Rally drivers are essentially superhumans, with cyborg-like reaction times and an ability to get out of hairy situations that would make even Kellyanne Conway jealous.
If you've ever seen NASCAR, rally racing is pretty much the exact opposite of that (also, congratulations for staying awake). Rally races are all about intense, split-second, back-and-forth turning, jumping, sliding and splashing, all while staying inches away from trees, ravines, onlookers, and, you know, death. Drivers in rally races don’t have time to blink, and that's also the case when playing a truly immersive rally video game.
Enter World Rally Championship 6 (WRC 6). Touting itself as the official title of the FIA World Rally Championship series, WRC 6 is supposed to provide you with the most accurate representation of what it takes to be a champion rally driver, but without the threats of unplanned amputation and rollover-induced head trauma. This claim is actually super-important: You see, rally fans are just as rabid and crazy about the sport as the drivers. And they expect, nay, they demand, excellence and realism from releases in the genre.
In fact, I enlisted the assistance of one such rabid fan to help me better understand what a rally title really needs to fulfill the deepest desires of these niche bedroom racers. Now, I have plenty of hours racked up racing on and drifting across virtual pavement. For this review, though, I felt that to accurately gauge whether WRC 6 fits the bill when it comes to a racing title du jour, I should seek some guidance from a subject matter expert.
Ever have one of those friends whose hobby (read: obsession) is so much a part of them that their name is the first thing that pops into your head when someone mentions the thing your friend is into? For me and rally racing, that’s Brent. He’s an amazing turntablist and a skilled sign language interpreter, but it's abundantly clear to all his friends and social media connections that his heart and soul are always going 150km/h around hairpin corners, as rally racing is what he loves most.
On our own version of race day, Brent rolled up to my house with a “sim rig;” that is, a series of devices meant to give a realistic racing experience and that would really put WRC 6 through its paces. At the brains of this operation is a Logitech G27 Racing Wheel with pedal controls, and a Logitech G25 shifter (set to sequential, not H pattern, of course). Rounding out the electronics are a homemade handbrake, consisting of a pressure switch and some rubber bands (fresh off a bunch of grocery store broccoli), and a Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone taped behind the wheel and running DashMeterPro and RBR Dash (two digital racing car dashboard simulators). All this is clamped, bolted, and screwed to a stand for an old dot matrix printer that now sports a 40” TV. We piloted this contraption from the comfort of an old stretch-frame chair adorned with a fluffy brown lumbar support pillow – altogether, it was rally realism at its finest!
As soon as I nestled into this hodgepodge cockpit, I was in love.
Every racing game I’ve previously played with mouse-and-keyboard or controller turned into a faint, scorned memory. Regardless of game quality, this was going to be epic. As a last and totally necessary measure before we took off down the track, I donned my helmet and GoPro, poured myself an adult beverage, and let myself be assimilated by true simulation racing. Resistance is futile!
We didn't dive right into WRC 6, though: In order to get the best idea of the newest rally racing game's merits, we'd decided to work our way through some of the genre's history before touching the new one. We started with Richard Burns Rally (RBR), which, as was explained to me, was the most realistic of the batch that we were going to play. In RBR, I was stalling and sliding, rolling and swearing, but the production quality and experience were stellar. I wanted to keep with it, but there was work to be done, so we pressed on.
Next on the playlist was Dirt Rally. It's Brent’s favorite, and I could plainly see why: it still had the realism of Richard Burns Rally, but the driving experience was better, as the vehicle seemed more stable — at least, it was for an unseasoned noob such as me. I became one with the force feedback of the steering wheel and had tremendous fun, all while placing last every single time. There were no participation trophies, and I didn’t care. My face hurt from grinning.
Then, we conquered Sébastien Loeb Rally Evo, which was a disaster. The vehicles spun out on corners, even at 30 km/h, which is the equivalent of falling out of your chair when getting up from the dinner table — unless you’re totally drunk, it shouldn’t happen. I didn’t mind, though; without bad titles, how would we know a good one when we saw it?
It was getting late, and even though there were at least ten more titles to try, I decided that I had developed a half-decent baseline of what I liked and didn't like in a rally title. It was time proceed to WRC 6.
Things did not go so great from the starting line.
While setting it up for first use with the controllers, Brent immediately jumped on the fact that we couldn’t set the max wheel angle to 540° like we’re supposed to. It made us settle on 556°, which is Greek to me, but apparently this matters to rally racers, so choose to get angry or not, as you see fit.
Then, Brent got really triggered. CHINA (say it in a Trump voice) was part of the game! For those of you who aren’t in the know, the China rally events were canceled due to bad weather this year, so WRC 6 got ZERO points for realism with Brent, even before we started playing. That's how rabidly devoted rally fans are: they would probably pay for a reverse DLC to remove those stages, just for the added realism. Yes, it's a bit insane.
