Ever since picking up a used PlayStation 4 a few months ago for a fairly respectable price, I’ve been dedicating a lot of my console gaming shenanigans to progressing through the ranks in DriveClub. The last title churned out by Evolution Studios prior to their closure and the staff’s subsequent mass migration to Codemasters, I had planned to publish an in-depth review on the arcade racer, as I found there was a lot to enjoy in the title despite its relatively casual-oriented theme. Still regarded as the PS4’s best all-around racer, I’ve slowly been capturing hot-laps and completing campaign mode events in the hopes that one day, I’d get to talk to you guys about it on PRC.net. It’s really not as terrible as the mainstream gaming critics have made it out to be.
However, there’s been a slight change in plans; with an Alienware Aurora R6 arriving on my doorstep, high-definition PlayStation 2 emulation is now a legitimate gaming option, and that’s allowed me to visit a title I’ve both seen and heard much about over the years, but not been able to try for myself until February of 2017. Released only in International markets during the fall of 2005, Evolution Studios’ magnum opus based on the FIA World Rally Championship – WRC: Rally Evolved – isn’t just the best mass-market rally game ever released, it still holds up surprisingly well over a decade later, to the point where modern racing game developers could learn a thing or two from the all-around stellar package Evolution had created to run on what’s now extremely dated hardware. This game is so far ahead of the curve in terms of the driving model, presentation, features, and atmosphere, it’s almost frightening how much rally games have regressed despite advances in technology and significantly bigger development budgets after Evolution lost the WRC license.
Armed with a PCSX2 plug-in from ToCAEdit that makes the emulator believe my Logitech G29 is actually an ancient Logitech Driving Force Pro, I dove in with extremely high expectations due the overwhelming number of YouTube comments proclaiming this to be the best rally game conceived in the history of officially licensed WRC titles.
I was not disappointed.
Real-life footage from the 2005 season is intertwined with a simple menu system highlighted by the use of the official WRC font, immediately establishing a very distinct atmosphere reminiscent of mid-2000’s WRC television broadcasts that makes Rally Evolved feel like a very cohesive package, as opposed to some art director’s pretentious in-house project given the thumbs up to prevent him from feeling bad about himself for an afternoon.
Though I promptly switched off the repetitive instrumental track providing some sort of background noise, it was easy as an end user to understand what the product was about and who it was aimed for; there were no annoying voice-over tutorials or big friendly buttons to walk literal idiots who bought the game out of curiosity through each facet of the game as there were with the Milestone series. Rally Evolved takes itself seriously and sets the tone of the experience with basic black menus, prominently displaying the vehicles in the car select screen in all of their 3D glory (with doors and other oddities that can be opened at your discretion), introduces you to the roster of drivers via on-board footage where you can clearly see their faces focused on the road ahead, and establishes the whole “world championship” element by a rotating globe displaying where each event is located.
The whole thing comes off as an interactive extension of a WRC broadcast from that period of time, which is really cool.
But rather than forcing our readers to sit through two thousand words of myself obsessing over all the little things Evolution Studios perfected in their final officially licensed WRC release, let’s get the most important part out of the way first; WRC: Rally Evolved drives pretty damn well, and there’s no catch that comes with that statement. It’s not pretty damn well “for a PlayStation 2 game”, or “compared to other rally games released at the time” – I really wasn’t ready for a driving experience this robust and intuitive.
The majority of YouTube videos depicting WRC: Rally Evolved don’t do the underlying handling model justice, and that’s because by default, the game is neutered to such an extent, the game practically drives itself – with more assists than modern GT3 cars holding the player’s hands and basically not allowing them to wreck the car or deviate from the preferred line through each stage in any meaningful fashion. Coupled with a chase camera view that doesn’t really convey how much the car reacts to each bump and unique road surface – instead implying the rally car is glued to the ground – this game looks pretty butchered in the physics department if you hit up YouTube and search for gameplay footage from average players.
Upon loading up the game for the first time and creating a new user profile, the three main sliders which govern driving assists in Rally Evolved are all jacked up to the maximum value for your steering, throttle, and braking inputs. It’s lame, I know, but obviously a design decision to prevent new players from getting immensely frustrated. Turn everything off, and shit gets crazy in a hurry.
Describing Rally Evolved to an audience who has never played it, or never played it with a modern force feedback wheel and all of the driving skills they’ve picked up from sim racing over the past decade since they’ve played this as a teenager, is actually quite simple. Disabling all of the assists, the tire model is exceptionally well done, requiring the same precise pedal management techniques you would use in something like DiRT 4 or Richard Burns Rally under adverse weather conditions, though the suspension model lacks the same level of fidelity, and it can be a bit jarring in very difficult, technical sectors. This doesn’t detract from the driving model, it’s just one of those things you have to get used to.
