The great Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.“ By this definition, one could label the process of playing Milestone’s newest release, Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo, as an experience that could drive you to the brink of insanity. In a quest to explore all the game had to offer for my own personal enjoyment, and gather multiple screenshots for the game’s photo mode to be used throughout my inevitable review for PRC.net, I constantly found myself loading up an event in Career mode thinking “this time, it will be different.”
This time, the controls won’t be as muddy and I’ll be able to keep my Suzuki Escudo pointed straight. This time, the framerate will hover in the high 50’s, instead of bouncing around all over the place like an Early Access title. This time, I won’t blow out the AI competition by a gap of two minutes in a single rally. This time, maybe if I beg and plead with my PC, it’ll let me use my wheel and pedals instead of forcing me to use an Xbox 360 controller I originally bought alongside DiRT 3 back in May of 2011. This time, my co-driver will call out when there’s rocks on the inside of a corner, or when there’s a farmer’s gate during a high speed section of a stage in Wales.
And it never gets better. The sad reality is that after being delayed almost a year due to concerns regarding the overall quality of the title, Rally Evo is an extremely disappointing effort by Milestone. And there’s a reason I use the word “disappointing” instead of something like “bad”, “awful”, or “garbage.” The truth is that Milestone built an absolutely phenomenal rally simulator, one which blows away both Richard Burns Rally, as well as the more recent DiRT Rally in terms of both driving physics and content, but the entire experience is plagued by absurd technical problems that make the game tread dangerously close to unplayable territory.
On a personal note, I really wanted to enjoy Rally Evo, and bought into the small dose of marketing hype surrounding it. To be completely honest, I got tired of DiRT Rally. Despite sinking 62 hours into a game I labelled as the best racing sim of 2015, the woefully small selection of stages, and pace at which new content was added into the game meant I’d seen everything DiRT Rally had to offer by the time the game graduated from Steam’s Early Access program. When you have entire months to memorize a whopping two new stages and mere handful of new cars to try out – some which didn’t catch my attention in the slightest – I eventually got to the point where playing DiRT Rally felt like watching a horror movie for the fifth or sixth time. All of the surprises meant to rustle your jimmies completely lost their effect, and running the notoriously difficult Monte Carlo stages in treacherous conditions felt no different than clicking off practice laps at the Nurburgring. It got boring.
But I wasn’t done with rally games as a whole, and Rally Evo was basically offering more of what sucked me into DiRT Rally. More cars, more stages, more modes, and an in-game livery editor, but with the same challenging physics. Hey, this sounds pretty good.
The problem is, Milestone has a tendency to royally fuck things up. To put things into a more politically-correct description, the small Italian developer team are known for an endless stream of racing games that fail to improve on the previous iterations in any meaningful way. This is a company that is completely satisfied with continuing to release games scoring no higher than 50’s or 60’s on mainstream review sites, only to push out a near-identical release the following year. The company has put out four WRC games, four MotoGP games, and four World Superbike games among a plethora of other auto racing titles, yet framerate troubles and lack of support for things sim racers need, such as multiple inputs, are conspicuously absent on all PC releases. Milestone as a company fail to address these issues or even talk to their fanbase at all, pushing out one or two patches at most before going silent for months at a time, surfacing the following year to announce any number of sequels.
But the philosophy behind the development of Rally Evo was supposed to be different. Delayed an extra year specifically to polish the game up and iron out bugs – something not possible while under the WRC license – there was little room for error once the product finally hit store shelves. And even before the car is on the starting gate set to attempt your first stage, there are crippling problems.
The majority of the game is configured not while Rally Evo is actually running, but through a launcher that pops up when you click the executable file. The list of graphical options is pathetic, and implies this was a quick and dirty port from next-generation consoles; standard options like Special Effects and Shadows are nowhere to be seen, meaning you can’t do a whole lot in the configuration launcher to combat the numerous performance issues that arise during gameplay.
By comparison, here’s only a portion of what DiRT Rally offers:
Hell, the version number displayed in the launcher doesn’t even reflect the version of the game installed – there’s already been a day one update to push things to Version 1.1. But we’re just getting started.
