"Come on! You can do better than that!" my co-driver shouts in my ear, blissfully ignorant of the fact that I've turned off all driving assists, and cranked the realism up to the max. During the last stage of the rally I've hit no less than six barriers, and my windscreen has more cracks than a builders convention. WRC is hard, but in the best possible way. It's realistic; a racing simulation that is as faithful to the real thing as technically possible. As I grew accustomed to the weight of the car and the feel of the track, I struggled to think of a racing game with better handling. The thought was still rolling round my head when I ploughed into my seventh barrier.
It's been five years since the last WRC game, but that's not to say the rally genre as a whole has been neglected in that time. Far from it, in fact; Codemasters has seen great success with the Colin McRae DiRT series, but its arcadey feel and extreme branding have alienated more serious rally fans. While WRC is a return to the in-depth simulations of yesteryear, it still welcomes rally fans who lack the supernatural motor skills required to play without assists. "It's realistic and accessible" explains Fabio Paglianti, Director on the game, who was keen to stress that WRC is only as hard as you make it for yourself.
Let's get some numbers out of the way. With the official WRC license comes 13 real world locations from the 2010/2011 calendar, 78 specific stages, 55 events, 40 different surface variants and 550 kilometres of track. I don't have an exact figure for the number of cars in the game, but it extends into triple figures. There's a comprehensive championship mode, time attack and online multiplayer - everything you'd expect from a current-gen racing title.
Technically speaking, this is one of the most advanced racers to appear on the scene. WRC 2010 boasts real time reflections (which look fantastic, especially off the crumpled bonnet of your car), dynamic damage, dynamic dirt and spherical harmonics. I didn't even know what spherical harmonics were until I asked one of the studio's artists, who answered my question with another question. "How much do you know about maths?" he playfully asked. "Enough to get by" I lied, to which he gave me an extensive account of dynamic shaders, map textures and occlusion. In a nutshell, it's how the track reacts dynamically to the car, for example, how mud might deform as you drive through it. Although I didn't quite understand the ins and outs of the explanation, I was certainly impressed.
During the tour of Milestone's studio in Milan, we got to see the art team in the midst of the development process. Seeing one of the cars in its un-rendered state straight from 3D Studio Max (3D modelling software, FYI) was a particular treat. The model was built from an astounding 50,000 polygons, and the artist took great pleasure in lifting the bonnet, swinging the doors open and rotating the wheels. I'm not one of those guys that get excited by cars and motors, but even I could appreciate the insane amount of detail lavished on each car.
Being technically impressive doesn't necessarily mean the game is graphically impressive, however. WRC isn't a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination, but at this stage in development it's looking a little rough around the edges. Even if the cars looked fantastic, there was a bit of texture pop in and other graphical blunders. Although there's a lot of polish still to be applied before the game's release in October, I very much doubt it'll be able to compete with the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo purely on a graphical front.
Graphics, as we must constantly remind ourselves, are not everything. For the racing connoisseur who is simply concerned with the car and how it handles on the track, WRC offers a wealth of customisation features. You can tweak just about every attribute you could imagine, and perfecting the car's set up will have obsessive racing fans entertained for hours.
One of the things Milestone has been keen to stress is the notion that the track is a character. Not only that, it's your enemy. In rally, it's you against the track, and a lot of work has gone into bringing it to life. On location, the team has amassed a whopping 27,000 photos, allowing them to put together some of the most accurate and faithfully recreated rally tracks to date. Perhaps most impressive are the game's eight different surface types, including tarmac, gravel, snow and mud, which themselves can react differently depending on weather conditions and such. It was immediately noticeable when the surface state changed; I had to adjust my driving accordingly to save myself from a date with a barrier.
As well as reacting to the properties of the track, players have to compensate for any damage their car may have suffered. If you've hit a barrier and smashed the left wheel of your car, it will veer uncontrollably to the left, and you'll have to adjust your steering accordingly. It's at these late stages in the rally, when your car's all battered and bruised, that your driving skills will really be put to the test. The handling really is the star of WRC.
Milestone is no stranger to the racing genre, and all those years of experience with Moto GP, SBK and Evolution GT have culminated in FIA World Rally Championship. "It's the definitive rally experience" says Paglianti, whose passion for the game was smeared across his face as he spoke to me. I won't pretend that I'm particularly enthused by rally racing as a sport, but the majority of the fans who attended the event were buzzing with excitement as they threw their cars round the track. If you're into rally, and miss the real rally experience that DiRT has forgotten about, this is a game you're going to want to pay attention to.
WRC FIA World Rally Championship is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on October 8.