Last year when WRC 3 was released it split opinion – the graphics were average but basic although there was a solid driving model under the hood. The problem was not from how the game played, far from it in fact: when we reviewed it last year we gave it a fairly solid score, it was more from the genuine lack of content. WRC 3 reached the Vita initially with just five rallies and no real career mode to tackle. It was the skimmed milk of rally games; it felt like the bones were there but there wasn’t any meat to sink our teeth into. WRC 4, I’m pleased to report, is much closer to full fat milk; it has the meat on the bones, and despite a few rough edges here and there it’s by and large a quantum leap from last years effort.
As I touched on with my demo impressions, the improvements you will notice if you’ve played last year’s effort is the complete overhaul that has gone into almost every area of the game. The menu screens are now cleaner and generally have beautiful slo-mo backgrounds with rally cars zipping round dusty trails, giving a much more TV effect. It’s actually almost identical to MotoGP 13 in menu setup, and fares well because of it. It’s clear that with the extra year of development time, along with the lessons learned from the well received MotoGP 13, Milestone has finally managed to craft something much closer to what was almost certainly their vision for WRC on the Vita – a game that is as close to the console versions in every way possible.
WRC 4 begins with you creating your own profile, co-driver details and avatar. From here, if you wish, you can watch a brief introduction video that gives you the basics on how WRC works, as well explaining the heads up display and cornering symbols. The main menu gives you a fairly straight forward selection; you can race individual rallies or stages, tackle the career mode or dive into multiplayer. I began with multiplayer and managed to quickly get into a race. While the lobbies are sometimes empty you can host your own game for up to six players or jump into someone else’s, and races can be individual or championships at up to ten courses a time. Options are pretty flexible as you can choose from WRC, WRC 2, WRC 3 or Junior WRC classes and track selection be random or chosen by voting.
I have to admit my initial multiplayer experience was fun but flawed. Especially in the faster WRC classes, some rallies (in particular Finland) do suffer from framerate hiccups, which are more prominent online. You can opt to show ghosts of your opponents if you wish, though turning these off and relying on split times and the progress bar on the left allowed for a smoother and less distracting experience. I’m pleased to report that these framerate hiccups are pretty isolated, but I was less pleased to find a particular stage in Finland has a pretty huge bug – I crashed into a wall and my car was sent flinging miles into the air, displacing a huge amount of the track and causing some horrible results, as well as stopping me from progressing for about fifteen seconds (see picture).
Luckily this was an isolated incident and upon delving into the career no such issues were found. Much like MotoGP 13, you begin in the Junior WRC class as a wildcard driver and are able to sign contracts for full seasons if you beat manager and team requirements. From here you work your way up to WRC 3, WRC 2 and eventually the full WRC championship in an extensive career mode spanning many hours. This is a far cry (and massive improvement) n last years effort, which only involved playing through the five stages in order in a championship. The career mode is built around your headquarters where you can read your emails, check the rally calender as well as access things such as your driver details and the media. Each rally you are expected to achieve a certain position as well as defeat a particular oponent chosen by your manager. Should you do this at the end of each rally you received reputation points which are added to your score and increase your fame level.
As you progress throughout the career and your reputation increases it’s a nice touch to see the media reporting on you. There really is a sense that you’re becoming famous and after each stage while the next loads you see an “interview” with an opponent who refers specifically to you and mentions their own progress. It’s nice to see things like “Harding was just to fast for me. I was pushing hard but didn’t want to risk crashing.” between races but these repeat way too often and as a result it decreases the impact this could have had. Load times are also a little longer than I’d have liked, but end up as passable enough. Each rally has six stages (and all thirteen featured in the official calender are here this time) which are split into two sections, before being able to repair the damage on your car. Repair options are pretty straight forward although car setup is extensive and those of you who want to fine tune things will have no issues here.
On track of course is where it counts, and it’s here that Milestone really have excelled. While WRC 3 was solid enough, handling was slightly twitchy with the analog stick and there was a feeling of disconnect between the car and the road which made the game feel a little floaty at points. WRC 4 has fine tuned the handling and now the cars feel much heavier on track and while it can initially feel like you’re battling under steer if you’ve come from WRC 3, the handling feels so much tighter and more realistic. It means that in the fastest sections of the game you actually feel that sense of edge; do you push a little faster and risk destroying your car or take things a little more cautiously? This balance has been handled brilliantly and there were a few “oh shhhh…..!!!!” moments when I was galloping over dirt tracks at over 100mph. The damage model is perhaps a little basic, but generally you come off bumps feeling the impact in a realistic fashion.
My only real issue with the career mode is that the Junior WRC can feel particularly slow (especially if you dived into a quick race or multiplayer in WRC cars to get used to the feel of the game first). It can sometimes feel a bit more like you’re pushing a trolley at 10mph than skirting round corners at 60mph to begin with, though luckily the Junior WRC doesn’t last very long until you can progress through. Most of the tracks are highly detailed and look fairly good, but there are also textures every now and then that look like they’ve been taken from the PS2 era, making visuals a mixed bag. Generally though you’ll feel like you’re playing a current gen game, and while the graphics are rarely outstanding they certainly due the job.
The cars which were muddy at best in WRC 3 look stunning here; detail has been given a massive push for this year’s effort. The lighting engine too has been cranked up a notch, making the tracks look much more realistic, with shadows in particular casting themselves as they should. Being able to race at different times of day is another new feature, and it has the effect of making the stages feel more genuine and lifelike. Unfortunately the famous cardboard trees return and this is perhaps the weakest visual aspect. I can understand they are there to ensure the framerate runs smoothly (and largely it does), but the realism is muted somewhat when you take a hairpin bend in style only to have your view suddenly obstructed by a tree on the corner which looks like a blurry pile of sick obscuring the view. You don’t notice it as much when it’s in motion, but it would be nice is Milestone could make an effort to render them properly for next year.
Given that WRC 4 has 78 stages, things never really feel old as you tackle the career. Sweden is a highlight for me as despite being snowy, it brings a new surface and dimension to proceedings that WRC 3 lacked. The variety of stages this time is huge, and each surface has it’s own feel. My only real quibble with the stages is that rather than each being unique as in the official calender, stages here have repeated sections, sometimes resorting to racing the same track in reverse to bolster the numbers. It’s not a massive issue and understandable given the Vita’s game cartridge restraints, but it is worth noting. Cars sound much more realistic across the board this time, with engines sounding much less bee-like, and crashing gives a satisfying crunch every time, further enhancing the feeling that you’re driving a powerful machine.
Despite minor criticisms, WRC 4 manages to up it’s game in every single respect. Finally we have a full, console rally game in our hands and it’s difficult not to recommend. If you can look past the odd visual oversight there’s a game here that’s a joy to play. Everything has been catered for; from the intro for new players to the extensive options that allow you to add and remove assists based on preference. The rewind feature has also returned to help those with less experience/less patience and the full WRC calender of all 13 rallies makes WRC 4 feel like the full package. I’ve not shied away from showing some love for Milestone as they’re a developer that manage to keep evolving with each and every release. If you bought last year’s game there’s easily enough of an upgrade here to warrant purchasing, and if you haven’t played WRC on the Vita yet this is the place to start. If you’re not sure then have a go of the demo, but I’m fairly confident in saying WRC 4 is enough of an improvement on last years game to warrant purchasing for anyone looking to get their racing fix in the run up to Christmas.