As we tamped down our anger and began the driving tests, we quickly noticed that the cars slide a lot at slow speeds, even with all the settings tuned nearly identically to those of the other titles. The cars also clipped terrain, even parts you thought were a safe distance away when driving in first-person view mode (because what other view mode would hardcore fans drive in, right?). We completed multiple races, and the evidence was clear. When played immediately after the other two titles, WRC 6 was still on the podium, but in third place. As far as a simulator, it’s just lacking. It seems that the biggest thing it does bring to the table is the officially licensed cars and drivers.
And none of this was helped by the also sub-par frame rates. We struggled with multiple settings, but for some reason, it just wouldn’t deliver the same quality that even older releases were pushing graphically.
The last bit of criticism, and by far the most significant, was that the WRC 6 co-driver (drivers in rally racing work in pairs) was terrible at his job. Even at the fastest possible setting, his calls were coming too late for a speed demon the likes of Brent. The tone was also very robotic, almost as though Siri was sitting next to you. In rally, your co-driver is utterly essential to your success, and if he’s doing his job poorly, you not only lose— you probably won’t even finish. For comparison, in Dirt Rally, they recorded their co-driver in a rig that shook him back and forth, making his inflection and voice vary so that it didn’t slowly turn into background noise. That’s what I call attention to detail and commitment to quality; sadly, WRC 6 does not produce on this front.
There are, however, redeeming qualities.
Courses are narrower than on other titles, which is more realistic. Also, there's a more robust career mode for those who enjoy progression. That said, most racing fanatics run the same courses over and over to shave thousandths off their split time, so the ROI on the career mode is debatable, as some might consider the campaign mode on any of the newer Call of Duty releases.
Back to the cockpit: Brent decided to treat me to one last title to ensure that I had a well-rounded experience. We jumped into Sega Rally (SR), the most quarter-arcade style of the rally genre. Despite the lesser realism in SR, the lack of detail and vehicle damage actually made it pretty damn fun. Free from the burdens of reality, I slipped into my old ways of using the walls to help me turn, with a pegged gas pedal and no brakes.
Oddly enough, though, I suddenly found it <i>much</i> harder to drive in an arcade game than I ever have in the past, and perhaps that was because I had become a bona fide rally sim junkie. Once fun, the low polygon count was throwing off my game. Also, we had been drinking. And like, it was windy outside, so...
All jokes aside, after this experience, I might never be satisfied playing racing games again without the incredible experience of a force-feedback wheel and pedals. And despite the lackluster experience of WRC 6, bringing in the pro and his gear gave me a much clearer picture of whether or not this title is worth the time for you rooster-tailing, gravel-throwing rally lovers out there.*
*An extended conversation with author Adrian Kwitowski, aka DizzyJuice:
All of this excitement got me thinking. If the racing sims are this fun, what would it take to get out from behind the monitor and increase my carbon footprint? For this information, I turned to rally driver IRL, my coworker Trish. Mild-mannered, you would never think that she would ever be rooster-tailing gravel towards onlookers at the local track. But she does, and it turns out it's painfully easy to become a real rally driver or co-driver.
To feel the real need for speed, simply attend a rally school like Tim O’Neil’s Rally School (www.teamoneil.com) or DirtFish (www.dirtfish.com). Then, buy a car off a newsgroup like Special Stage (www.specialstage.com).
You probably think that it seems like an unreasonable financial burden to both attend rally school ($4,500 for the full three-day package at DirtFish) and buy a rally car ($$$). However, Trish assured me that most of the people who compete in the local scene are just everyday Joes who thought it would be fun. They saved up a few bucks here and there and took the leap. Don’t get me wrong, video games are awesome, but the prospect of smelling burning rubber, sweating profusely in a fireproof racing onesie, and potentially crashing into a tree got me slightly aroused.
What about support staff, like a co-driver or a pit crew? Well, there are plenty of people who would love to be co-drivers, and frankly, if you don’t have the dough to pony up for a ride, look into becoming a co-driver. As for the pit crew, casual drivers stroll into the local auto parts store and offer beer and food in exchange for being on a crew for the weekend. Not a bad gig, if you want to get some experience. Plus, there’s beer.
Incidentally, I asked Trish if she played any video games, and more specifically, what rally games she finds great as a driver. Her response was absolutely priceless.
“I should probably warn you, the last game I played was probably SSX Tricky, because you can button mash and be awesome. The music was really good too!”
What I’m getting from this is that if she ever played League of Legends, she would roll Katarina (diggin’ deep!).
Sadly, though the production quality isn’t terrible, when compared to other titles in the genre, there’s nothing that makes WRC 6 special, besiders than the fully licensed vehicles and drivers. If you’re in it for the name and brand recognition, then this title is probably for you. Otherwise, either buy Dirt Rally or put your $44.99 in a piggy bank and save up for a real rally car.