There’s no support for triple monitor setups. None. This doesn’t affect me personally, as I’m a single monitor proletariat, but an overwhelming number of PC sim racers have made the expensive jump to three screens over the past handful of years. Pretty much every modern video game includes support for a triple monitor setup, with the most prominent adapters of this configuration being the virtual airplane and automotive enthusiasts due to the sheer practicality. Despite being billed as a hardcore simulator, Rally Evo doesn’t support most common simulator setups.
And this extends to the controller support as well. With so many toy steering wheels, pedals, shifters, and handbrake modifications available for the hardcore virtual race car nerds, very few sim racers who have invested any serious time into this hobby use a bone stock steering wheel. Everywhere you look on sim racing message boards, people are mixing & matching wheels and pedals with a Leo Bodnar cable, buying H-shifter add-ons, or even purchasing USB emergency brakes specifically for rally racing sims. Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo doesn’t support any of this stuff; in fact, the game only detects one input device. Unless you’re playing with a setup that connects to your PC through a single USB cable, you can’t play the game. Period.
This is absolutely absurd. Milestone built a hardcore rally simulator for a very specific audience, but then made no attempts to try and cater to the very specific needs of that audience – even though those needs are integral to the game being deemed “functional.” Sure, you can pretend you’re seventeen again and plug in an Xbox 360 controller, but let’s be real here: keeping a car pointed forward at 200 km/h on a gravel road is asking too much from an Xbox pad. It’s as if Milestone believe that sim racers are just a group of kids who can play Gran Turismo with all the assists off, rather than an actual hobby with its own dedicated community and hardware.
So what’s going to happen, is that the sim racers who buy this game will be immediately requesting a refund because none of their hardware is supported, and the people who pick this up on next-generation consoles will quickly grow frustrated over being unable to control a modern rally car with a standard gamepad. At the end of the day, I can’t imagine a single group that will be satisfied with this game if Milestone choose to address only the performance issues and ignore support for multiple inputs and/or monitors.
And as if lacking necessary graphics options, the inability to use all three of your monitors, and no support for multiple inputs wasn’t enough, there’s already a Season Pass retailing for $20 on top of the base game. The “Special Edition” retails for $100 Canadian. It’s like Milestone has cut their employees off from the outside world, not allowing them to see how hated this bullshit is around the industry. I haven’t even started talking about the save data corruption, the fact that online isn’t handled through Steam but instead through creating a specific account for Milestone, nor have I mentioned the issues people are having with binding their controls. It’s safe to say that these issues exist, though I personally haven’t dealt with them. Yet.
But once your inner rage has subsided from the initial setup woes and strange lack of support for PC sim racers, there’s an even crazier plot twist: Milestone actually built a bloody fantastic game.
I’ve been doing this shit long enough to be able to spot good driving physics when I see them. Rally Evo drives very similarly to DiRT Rally, with two major positive changes.
First, the cars don’t have super downforce/super grip on Tarmac surfaces. I actually enjoyed driving the shitboxes the game gives you early on in career mode, because conserving momentum and keeping your speed up took more than just maintaining a Grand Prix line through tight mountain passes. It felt like some genuine talent was required to drive on tarmac, and the woes of dealing with a front wheel drive hatchback were immediately apparent – even with my Xbox controller. As a result, the first few races in Career mode that should have been boring were actually quite fun. This is probably the only game I’ve played where shitbox racing was entertaining – especially when I got to some of the early rallycross races.
Second, the transition between surface types is every bit as sketchy as it is in real life. A major complaint in DiRT Rally was the outright lack of multiple surfaces over the course of a single stage. Greece was 100% gravel, Monte Carlo was 100% ice, Germany was 100% tarmac, Sweden was 100% snow, Finland was 100% gravel, and Wales was 100% gravel. The only time we got to try our hands at a stage with a mix of surfaces was in the historic layout of Pikes Peak – and it wasn’t much of a challenge.
Rally Evo throws sim racers some genuine curveballs, as a multitude of point to point stages and Rallycross tracks heavily mix things up. Even better, the transition between surfaces is extremely noticeable and requires you to severely adjust your driving style. My first taste of the dangers of transitioning from tarmac to mud happened to be on the Los Angeles Rally Cross course. Long story short, the shock of going from grip to no grip was every bit as jarring as I expected it to be, and became an integral role in how the race played out.