Personally, I’m conflicted in regards to why the game feels this way; on some stages, the game’s physics drive ridiculously close to the popular NGP revision of Richard Burns Rally and you can easily get into a rhythm as you would in modern rally titles, but the car consistently bottoms out with such force, and the track geometry routinely exhibits such sharp changes throughout the stage, that it could just be a case of the underside of the car constantly slamming into the ground. Whatever the reason, and regardless of any setup changes I threw at it, Rally Evolved drives like a very stiff – but still very good – Richard Burns Rally. This isn’t a bad thing.
What I prefer in Rally Evolved, is that the cars have much more weight to them, the tires reach their limit of adhesion significantly quicker, and there’s a huge emphasis on keeping the car balanced by carefully working the throttle & brake pedals – so overall speeds are a lot slower compared to rally games you’re probably used to. Very rarely are you full throttle, and very rarely are you hard on the brakes, and this isn’t because of wheelspin or the stages being super technical and full of nonsensical zig-zagging where you’re flying off into the trees – there’s a tangible sweet spot where you’re just sort of cruising at 70% attack, pushing to 80% if you happen to know the stage from a previous outing. It’s always a constant battle to restrain yourself from driving over your head and getting crossed up; there’s no “too fast” in Rally Evolved as there is in Richard Burns Rally because the cars just don’t get the power down in the same manner – it’s instead “not having the car balanced.”
There’s a stage in the Cyprus Rally that highlights this quite well; you’re tip-toeing down a mountain for the first segment, and for a good ten seconds you’re just riding the brake and holding on for dear life; desperately trying to settle the car for approaching the quick set of turns at the bottom. Nailing the segment isn’t about slowing to the right speed and turning the wheel; it’s down to thinking about what you’re doing and being precise with how you attack the corner.
Surface changes are every bit as terrifying as they should be, with your tire compound never quite preparing you for everything a stage has to offer. Ice patches on the Monte Carlo stages, and puddles after a rainstorm during the latter parts of the WRC championship, are pretty hair-raising if you’re not ready for them. There’s a whole bunch of heads-up driving involved when it comes to monitoring grip levels, as they never remain stagnant throughout a run. This is a huge change compared to titles like DiRT Rally, which are lauded by hardcore rally fans for their relatively stale track conditions.
You can combat the adverse conditions with a car setup menu that’s a step above what y’all saw in DiRT 3 – a very good design decision in this instance, as there’s an extra level of depth in allowing users to tweak elements such as the springs, dampers, and sway bars, but it never gets overly complex to the point where it pushes away loose-surface newbies like what’s available in DiRT Rally – a garage menu too elaborate for its own good. With six preset slots available for each car in the game, you can pretty much toss aside any of the sim’s default setups and run an entire season on your own creations. As someone who knows their way around a traditional circuit car in titles like rFactor, but struggles to know where to begin with rally cars, I dig this garage menu. It’s as complex as it needs to be.
A rally game is only as good as the design of its stages, and this is where Rally Evolved succeeds with flying colors, though some of the diehards will understandably kick up a fuss anyways. All sixteen rounds of the 2005 WRC championship are represented, though there are just three stages per country. No, that’s not unique routes that are then sectioned off by the developers to create a total of nine offerings and artificially helping to skyrocket the track count for a back-of-the-box tagline – an entire country in season mode clocks in at around nine minutes.
Is this a bad thing? I’m going to go out on a limb and say no, not entirely.
All 48 stages in WRC: Rally Evolved are incredibly diverse, each boasting their own unique flow, layout and theme that helps differentiate it from the others. Cyprus, Mexico, Greece, and Argentina are all predominantly gravel rallies in tan-colored dirt, but both aesthetically as well as geographically the routes are all distinctly one-of-a-kind, and don’t borrow any elements from one another. The variety is honestly spectacular, and over the span of an entire season, you never see the same stretch of road – or anything that even remotely resembles it. So while the whole game can be seen in one sitting if you’ve got a few hours for a run at the full length championship mode, you’re always driving something completely new, and each environment doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Stage width, a major topic of discussion across all rally games dating back to the time 3D driving games became a thing, varies from track to track. There are routes in Mexico, Great Britain, and Sweden that are absolutely nuts even by modern rally sim standards, but there are an equal amount of tracks with suspiciously wide rural paths. The trade-off, or compromise for tolerating some of the wider, more forgiving stages, is that all of these routes are immensely detailed, and below I’ve used what I feel is the best single picture to depict this to our readers.
