Rally round, beloved PSW troops; the time has come again to drop the pedal to the metal and wrap your Impreza round a tree. WRC 4 is the latest offering from the officially endorsed, properly sponsored and anatomically-correct rally series. Under all this official gloss lurks an identity crises.
Thing is, there are already plenty of other rally games available, and with competition not so much fierce as rabid and heavily- armed, what is WRC 4 doing to put even a sliver of space between itself and the baying mob of rivals already fighting for space on the shelves of your local gaming store? Well, as we've already mentioned, this is the real deal, so if you want all the official stats, drivers, rallies and everything else, then this is the rally game for you.
And there's more. This is also the prettiest of all the current rally games. Practically photo-realistic at times, there's no doubting the sense of immersion the superb graphics bring to the party. The cars are accurately modelled, wonderfully shiny and a few pop-up issues aside, the tracks are similarly gorgeous, both well designed and boasting photo-realistic textures. The overall effect is beautiful and almost eerily naturalistic (see this month's DVD!).
The Wheel Deal
Play modes are straightforward but comprehensive, taking in single races, time trials, championships at four different levels and a selection of special events, including a full career and a driving school. There's also online multiplayer - a first for the series - which allows players to compete for the best times and see replays of the 'Top 100' times on any course. Regardless of whether you want a solid weekend behind the wheel, or a five minute fix while you're waiting for The World's Scariest Police Chases to start on Channel 5, you're well catered for here.
Sadly, there are some flies to be found in this driving ointment, specifically the driving rather than the ointment. WRC games have always offered the arcade alternative with simple, easy handling that makes you feel good about yourself. That's all changed. WRC 4 hopes to join the hardcore simulation brigade and those familiar with the series will find a very different beast beneath their thumbs. Sadly, it really doesn't work. Not only has that warm, fuzzy feeling you got from the earlier games disappeared, the new handling model isn't even very good. We've seen the definitive simulation handling from Richard Burns Rally and we've seen the perfect compromise between accessible and realistic from Colin McRae Rally 2005. We used to see the perfect arcade handling from the WRC games. Sadly, not any more.
Chinese Replay Torture
The menu system is rubbish too, seemingly made without any kind of consideration for how people might want to play the game. Replays are forced down your neck like some kind of Chinese replay torture, with endless menu navigation required to get on with driving again. When will developers understand that we want to drive some cars, not look at replays? Maybe they were impressive when Gran Tursimo first starting doing them on PSone last century, but now it's just a needless intrusion into the gaming experience.
WRC 4 is a highly polished product with enough attention to detail to make a rally fan drool, but the handling seems too complex for newcomers and too simple for aficionados. If this had been an all-out simulation, with handling to match the incredible levels of accuracy shown elsewhere, it would've been absolutely brilliant. If it had arcade handling, all about ease of use and pick-up-and-play, it would have been brilliant. As it stands, it doesn't end up any better than the rest of the pack. In fact, given this entry into the crowded genre, there's still no clear winner in the rally game stakes - which one you choose will depend entirely on what you want from your rally game.
A poiished racer let down by weak handling. There's no doubting the quality of the overall package, but it isn't as good as it should've been.