Rallying is a rather dull sport to watch on the TV. Much like many motorsports, the thrill of driving just doesn't come across to the viewer. Sure, it has its fans, like all sports, but it's not something you'll find pulling in millions of viewers during a peak time slot on the BBC. Rally videogames on the other hand are the complete opposite, containing more thrills than the entire four series of 24 that have aired. The WRC series has been going strong on the PlayStation 2 for a number of years now, and the latest game might just be the best yet.
Rather than simply churn out another yearly update, developers Evolution Studios have looked to make the whole experience more dynamic. They've done this by introducing roadside events. During each stage of a rally you'll encounter crashed cars (with accompanying marshals and drivers risking their lives in the middle of the road), falling logs, rock falls, animals, and more. Bizarrely, I even encountered a forest fire in one of the stages of the Australian Rally. How the rally was allowed to continue needs questioning, but realism aside, these incidents are a nice touch and add to an already dangerous and exhilarating experience.
Like in many racing titles these days, you can choose how difficult you want the game to be. On its easiest setting the game gives you more than a small helping hand, even going so far as to brake as you approach bends. Of course, this takes a lot of the thrill out of the game, with the real fun coming when you are in full control. To be successful you'll need supreme concentration skills, sharp eyes and be willing to drive on the edge (often quite literally). The cars feel just right too, handling differently on each of the road surfaces, but once you learn how to drive properly, you never feel out of control. Sure, your car will fly off a cliff edge numerous times, but never because it's doing something it shouldn't be; it'll be because you just hit a large rock or flipped the car after mounting a slope on the inside of a bend.
The game treads the tricky line between sim and arcade game exceedingly well, allowing you to gradually reduce the driving aids as you put more time into the game. Car damage will cause your car to lose performance, but unless you're really awful, it's hard to do enough damage to seriously affect your stage time. Repairs are also handled well, giving you the option to auto repair if you don't fancy taking a more hands-on approach.
As well as the lengthy WRC itself, which lets you take the position of one of the official drivers for one of the teams in the championship (although this year's game has fewer stages than in the previous game), Rally Cross racing (where four drivers race on the same circuit in lap races) and a Historic Challenge mode have also been included. The Historic Challenge requires you to drive classic B12 rally cars and beat quite tricky section times. Each car in the Historic Challenge has its own set of rally stages to master, and they'll prove troublesome for even the best drivers. If you fancy testing some cars you can take to the test area and practice on numerous surface types. It's a nice addition, but some focussed training challenges would have allowed newcomers to ease into the game.
Online modes are a welcome addition, but sadly aren't as great as they could have been. Stat tracking is limited to your performances online, but there are a few competitive modes. You can play with up to sixteen players in time trial races on each of the game's rally stages (with each driver being seen as a ghost car to you) and there's support for four player races on the Rally Cross events. Performance online seemed solid, but the biggest problem is the lack of players. During a whole day I only managed to see six people online, certainly not enough to make a thriving online community that the game deserves.
Evolution Studios has always managed to get the most out of the PlayStation 2, with their WRC series being among the best looking racing games on the system. Being wowed by Evolved's visuals then is an impressive feat. The most striking aspect is how fast the game moves. During more enclosed sections of track, with trees or cliff walls surrounding you, the game appears to move at near Burnout speeds. On more open sections of track you can see far into the distance, with the track meandering around, bridges cutting through the skyline, lakes sitting peacefully and more.
The lighting is also great, with each location seemingly having its own unique look. Early games in the series went a little overboard with lighting effects, but Evolved isn't flashy at all, and looks better for it. Weather effects, such as rain and fog aren't too shabby either, with both effecting visibility as you'd expect. Water will also splash onto the screen; it's been done many times before, but it would have been notable in its absence here. Car models are superb and they can show an impressive amount of damage and dirt. In fact, the only real downer is the frame rate and the odd bit of pop-up, and these aren't major problems. On occasion things will slow down for a few seconds, but it's only occasionally and it's never bad enough to affect your control of the car. Pop-up, too, is an infrequent occurrence, and something that players 100 percent focussed on the road probably won't see.
Audio in racing games is usually no more than authentic sounding engines, but a key part to the gameplay in WRC Evolved is the voice of your co-driver. He gives you information on the track ahead so no corner should come as a surprise to you. All instructions are clear and given well in advance of the corner, and co-drivers will even react to what's happening, criticising your bad driving and acting shocked when you come close to hitting a spectator or narrowly miss an obstacle in the road. Engine sounds and sound effects are also extremely solid, making for a very impressive sounding game.
WRC: Rally Evolved might not offer the same online integration of the best racers on the Xbox, but on the PlayStation 2 no rally game plays better, looks as good or offers as much content. Fans of the WRC will appreciate the official licence and the game can be tweaked for all players, be it a novice or sim enthusiast. Rallying might not be as high profile as F1 or other motorsports, but as a video game this definitely deserves a place on the podium.