Each stage has been crammed with trackside detail by Evolution Studios, as around every bend there are animated spectators, banners, towns, barriers, signage, parked vehicles, and other miscellaneous objects to really flesh out each environment. Had one of these tracks been released as a third party mod for something like Assetto Corsa, the community would unanimously praise it. There’s a whole bunch of shit everywhere, turning the world into a living, breathing, dynamic entity.
And that’s not just a colorful description, either. Evolution Studios implemented a very deep random events element into Rally Evolved, which throws all sorts of shit at you over the course of the championship season, and none of it is scripted – it’s all dynamic, on-the-fly shit that changes from stage to stage. This is a massive game-changer in the world of rally games, as it’s made very clear you’re not the only car on the stage in a very static environment. You’ll be in fourth gear, attacking a corner at over 100 km/h, and suddenly find the nose of your car pointed at a crashed Skoda, with medical personnel attending to the drivers, and the ambulance parked at the apex of the corner. You have two seconds to make a decision.
You can be hauling ass through the final stage in Mexico, and suddenly some asshole is kicking up a cloud of dust and making the route impossible to see. There goes your personal best, just like that.Based on the severity of the crash or retirement, you’ll occasionally (but not always) see an array of FIA officials standing in the middle of the route signalling at your car to slow down for the upcoming scene, several corners in advance of the accident. If the car is on fire, there’ll be a firetruck to avoid. If it’s not, no fire truck. If there’s an injury, there’s an ambulance. Other times, dejected drivers will leap out of the way of your at the last second, unaware their post-DNF tantrum is taking place on the racing surface..
Civilian vehicles will crash and cause stereotypical idiot backwoods driver obstructions where a giant portion of the fence is suddenly in the middle of the road thanks to Pablo’s escapades on his family tractor. Yes, there are civilian tractor accidents to avoid, and they’re hilarious. Water pipes occasionally break and flood the racing surface. Boulders fall. Road construction creates temporary chicanes. Spectator vehicles are never parked in the same position twice. Retarded photographers stand in particularly dangerous spots. Compassionate civilians attempt to draw attention to treacherous jumps or slick patches before they destroy your car. Event organizers occasionally forget to open gates along the route, and you’re the guy tasked with destroying public property in the name of championship points.
And I honestly don’t believe I’ve seen everything. The sheer diversity of random shit I witnessed in just one single player championship run couldn’t have possibly been all the scenarios Rally Evolved has to offer. It blew my mind, the shit that kept happening out my windshield. After playing these games for so many years with static environments, you’re just flat-out not expecting to round a bend and be subjected to Pablo’s tractor accident, so you don’t have time to reach over and mash the FRAPS button.
Restarting each rally a few times for the best possible championship result, none of these random events were based on predetermined conditions; there didn’t appear to be one specific spot for retirements to park based on a list of eight potential parking zones, and catastrophic wrecks, even if they occurred on the same area of the track, didn’t always look the same or play out in an identical fashion as the one I saw before it. Sometimes the car was upside down, sometimes it was right side up, sometimes there were FIA officials, sometimes there weren’t, and in some cases, there wasn’t a wreck to begin with.
These random events don’t always crop up; Evolution have dialed back the frequency to the point where just as you become complacent and forget they’re a thing in Rally Evolved, you find yourself taking a 150 km/h leap right onto Petter Solberg’s flaming Subaru Impreza as the orange-vested FIA officials you ignored a hundred feet earlier look on in horror. It’s just so bloody cool to see it all in action, especially as these events actually mean something in the grand scheme of things. Ripping by Sebastien Loeb’s busted Citroen isn’t just a fancy visual diversion designed to look cool; it means he’s actually retired from the stage due to a mechanical failure and taken a massive time penalty to boot – and that will be reflected in the results once you cross the finish line.
But what completes this living, breathing rally experience, is the lippy asshole in the passenger seat, who is less of a rapid-fire GPS, and more of a dynamic personal assistant with his own thoughts and feelings. Most rally games really fuck up the co-driver element, coding the navigator in a way where after you cross point X on the track, an audio file plays that merely reads out direction X in a really generic fashion. Evolution Studios went above and beyond when designing the co-driver element, turning him into a genuine companion.
Yes, he reads the pacenotes as you’d expect him to, and you can determine how early (or late) he calls corners. That’s a given.
But he also cheers when the leader wrecks. If you drive past a destroyed teammate’s car, he gets upset and makes off-beat comments like “oh wait, that’s one of our guys!” He bitches about competitors kicking up dust and making the road difficult to see, as well as spectators or cameramen nearly being hit by the car – with quips such as “are you trying to get hit?” If you come into a corner too hot, or completely lock up the brakes, he knows, and momentarily shits his pants. On the contrary, if you nail a particularly nutty set of corners, he voices his praise.