However, as mentioned above, driving with any sort of modern gamepad just isn’t a satisfactory way to play Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo. Look, I know some guys will come in and say it’s fine if you use X and Y assists, or that I’m just driving the wrong cars, but there’s no denying that the overall experience is just dreadful with a pad. This is because the game’s steering is programmed to control your driver’s virtual arms, rather than the steering wheel. Essentially, Milestone programmed input lag into the game engine, to simulate how long it takes for your driver to physically turn the steering wheel.
Eradicate this, as well as allow for multiple input devices so the majority of sim racers can actually play the game, and the raw physics engine has potential. Once you get into a proper rhythm with a quicker car – a pretty rare feat to be honest – you can tell that the physics engine powering Rally Evo is something that was built with a very tangible effort behind it. Even the little things, like the way the suspension soaks up bumps on a per car basis, or the way modern WRC cars exhibit huge body roll on Rally Cross tracks without losing traction… There’s something really fucking good waiting to be unleashed.
But at 200 km/h on a gravel road just barely wider than the car you’re driving, steering with a thumbstick doesn’t work. In the slower cars, you’re traveling at a speed where you can prepare for sections of the course and set the car up properly, but basically anything past the introductory cars turns into sheer frustration. Surviving a stage turns into trying to achieve 100% on a song in Guitar Hero. It boils down to memorization rather than driving skill.
The experience complimenting the driving also suffers from a few problems. While diving into a level of detail not seen in DiRT Rally, adding “plus” and “minus” calls into all relevant corners, the co-driver oddly omits several roadside objects relevant to your success or failure. On the Wales stages, the co-driver misses many gates scattered throughout the course, leading to several “oh shit” moments where you fly past a pole mere inches from totaling your car. The co-driver also fails to inform you of corner obstructions such as rocks or signs, meaning the infamous “don’t cut” calls from DiRT Rally are nowhere to be found. Fortunately, the timing of the calls are quite good, and unlike DiRT Rally, there aren’t any sections that are way off or out of sync.
But the framerate, oh the framerate. As you can see in the DiRT Rally configuration above, I’m able to run the game with nearly everything turned up to Ultra and enjoy a silky smooth 60 FPS. By comparison, Rally Evo runs like an Early Access game. At Pikes Peak, the framerate hovers in the 50 range, with noticeable drops when there’s seemingly nothing on screen. In Finland, the multitude of trees drops things into the 30’s or even 20’s, as if I’m playing Grand Theft Auto IV on my old Xbox 360. Dust or water particles randomly appear in front of the car after I’ve gone through a puddle, significantly lowering frames for a second or two. The game has a bad habit of micro-stuttering, and sometimes this increases into periodic freezes that can’t be rectified in the pitiful graphics configuration menu. Sometimes the sound cuts out, sometimes objects disappear and reappear when you’re right next to them, sometimes blurry textures replace high-resolution ones when they’re in plain site, and guys are reporting the framerate takes a massive nosedive both at night and in the rain.
Oh, and it’s crashed on me a few times as well. As in, “this program has stopped working.”
If you remember how Bugbear’s Wreckfest performed back in 2013… Yeah, it’s kinda like that. The only difference is that this game is considered finished and retails for $100 Canadian. When on the track in Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo, if you’re not fighting the awful gamepad controls, you’re fighting with the extremely poor performance. But the worst part is knowing that there’s something good under the hood, and if these problems all went away for just a fraction of the time, you’d be satisfied.
Because not only is there a decent physics engine powering the title, there’s a ton of stuff to do in Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo.
Rally Evo has not one, but two full Career Modes; both focusing on completely different content, but tied together through the same user profile. Make no mistake, the single player portion of Rally Evo is massive. You’re not going to plow through this in a weekend.
