I know precisely one person who is good at driving and got precisely one piece of advice before sliding behind the wheel in EA WRC: “You’ve got to be smooth and not stab at the controls.”
But there’s just something about the iconic Subaru Impreza – it’s probably the gold wheels, isn’t it – that makes hammering the accelerator seem like a really, really good idea.
A couple of overzealous turns later and the only smooth thing was the arc of the skid marks leading to my car, tatty and crumpled in a ditch. “Terminal damage”. Whoops.
Rallying is a tough sport in so many different ways. On the one hand it’s a masterclass of macho marketing, with souped-up versions of road-going cars proving that sensible hatchbacks everyday people run to the shops are not only the coolest cars on the road, actually, but capable of slogging through the most extreme racing conditions imaginable. But moreso, it’s a diametric challenge; a raw test of reactions and bravery, as well as precision, clear-headed navigation and, above all, restraint.
Laying those skills down perfectly over the duration of a near marathon-length stage is a mental gauntlet, one which, even for the professionals, goes wrong all the time. And will go wrong for you too, because EA WRC doesn’t have a rewind function like some past Codemasters releases and other racing games. When you fluff a corner, spin out and hit a tree, you’re just supposed to swear profusely, put your foot down again and make the best of it: it’s the rally way.
“We felt creatively that the pressure of rally is managing your vehicle through an event”, says Ross Gowing, senior creative director at Codemasters. “So if you make a mistake and that leads to an accident, the rallying mindset is to press on and manage that damage until you get to the next service break and you can repair the car.
“If you were able to erase all of your mistakes on every stage, a service area becomes redundant, and because they’re such a key part of the rallying experience it was something we wanted players to stay in. Everything you do has consequences. Driving 100% throttle on every stage is not the way to go about rallying, it’s about managing your pace so you can minimise damage and attrition all the way to the end of the stage.
“Rewinds were a creative decision that we decided weren’t for this game. I’ve got nothing against it in any other games. But in our game, looking at the string of player events, we didn’t want people to be able to rewind.”
Some of the most iconic moments the sport has ever seen, most of them involving Colin McRae (probably the most famous rally driver thanks to the Codemasters series of racing games that carried his name for more than 20 years), happened when things went wrong. Whether it was driving the wrong way down the track after rolling the car in Cyprus in 2002 or taking silver at the 2006 X Games in a cloud of dust when an incredible run slipped over the edge right at the last, the most exciting finishes weren’t smooth.
Video games often ask for perfection and are quite binary. But while I totally agree the decision to eschew rewinds makes sense creatively, regular people looking to burn through a couple of races after work aren’t elite sportspeople with the compete-at-all-costs mentality necessary to bludgeon through when things go sideways.
Right from the start of Rally School, a new mode for EA WRC aimed at onboarding newbies, you’re asked to perform relatively complicated techniques like weight tranfers, proper handbrake turns and left-foor braking. It’s an exciting and technical mix of skills which feels incredibly rewarding to pull off, but easy to bounce away from if you’re not fully invested and in the right headspace.
At the start of your Career Mode you can choose how many full restarts you are allowed during stages, but when you’re 13 minutes into a particularly difficult, rain-slick run of Rally Portugal – full of blind, snaking downhill tracks and narrow village streets – giving up and starting the ordeal again doesn’t feel like an option.
As a change of pace, it’s a good thing then that EA WRC also offers a “Moments” mode that lets you play out memorable events in classic cars from 50 years of WRC history in more bite-size chunks. It’s better executed than the Moments in EAFC 24 where you waltz past semi-pro AI over-and-over for a tiny reward, incorporating tough fictional challenges, courses inspired by legendary races and events where you’re asked to match or better the achievements of real-life pros.
“There’s so many recognisable cars across different eras,” says Jon Armstrong, a game designer at Codemasters and professional rally driver who’s competed in Junior WRC and the European Rally Championship. “So chances are that we’re going to pull on the heartstrings of a wider audience than we have so far. It also gives the player a nice spread of experiences from the different car classes as well.
“Each car, or each car class, has quite different characteristics in terms of technology that they have from when they were released. You can really feel that with our physics. Each car has its own personality, the Group B cars, especially the rear-wheel drive cars, it gives such a wider experience to the players who can feel what it was like to drive those cars back in their heyday and see how that compares to the modern cars as well.”
