EA Sports WRC Review
Stalled during the first stage
Kylotonn had begun to establish a foothold with their official WRC games. While their latest offering, WRC Generations, fell short as an uninspired compilation, their previous few entries had laid down solid groundwork. However, Kylotonn's time with the franchise has come to an end. Electronic Arts has gobbled up the official license and handed the reins to Codemasters, a fitting choice given their experience. Codemasters has a proven track record with rally, delivering both fun arcade racers like DiRT 2 and refined simulations with the DiRT Rally sub-franchise. Their latest, EA Sports WRC, straddles the line between simulation and arcade, offering snappy vehicle handling while maintaining a sim-like structure. And although the driving mechanics are good and the rally stages prove satisfying, the game is hampered by an unengaging career and inconsistent presentation. EA Sports WRC marks a new chapter for the WRC franchise, but it falls short of the expected leap forward.
EA Sports WRC offers a familiar selection of play modes. Tutorials in the rally school are a good starting point for newcomers, guiding players through techniques like weight transfer and handbrake turns. Those looking to hone their skills can undertake time trials on any stage, with ghost cars for extra competition. A new feature, Moments, presents challenges inspired by real-life events, including pre-existing vehicle damage. For those seeking a more tailored experience, quick play allows the creation of custom championships that can be played online. The main draw for solo racers lies in the career mode, where players can establish a team, manage the staff, and guide it to victory over multiple seasons, in Junior WRC, WRC 2, or WRC. Your team is sponsored by a benefactor who sets yearly goals. Success hinges on staying under budget, winning championships, and swapping cars to compete in different events.
A year of the career is displayed across a series of weeks, with each having half a dozen events to pick from, presented like a stack of cards to flip through. Events include the official FIA championship, a few charity stages, and some mini championships with older cars. Unfortunately there are no extreme weather events. Nor are there any directly competitive events such as rallycross or head-2-head. There are ancillary events, like a way to rest staff, increase the budget, acquire more engineers, and expand the garage, which is not that helpful since storing more vehicles increases weekly costs. Sadly there are not enough spare weeks to freely enjoy the career, if you want to win the main championship and keep the benefactor happy.
Team management is not particularly intriguing compared to Kylotonn’s games. There is no staff variety, like with meteorologists or PR agents, as every team member is an engineer that can be assigned to repair car damage between stages. Engineers get tired, lowering their efficiency, and resting them occupies a week. The chief engineer can be trained intermittently, offering some minor perks like increasing team stamina and reducing repair costs. The benefactor is annoyingly hard to please in the first season, raising his approval by a measly 1% if you stay under budget over four straight weeks, but dropping it by the same amount after one overexpenditure because of a few crashes. Wins and team success mean little until the end of a championship. When the season finally concludes, new contracts appear, potentially offering more cash and making it easier in subsequent years.
A new vehicle builder lets players create their own car and add it to the team’s garage. Alterations can be made to the bodywork, with about six different front and rear kits. Other superficial changes can be made, including the car’s logo, steering wheel, and the interior display screen. The choices in each category are limited and do not make the vehicles distinct, with most creations appearing like a generic modern-day hatch. New cars can be painted with custom liveries, but even this does not provide an option to mirror decals. So the car builder is a gimmick, and time is better spent picking one of the pre-existing rally cars and getting busy driving.
Driving is thankfully good due to the responsive vehicle handling. Steering and braking is snappy across all vehicle generations, with some minor differences based on weight and acceleration. Older cars lack down-force, so they tend to slip more. The modern WRC vehicles have the hybrid electric system that provides bonus power after braking, but, like in Kylotonn’s final entry last year, it is not worth worrying about. Gravel and tarmac surfaces are usually no problem, both offering reasonable grip similar to an arcade experience. Snow is slippery but only requires a minor adjustment to corner timing. Generally cars do as they’re instructed and it is satisfying to navigate every corner of a stage.
Most of the rally stages are decent and there are a good number of them. The game offers 17 different locations, including the 13 stages from the official 2023 season. Each location has six main stages and their reverse course, but most of these are a subset of the longest stage with a few brief alternate routes. Stage variety is not bad. Kenya’s bumpy road surface is brutal on tires while Estonia’s high-speed jumps can lead to an impromptu meeting with a pine tree. Many stages are actually based on the real-life courses, and the track shape and elevation changes seem like effective replicas. However, stage quality is not consistent, with some needing more love. A few in different countries look oddly similar and trackside features, like trees, leave something to be desired, but more on the visuals later.
A new type of event from the new franchise devs is the regularity rally. These ask the player to maintain a predetermined average speed for the whole stage. Going too fast incurs a penalty and going too slow will mean you cannot hit the checkpoints in time. At first it is interesting to feather-touch the throttle to maintain a set velocity, with the co-driver regularly providing updates. Compensation is required when going up or down crests, and accelerating quickly after slow corners is a good way to hold the average. But, these regularity rallies are basically just driving at a snail’s pace for long periods, with the car remaining in first or second gear, painful during stages that have gentler corners.
At least multiplayer is robust, with up to 32 players competing in real-time across all platforms. Both quick join and a session list are available, and there were no problems getting into games and staying connected across multiple events. There are sadly no ghost cars for other drivers, so there is less pressure when driving, and no option for staggered starts. Like other rally games, there are unfortunately huge wait times between stages when lots of players are connected. This is alleviated by the ability to spectate other drivers and listen to some chill music.
True to other games from Codemasters, WRC tries to inject a bit of personality. The nice low-intensity background music consists of many licensed tunes that break the tedium. There are a few great tracks from Ella Vos, M83, Jessica Winter, and Dora Jar. Real-life reporter and driver Molly Pettit provides commentary, including track introductions and a brief weather report, but she becomes repetitive and this takes away more than it gives. The chief engineer also says the same things, requesting that you appease the benefactor and telling you how cool it is to be in Monte Carlo, again.
The game has mixed quality presentation, with Codemasters opting to use Unreal Engine 4 for their start with the franchise. Most of the time, it looks good with natural lighting and adequate stage-specific detail. It is nice when it slowly gets dark while driving through a stage at dusk. Vehicles look fine, with basic damage modeling and meaty engine sounds. Both the snow and rain effects are poor however, appearing more like a website animation than true precipitation. Foliage can be an eyesore at mid to long distances, with noticeable pop-in while driving fast. In Japan’s real-life stages, tracks feature dense canopy, but in-game the tree cover is sparse and weird, like 2D images dumped onto featureless mountains. The game has seasonal adjustments too, which is cool for Monte Carlo. In most others, it means brown grass in winter, orange leaves on track edges in autumn, and slightly more leaf density in summer. Road surfaces are fairly bland, with gravel looking more like beige carpet. Scuff marks do appear with track wear, but the roads needed more detail and natural imperfections.
It is also a shame that the inconsistent visuals are paired with minor stuttering problems. At random times there are brief micro-hangs and some locations are worse than others. These can happen anywhere, but often near corners, even when restarting a stage or playing on ultra-low settings. Persistent hiccups can mean the difference between nailing a corner and flying off a cliff, so the game is hard to recommend in its current state.
EA Sports WRC is not the best from Codemasters and not an ideal fresh beginning for such a major license. It is not a bad rally game, because of responsive driving mechanics, respectable stages, and functional multiplayer. But the career is clumsy and somewhat annoying, with passable team management elements. New regularity events are tedious and the vehicle builder is mostly a gimmick. Even the presentation is all over the place, with random stutters for good measure. Codemasters had a chance to make a fast start with the WRC license, but they have set off in the wrong gear.