The Loeb Experience is a scenario-based mode that serves as an interactive documentary on the game’s cover athlete Sebastien Loeb. Introducing each category of challenges himself through videos featuring rare photographs, video footage, and his own personal accounts of his time as a participant in the World Rally Championship, the slick presentation gives way to single-stage events where you’re tasked with replicating one of Sebastien Loeb’s many dominant driving performances. This is where the game’s multitude of licensed Citroen rally cars comes into play, as each challenge features the period-specific car Loeb drove at the event, down to the exact livery changes. These challenges are not a cakewalk and some are incredibly frustrating with a traditional gamepad, as the completion requirements are jacked up to eleven and routinely force you to put on a display of world class driving skill. Finishing all challenges in a particular category unlocks one of Loeb’s many Citroen’s for use in the game’s Career mode, but obviously many people won’t even come close to finishing more than a handful of these challenges. Both the idea and execution of the mode are fucking awesome.
However, the game’s Career Mode is where you’ll be spending a large portion of your offline racing, as everything you do in Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo is linked to your personal Garage. Unlike most racing sims, which allow you to fuck around with all of the content the game has to offer in Single Race mode, Rally Evo is one cohesive world intended to be something of a mix between Forza and Race Driver Grid. The game starts you with a Peugeot 106 shitbox, walks you threw a few tutorials, and turns you loose on the absolutely mammoth core of the game. Split up into the categories you see below, and then further divided into classes (for example, the Debut category is split between Rookie, Pro, and 1970’s), Rally Evo’s career mode has no shortage of races.
And it has no shortage of cash payouts, either. Unlike Forza or Gran Turismo, which both force you to grind out some truly pathetic races until you’ve saved up enough to buy a moderately quick car, Rally Evo has structured its prize money in a way that you can start driving some of the quicker Group A and Modern Rally cars within an hour of booting up the game. With events not being locked away behind a meaningless XP bar, it’s extremely easy for someone to jump in and instantly start racing the cars they’re interested in driving, and feel like they’re getting somewhere. Combined with the prize cars a skilled driver can attain through the Loeb Experience, progression isn’t painful.
This is because the goal of career mode isn’t based on cash or a linear path of “leveling up,” but rather attaining Reputation Points. Basically, every event gives out Rep no matter where you participate, and every X amount of rep unlocks a new event in the Sebastien Loeb World Tournament. Achieve the number one spot on the fictional “World’s Best Rally Driver” leaderboard by amassing the most reputation points, and Loeb invites you to be his teammate for the 2016 Pikes Peak event. How you get there is up to you, meaning you won’t be forced to race shitboxes or grind out events you despise.
Despising events, however, is a rarity in Rally Evo. There’s just so much to see and do, very rarely does it ever get old. With nine point-to-point rally locations, and five rally cross tracks in familiar territory, it’s difficult to get tired of progressing through career mode. The traditional rally stages are long – extremely long – with lap times consistently in the five, six, or even seven minute range. The stages in Sweden are nothing short of awesome, while the tight backroads of Mexico are probably the most technical stages ever to be featured in a rally sim. Wales and Finland graphically don’t stack up to what’s available in DiRT Rally, but the layouts themselves are equally as realistic, and I’d argue that Sweet Lamb in Rally Evo is arguably more accurate than the version seen in the Codemasters rendition. Rally Evo includes both the modern and classic versions of Pikes Peak, as seen in DiRT Rally, but the selection of Rally Cross circuits in Rally Evo are far superior. Los Angeles and Trois-Rivieres are instant classics, with the three facilities outside of North America offering layouts equally as captivating.
Highlighting the excellent track selection are the cars themselves. Unlike DiRT Rally, which suffered from licensing setbacks and very notable omissions, Rally Evo has enough stuff in it to be comparable with the massive RSRBR community mod compilation for Richard Burns Rally. Entire WRC seasons are represented in full, and the game automatically prepares your car with all of the necessary visual upgrades for each event. Take a WRC-spec Volkswagen Polo to Los Angeles, and your headlights are automatically covered, along with your co-drivers name taken off the rear windows. Each event, you’ll receive a custom number plate tailored to the info you set in the driver information screen, (along with a custom suit, helmet, team name, and colors) and the livery editor ensures you’re driving something you can be happy with. And if you’re bored, at any time you can hit a button in the Main Menu that allows you to free drive around your team’s headquarters, a throwback to the test park in the WRC games made by Evolution Studios.