“We’ve got things like a Vauxhall Nova, which nearly everyone in the UK has owned at some point in their life,” Gowing adds. “A Renault Clio – I think that’s in Super 1600 spec – it’s all things you can kind of relate to what it would be like to sit in a road-going version and now you can drive the suped up rally version.
“For people of a certain age, Group A and Group B are what we grew up with, what we remember as some of the most iconic periods in WRC history. There’s so many moments for people of different ages and we really wanted to capture all of that. We want the game to be rally with a WRC crown on the top and including all of that historic content is incredibly important to that.”
As well as the difficult balance of accessibility, there’s also stiff competition for EA WRC from both mainstream-focused and simulation-style racers like Forza and Gran Turismo, particularly with the recent, and excellent, rally DLC from the former. But there are still a few things Codemasters hopes will single this out as a worthy addition to the roster.
First is the “Codemasters handling”, the physics of which can be ported over to the new Unreal 5 engine with some effort. There an undeniable thrill to throwing the modern cars around corners, even if I’ve not gotten the hang of the Group B monsters yet. The array of available assists is also interesting.
Rather than the archetypal floating racing line to rollercoaster along, EA WRC opts for more behind-the-scenes features like ABS and throttle clamping to try and stop you from donutting around the starting line without breaking the immersion of a cockpit-eye view. Again, it’s a technical mix of a stroking capability fantasy that will still bite your fingers off and throw you in a ravine for being too squirrely or brash.
Another highlight is the massive scope that Unreal Engine 5 allows, with realistic stages up to a 35km in length represented in-game (EA WRC stages aren’t exactly the same as an individual real-life race because the roads used can change year-to-year). Keeping your concentration for the entirety of these mammoth races is incredibly difficult. Digesting pace notes about upcoming corners from your co-driver and executing the correct driving skill for each obstacle, while also running at a perfectly pitched speed to whip around smoothly without flying off the side of a bridge, is an engrossing challenge.
There’s huge potential for digital tourism from the wide range of globetrotting stages, and Codemasters is apparently taking inspiration from its F1 series’ more expansive career mode to try and offer more context for your adventures as you hop from place-to-place. From snow to tropical Indonesia, the different racing surfaces also seem to have a perceptible effect on how different tracks feel to drive on, so there’s good variety.
However, while EA WRC’s Career Mode is well presented with good visual design and music, it’s main draw is still solely the on-track experience. There are a lot of different cars, which can be bought from an in-game garage and raced in a range of specific events, but it’s not a giant collect-a-thon.
Because it’s not wheel-to-wheel racing, it can feel a little like you’re just turning up for a series of time trials, the AI decides if you win or lose, then you move onto the next one without much input from other competitors. The under-the-hood driver ratings are more complicated than that, but it’s still quite pure in that sense, even though you can build up your team of staff, win car parts and choose benefactors.
“It’s become a greatest hits of all of our previous rally careers, Gowing explains. “Finally we’ve got all of those mechanics in one career mode at one time. It’s a great comprehensive career for rally fans.
“We’ve taken all the best ideas, wrapped them up, and now you can create your own team from scratch, give it branding, hire the engineers, as well as do a little bit of – I don’t want to say facilities development because it’s not quite that – but you can choose where to invest your team expansion. Do you want to hire more engineers or try and run a bigger garage, or a teammate and their crew to fill a second car?
“We know some people want to dive straight into the WRC, some people want to develop through junior WRC. That plays out over multiple seasons, there’s a lot of variety in the seasons in terms of other events coming into the calendars instead of it just being the official WRC championship. Then all of this is presented with the living, breathing service area world.”
But as well as their licensed realism, EA Sports games are also famous for their aggressive release cycle, with Codemasters shipping a new F1 game every year. EA WRC won’t hop on the yearly trend immediately, so even though there are plans for the future there’s still plenty of road left to run.
“Codemasters and EA hold the licence for the next five years. Really everything is focused on getting this first one over the line and then all the business discussions around the annualised conversation starts. EA are the experts of sports games and how to release those with the licence being served as absolute best it can,” Gowing sums up.
“The future’s got lots of exciting things in store and we’re all hands on deck with the current one.”
EA WRC releases on November 3, 2023 for PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S.