This feedback isn’t triggered with each checkpoint passed – as it would be in most rally games – it’s totally dynamic. Evolution Studios have programmed your co-pilot to know ideal corner speeds and trajectories for all 48 stages, allowing him to critique your driving on the fly. Traditionally, it takes race-ending contact with a massive concrete barrier to get your co-driver to do anything other than mindlessly read out corners. In Rally Evolved, he’s aware that the second sector of Australia’s first special stage can be taken predominantly in sixth gear, he can tell when you’re slacking, and he can also tell when he’s about to die. His enhanced level of chattiness and feedback, both during the run as well as during the cinematic stuff, is much appreciated. It’s as insightful as it is hilarious.
Oh, right, the cinematic stuff. Let’s talk about that.
Rally Evolved doesn’t just plop you on the starting grid, ready to attack the stage. Each run begins with you carefully navigating through a sea of spectators and FIA officials. Your boy in the passenger seat makes quick small talk, and the starter guides you to the starting line. This isn’t just “drive rally car on rally track” software, the whole enchilada is here. You’re part of an event, and events have a shitload of people working to make it happen. You get to see that boring procedure as many times as you like, though you can mash X to skip it if you’re in a hurry. Honestly, the inclusion of this stuff is extremely nice to see; it helps convey the fact that this is a world Evolution Studios have created, as opposed to extremely niche simulation software for a handful of computer nerds.
Podium finishes and championship wins are rewarded with elaborate motion-capture trophy presentations, where drivers spray each other with champagne and jump around their respective rides. Again, you can mash X and get right back to racing if you choose to do so, but it’s nice to take a breather for thirty seconds and immerse yourself in the game world. A lot of the sim autists scoff at shit like this, but it’s harmless fun that builds exposition, context, and meaning around the core gameplay. It’s a lot cooler to douse Petter Solberg in virtual champagne after your third place finish, than stare at a floating menu that says Team Subaru won Rally Sweden.
The WRC: Rally Evolved experience doesn’t just stop at the 2005 WRC season, so there’s a lot of replay value packed into the game as well. While I was able to win the championship on Expert difficulty in an evening of play, this isn’t where Rally Evolved ends when it comes to content. You’re given points for each event win, championship title, and miscellaneous in-game accomplishment, which can then be spent in the Rewards screen to unlock additional cars, cheats, and stages for other single player modes. Winning the championship once amasses enough points to open roughly 85% of the content provided you investigate on how to get the most bang for your buck, so there’s basically no grinding involved if you want to check out some of the crazy shit behind padlocks.
WRC fans will obviously gravitate towards the 2005 season stuff, but the game features four alternative classes of play, beginning with Super 1600 entries and real-world concept cars, all the way to a very respectable roster of every notable banned Group B competitor, and finally the Extreme spec vehicles, which are basically oh-Jesus-what-the-fuck variants of the 2005 cars. All additional cars exhibit reasonable handling characteristics for what they’re attempting to be modeled after, which combined with the already stout physics engine, means there’s no bullshit cars that turn Rally Evolved into Railway Arcade at a moments notice. The Group B and Extreme cars are not insta-win vehicles with absurd increases in speed and grip, but challenging in their own right.
There’s a Historic Challenge mode that lets you unlock the Group B cars rather than purchasing them by partaking in ridiculously challenging time trials, a separate time trial mode with impressively quick times set on every single stage by the staff at Evolution Studios, and an offshoot Rallycross variant of play that takes on a more arcade approach to the game. It’s certainly hard to ask for more ways to play the game, as there’s only so many ways to change up the concept of driving from point A to point B against the clock.
Thirty-seven hundred words later, I’m tasked with summarizing WRC: Rally Evolved for sim racers who have been spoiled for choice when it comes to modern rally simulators, and in some cases couldn’t possibly consider digging out their old PlayStation 2 to have another go at a game they once played to death in their adolescent years.
Here is the honest truth: In February of 2017, Rally Evolved is still currently the most complete rally package available to turn a lap in; the nostalgia goggles of YouTube users across the world making outlandish claims about this being the best rally game ever made are wholeheartedly justified.
Building on a solid set of driving physics and diverse stage design by creating a dynamic, breathing world that constantly keeps you on your toes with new hazards to avoid in the quest for a championship, and loading the title with a solid supporting cast of vehicles and modes to master once you’ve exhausted the core 2005 season, WRC: Rally Evolved is impressive not only in what it accomplishes as an all-encompassing rally game that ticks every last box, but in how Evolution Studios managed to cram this much stuff onto a disc that was meant to be played by a console so woefully under-powered. If you’re lucky enough to own a PC powerful enough for PlayStation 2 emulation, this ISO should be your very first download, and it’s certainly comforting knowing many of the same geniuses behind Rally Evolved are now over at Codemasters, continuing to create phenomenal racing games.