Better yet, in a throwback to DiRT 2 or RalliSport Challenge, any car can be used anywhere. If you want to be a retard and take Hill Climb cars to a Rallycross circuit, you can. If you want to drive an old Mini up Pikes Peak, nothing is stopping you. WRC cars on a Rallycross track? Be my guest. This was a huge setback in DiRT 3 and DiRT Rally, and it’s been properly rectified here. Sure, some combinations are chaotic, but at least you aren’t bored.
But just when the positives start to offset the negatives, and you start to enjoy the game despite the abundance of technical issues, another set of problems crop up with Rally Evo. The artificial intelligence is fantastic during Rallycross events – and it takes a lot for me to come out and say that about a racing sim in 2016. They’re quick, they don’t let you bully them, and if you leave them a gap, they’re taking it. Occasionally, you’ll run into issues where they cut turn one at Trois-Rivieres a bit too much and the field explodes upon collectively nailing the concrete wall, but this doesn’t happen with the frequency seen in proper circuit racing sims such as Assetto Corsa and Project CARS. The racing at Los Angeles is absolutely crazy, and even if you’re a decent driver to begin with, the AI will simply out-drive you if you haven’t prepared for war. It’s really fucking awesome.
However, this surprising level of competence doesn’t carry over to other game modes – even though that level of competence is on display in the Loeb Experience. I jumped into a full rally at Wales in the Group A Ford Escort for a Career Mode race, and ended up winning the entire thing by a gap of three minutes. This was supposed to be a highly challenging Career Mode race, boasting $800,000 worth of prize money to the winner. Instead, the level of skill displayed by the AI was laughable.
This was made even more aggravating by the fact that car damage appears to do nothing in Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo. In the rally pictured above, I rolled the car seven times in the final two stages, and even got stuck inside a collection of trees that took me a good twenty seconds to escape from, and I was never punished. There was no tangible decrease in my car’s performance, even though on more than five different occasions I should have totaled my car. Instead, I could wall-ride a certain coastal stage without even hearing the sound effects notifying me of the obvious concrete-on-metal contact.
I initially thought that this was a glitch, or maybe that particular Career Mode event had the car damage setting reduced by default, but upon attempting a run up the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in one of the game’s most difficult Career events, I discovered an even bigger issue. Despite falling off the mountain, and I mean intentionally pointing the car at the sky and shifting into sixth gear in my quest for 72 virgins, the game would place me back on the track as if nothing happened – not even giving me a time penalty. I literally tried to destroy my car in two separate events using the Realistic damage setting, and Rally Evo basically made it impossible for me to accomplish this task.
Pikes Peak becomes a lot less scary when flying off the track isn’t detrimental to your progress.
And that act, in and above itself, becomes the all-encompassing theme surrounding Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo. Just as the game begins to show a glimpse of it’s true potential, something you genuinely question how the developer team didn’t catch rears its ugly head and makes a mess of the whole ordeal. On paper, this is a game that easily surpasses DiRT 3, Richard Burns Rally, Rallisport Challenge, and DiRT Rally to become the best rally video game of all time. You simply aren’t going to run out of things to do anytime soon, and there’s always a new car, track, or feature to discover around every bend. With what’s probably the biggest roster of content, modes, features, and options ever seen in a rally game, Rally Evo is the most complete racing sim I’ve installed onto my PC.
On paper, that is.
In reality, every single truly amazing aspect of Rally Evo is overshadowed by bugs, glitches, annoyances, performance issues, technical hiccups, and outright retarded decisions on the part of Milestone. The game drives horribly with an Xbox 360 controller, triple monitor configurations and multiple input devices aren’t supported, the overall performance optimization is on-par with Early Access titles selling for far less, save game data is randomly corrupted, and Milestone are notorious for abandoning projects without even bothering to talk to the community and find out what’s wrong. There’s a very real chance none of these game-breaking issues will ever be fixed.
Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo is the best rally game of all time by quite a significant margin, but as was the case several times throughout 2015, we have been sold a product that stretches the definition of what’s considered a working video game. Explaining this when getting your refund on Steam is quite simple, but actually pushing the developer into fixing this mess so we can enjoy Rally Evo in the way Milestone intended it to be played is an entirely different story.