WRC 6 (PS4, PC, Xbox One)
Release: October 7, 2016
Score: 7.8 out of 10
Midway through an intense session of WRC 6, I’m gripping the controller to breaking point. My eyes are saucers and my tongue is bared in a dog-like grimace. From the television, there’s the deafening whine of the modified Peugeot 208. I stab the brakes chaotically, then accelerate at speed. The whine changes pitch and it’s suddenly popcorn kernels spitting in a microwave oven. On the screen, the sky is black, pitch black, and though the Peugeot’s headlights slice through the gloom, I’m driving blind, aided only by co-driver who is yapping and hiccuping phrases at me like a constipated driving instructor.
My girlfriend stands hands on hips, for she has walked in to inspect the source of the noise. She stares quizzically at the screen. “What on earth is that sound?” she demands.
I look up, eye bulbous, screaming tears from the effort to stay on the track. “A Peugeot 208 T16.”
“No… that voice.”
“My pacenotes,” I say in a hush.
“It’s horrible.” And with that, she walks off.
I glance back at the action, stung by the criticism. Suddenly the Peugeot recedes and my co-driver snaps into focus. He’s like a robot with a bad case of touerettes. “Left…. straight hard right left…. straight…. hard right left straight…. right,” he hiccups. Phrase after phrase comes tumbling from my speakers, but the delivery is all wrong, the flow horrible, and the words have a strange monotone urgency to them. Mr Co-driver is falling over his delivery yet managing to make it sound so stilted he might as well be a cardboard cutout with a voice box.
I find myself agreeing with the earlier assessment and lower the sound, but I’m troubled. In most games, I’d silence the annoying presence and keep going, but in a rally, your co-driver is supreme. Without him you might as well accelerate off the nearest cliff face. Plus, the more I play, the more I realize he’s got a vindictive streak in him. As he’s hiccuping phrases he’s also choosing the precise moment I’ll need his direction least. It’s uncanny.
The developers seem to recognize that because they offer an option to speed him up or slow him down like a wind-up doll. But that doesn’t help either, it turns out, because the killer co-driver still finds a way of ushering you off the cliff-face with vague and unhelpful commands – and it doesn’t get rid of his voice.
So, a spectacular black mark against WRC 6 to start with, then, the latest installment in a long-running video game accompaniment to the rally season. Is it just me, or does someone in the rally business love video games? What other niche sport serves them up year after year? The undisputed king is Codemasters’ Dirt series and on first inspection WRC 6 can’t hold a candle to it. Close up, it’s ugly: menus are unspectacular, spectators are made from cardboard and the bits where you see your car pre-race are dull.
Then the engine fires to life, the popcorn kernels start spitting, and everything changes.
With the race track a blur and your co-driver’s voice muted, WRC 6 is kinetically beautiful. From the forests of Finland to the treacherous ice of Monaco, the environments take your breath away, and the more you play, the more you appreciate the obvious care that has been put into this work. Cars are suitably rendered and suitably different on the track, with the heft of my aforementioned Peugeot a nightmare to control around tight corners, while Martin Koči’s Citroen, for instance, is slower but more pleasant to drive.
Standing still, WRC 6 doesn’t have the flash of Dirt Rally, but when sunlight breaks through tightly-knitted trees or raindrops slash your windscreen, it’s gorgeous. In darkness too, a kind of fevered dread takes over as you squint ahead at the 5 yards of road you can discern in the gloom. Save for the black smoke billowing from your flanks like the plump fumes from an oil refinery, everything else is pitch black.
It turns out that rallying is well suited to this medium. Navigating the complex turns and winding chicanes of these elaborate obstacle courses is thrilling stuff, and you’re forced to make minute adjustments all the time. It’s a shame Mr Co-driver is so awful, because now then and he’ll actually soften and offer good advice, like cutting a corner here, or not cutting there. You might be better off leaving him on low.
Like the real sport you’re racing the clock with your position on the leader-board based on time, not your ability to shunt another car off the road. It’s a solo pursuit in every sense of the word – and I like that; just you and the road. There can be no excuses.
Solo doesn’t mean totally alone, of course, and there are online options. WRC 6 surprisingly doffs its cap to the ’90s with a split screen mode, but everywhere else the online pickings are slim. Sure, you can stage single events or take part in a full rally on private or public servers but beyond this there’s little else besides unique timed events mirroring the real rally season.
The bulk of the game is the career mode, then, which lacks the pizzazz of Codemasters’ Dirt Rally. All the same, it’s an entirely enjoyable way of getting to know this title, and offers up a steady drip-feed of challenges that center around the real-life tracks and their unique challenges. The first time you skate along ice you’ll have a new-found appreciation for the dirt and grime of the off-road, and from the stifling darkness of Poland to the steep embankments of Australia, there are challenges aplenty.
Concessions to feeble players (like me) are handed out, including a rewind option, but there’s always a penalty for your indiscretions and the inexorable urge to improve upon every result. The rewards for winning are shallow, and WRC 6 lacks the pomp and ceremony to make you feel like a real rally champion, but the meat and potatoes is plenty to snack on.
In the end, it’s a pity about the pacenotes, for in your co-driver’s hiccuping delivery you’ll probably end up single. But at the very least you’ll have a compelling game to dip and dive back into.
Follow Edward Love on Twitter: @edlovewriter