience, it can’t help but feel stifled by its compliance. The uninviting aesthetic of the Team Hub screen and the constant subservience to your benefactor render career progression unsavoury. Why is it, after every race, my performance is quantified along a 100-tiered progress bar, with “Angry” and “Ecstatic” positioned at either extreme?
The solitary Team Hub menu screen that you spend your offtrack time looking at also gives off bad vibes. Beneath the menus, you’re staring at a static, out-of-focus shot of a cramped boardroom table that’s lined with laptops and takeaway coffee cups, a flatscreen mounted on the wall behind it displaying various bar charts haphazardly. The corporate vibes are off the charts.
EA Sports WRC is going for realism, sure, but even the industry leader of realism, Gran Turismo 7, complements the fidelity of its racing experience with some charm – a uniquely bizarro café menu system that offers palatable bistro tunes, and a user interface that doesn’t make me feel like I’m stuck at work.
If Everything Seems Under Control, You’re Not Going Fast Enough
Despite these atmospheric drawbacks, the driving in EA Sports WRC’s is undeniably tight. Anyone who’s had the displeasure of racing one of Gran Turismo 7’s offroad levels will find that it doesn’t hold a candle to the quality rally experience on offer here. This is the game’s true draw, and one likely to sustain it beyond the clinical vibes of its career mode.
Kenya and Finland, as well as the fictional Rally Pacifico and Rally Oceania (pastiches of East Asian countries and New Zealand, respectively) rank among my favourite locales; Kenya is especially enthralling for its dense foliage and rough-as-guts terrain. It’s hard to fault the variety on offer: over 200 tracks at your perusal, some running over 30km in length – plenty of places to kick up dust.
Unfortunately, as is seemingly inevitable these days, my experience was supplanted by a few disruptive technical issues. When rallying, I found screen tearing was frequent and formidable enough to become a severe distraction, and the environmental pop-in and occasional hitches were an annoyance to an otherwise seamless ontrack experience. Post-rally debrief subtitles from my chief engineer sometimes displayed entirely different messages about the condition of my car; navigating overly complicated multiplayer lobbies caused my game to crash.
In the end, EA Sports WRC is a game very much for the enthusiasts. At launch, it feels like a clear step down from the big hitters in the genre – even more recent Codemasters games like the polished but frictionless GRID Legends and Dirt 5 felt like they were put together with much more finesse. Those expecting more may be disappointed by its pedestrian visuals, which sometimes feel surprisingly under par for a game exclusive to current-generation consoles.
These small issues add up to sour the experience – especially given the lengths the game goes to presenting itself as the definitive rally package. They feel like a further indictment on the numerous crude contexts that surround the centre of EA Sports WRC’s fantastic rally experience. It’s a shame, because when you’re behind the wheel, absolutely sending it at 150km/h on the narrowest road you’ve ever seen in your life, it feels like nothing else matters.
3 Stars: ★★★
EA Sports WRC
Platforms: PC, PS5, Xbox Series X/S
Release Date: 31 October 2023
The PlayStation 5 version of EA Sports WRC was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a 5-point scale. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.