Review: You're a little touchy there, Johnny
World Rally Championship is one of the most beloved rally racing franchises...in Europe. Aside from the original WRC released under the now-defunct BAM! banner in early 2002 on PlayStation 2, the official game of the real FIA WRC has been nonexistent in North America even though the franchise is published by Sony themselves in Europe. Sure it's easy to understand why ? it's a NASCAR world here and rally racing is stuck on Speed Channel at 2AM so nobody knows it exists aside from the die-hards who know how to operate a DVR. So it's pretty surprising to see that Namco-Bandai Games picked up the debut of the series on PSP for a US release, some 9 months since the European version shipped when the system launched there. Though PSP is flooded with racing games, WRC is the first and only rally-based take on the genre for the handheld (in the US, as Colin McRae is out in Europe), giving itself a definite advantage ? it's easy to get attention when you have no competition.
WRC naturally contains basic single rally and time trial events for quick action, and because it's PSP, there's a pretty robust multiplayer setup. There's no infrastructure online play like almost every other PSP title, but there's still common Wi-Fi and pass-the-controller options. Due to the nature of rally racing, both methods work very well; ad hoc lets up to 8 people race a single event simultaneously, while single-system multiplayer works okay as a party game, but not as well as it could on a big TV compared to the PSP's smaller screen. However single-system play is much more robust; featuring time trials, single events, and entire championship seasons, as opposed to just basic time trials for Wi-Fi. The standard Career mode is large, featuring 16 real WRC events at locations across the world, from Mexico to Portugal to Japan, truly spanning the world. Your difficulty selection dictates how each event progresses; play on Novice and you get just 2 stages per event, Professional gives you 3, and both Expert and Extreme carry all 4 lengthy stages for maximum challenge.
Rally racing is by nature a solitary experience; just you and a co-driver barking out directions and warnings. The opponent isn't other cars, but instead the narrow, harrowing, brutal terrain and the tracks designed for your environment. All you have to do is get the best time for each stage of an event to win. WRC does attempt to fix this and bring some semblance of competitive excitement, though it might annoy purists and can't be turned off. While racing an event, you will encounter numerous ghost cars, and passing them guarantees finishing ahead. Long as you pass every one of them, you will win each stage, though it's easy to figure out your standing each time you hit a split that shows off your time and how far ahead or far behind you are. On Novice, finishing 5th is good enough to get through each section; if you don't, you have to replay the stage until you do. However each difficulty upgrade makes it harder, up to Extreme where you absolutely must finish 1st in every single stage to advance.
Challenge is definitely the name of World Rally Championship's game, as WRC on PSP will give you fits with its demanding gameplay. Even on Novice, the game has a tendency to knock you around giving little if any margin for error; make too many mistakes and expect to repeat the stage again and again. The tracks truly are brutal, with dozens of hazards that punish you and plenty of awkward turns where messing up can equal a death-defying fall off a cliff. You just never know what's around a bend even with the advice of your co-driver. Really, though the game makes no mention of it, playing the first time on Novice is a strong recommendation; upon winning the series you'll gain some 'evolution 1' cars that are much faster and more capable; after finishing it there I tried another series on Novice and the upgraded cars absolutely throttled the competition, making them the right choice when moving on to professional which is completely winnable with one.
WRC does have some issues though, dragging the game down a bit from what is potentially a long-lasting PSP game. Ever since analog sticks have been on controllers, every time I play a racing game it's using the analog stick. No alternative, it's the only way I play a racer. Well with WRC, after about 3 events, I switched to the d-pad and never looked back. Using the d-pad, the cars are responsive and actually feel under control, as much as possible driving around on gravel or snowy roads. However analog control is atrocious. It's loose, sensitive, and makes every single track feel like an ice skating rink. It was a little weird to return to the archaic d-pad but it's better than suffering through loss after loss because the car is virtually uncontrollable using the analog. WRC also suffers from uneven physics when it comes to on-track objects. You can run over metal signs and barriers at will, but if you hit a tire or a small rock, your car completely stops and more or less gets stuck on the object, wasting valuable seconds. It's more evident if you're using analog control but even using the d-pad there are many moments of frustration.
The good does outweigh the bad though, and WRC is a pretty entertaining game. It's very demanding and the track designs are top-notch and never let up with quick turns and blind corners off cliffs ? any normal human wouldn't dare try this stuff for real unless they're a rally racer. How each car handles is based on your terrain; on regular old streets, the cars move with grace and precision, but move to snowy mountains and the rally becomes a slow, methodical race where the goal becomes merely keeping the car on the track and under control when driving on sheets of ice. The game is designed to be replayed on each of the different difficulty levels, and with about 10 different cars to choose from (a small number in truth), like a Subaru Impreza or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, there's reason to go through WRC again to check out the different rides, all of which do handle a little bit differently than the others. It's also perfect for the PSP format, at least once you get past the lengthy initial loading; you can hop in, play one stage of an event, put the system into standby and come back later if you get a chance. It's solid pick up and play gaming, with a dose of challenge mixed in.
WRC has crisp, impressive graphics; the unique features of each rally are represented well. If you're racing in a snow rally, the white stuff kicks up and makes your car quite messy, meanwhile it's snowing and making the road even worse. Car designs are sharp and even have a solid damage model to go along with the visible dirt they acquire through each stage, though unless you're on the Extreme difficulty level, it won't translate into performance issues, merely cosmetic. As you're dealing with just 1 car the framerate is solid though it's disappointing to not see fans all over the courses taking in the action like it would be in the real WRC. Most importantly, every track represents rally racing's strength; narrow, horrifying courses that would be insane to tackle on your own at high speeds thanks to blind corners and tons of environmental hazards in devious places; rock formations that stop you from cutting corners, racks of tires to keep you on the track, and dozens of large trees to both stop you from flying out of control, and to make you actually slow down to take a corner.
Like every rally game, the audio is dominated by your co-driver barking out instructions, and in WRC it's done well. He never gets really ahead of himself (making for too many directions at once which can be confusing) nor does he talk so fast or mumbled that you can't understand him. What I don't get is the inclusion of an in-game soundtrack; it can drown out the important thing and that's hearing what the co-driver wants to say. Sure I like Franz Ferdinand and all but I don't want to hear them while I'm playing a rally game. It's easy to turn off though. There's a bunch of other bands other than Franz but they weren't familiar...but then I turned off the music so fast that I didn't hear any of them anyway. Sound effects are well done, like the crack of cars racing on snow and ice to the skidding around on regular asphalt. Topping it, each vehicle has their own unique engine sounds, a vastly underrated aspect of making your game seem realistic.