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January 14, 2004
World Rally Championship 4 - Review
Release Date Distributor Developer Players Rating Difficulty
2/11/2004SonyEvolution Studios1-2, 16 GHard
Save Size Sound Format Vibration 60Hz Mode 50Hz Border Widescreen

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About to flip the car.
Feeling a little déjà vu? Another year has passed, and it seems as though Evolution Studios have turned the handle and pumped out their fourth licensed WRC title. Like the recently-reviewed F1 2004, it would appear that the WRC series have fallen victim to the annual rehash and re-release syndrome with World Rally Championship 3 released just less than 12 months prior. Looking on the box however though, there are several new phrases that we haven’t seen in the WRC series of games yet; ‘Online Play’ and ‘Pro Driver Challenge’ are two of the major ones which jump out at you. So are these just buzz words to try to sell more copies, or have Evolution Studios indeed made this sequel better than last year’s title? Favorably for all involved it’s the latter.

For those who came in late, WRC4 is the fourth in the series of rally games being officially licensed by the FIA, being based on the 2004 World Rally Championship (the WRC). So being the only official title, it gets the rights to all of this year’s drivers, cars, tracks (including new ones in Mexico and Sardinia), and anything else that the FIA have branded as their own. What this translates in-game is to being as close as you can get to the real thing, something that fans will lap up and enjoy.

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Cornering in the snow.
Unlike most previous rally titles, Evolution Studios have gone out on a limb and added a fresh breeze of new game modes to WRC4, extending on the traditional Championship, time-trial and single race modes. Online play is the first, enabling you to take on up to 15 other people simultaneously. By racing against other peoples’ real-time ghost cars (ie you can’t crash into them) any lag issues don’t impact on the game so you’ll need to spend more time practicing and less time thinking up of excuses as to why you missed first place by milliseconds.

Pro Driver Challenge is the other significant addition to the game modes in WRC4, and jumps on the career-mode bandwagon giving you 11 stages to progress from a newbie racing Super 1600 rally cars to a World Rally Champion and beyond. It’s a nice concept, and allows you to get to grips with the cars in a gradual manner, but it’s got a learning curve steeper than a brick wall; the early stages in particular (which are co-driverless so you get no corner calls) will take many attempts to pass. It’s not the most personal mode either; you don’t get to choose your name, car, team or anything… which makes it more like a set of extended license tests or something rather than the ‘job’ of a rally driver which they are trying to portray.

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Phil's in the lead - for now.
There have been a few subtle but noticeable changes to the gameplay behind WRC4, particularly in the control and handling of the vehicles. Cars are now less forgiving with every twitch and bump, and will quite gladly spit you out if you take a corner too fast or choose the wrong car setup. It isn’t ‘too hard’ by any means, but it makes you appreciate the power and abilities of the cars, and as such taking a gradual progression from the Super 1600 cars to the Extreme ones is a must. The repairs between stages have been improved by taking a page from Codemasters’ Colin McRae series, where different car component groups can be repaired individually (don’t need the brakes? Don’t repair them then!). It’s another of the little improvements that blend in seamlessly with the game, and make you wonder why they hadn’t implemented them before.

Returning to the sense of déjà vu I initially had with WRC4 is the main problem with the game... late co-driver calls. In the sport of rally driving, co-driver calls are effectively the guide dog leading the blind; they mean that you can come screaming around a blind hairpin without becoming scrap metal a rocky apex. So when the calls come late (or certain obstacles are even omitted entirely), it can turn your podium finish into the wooden spoon in an instant. It doesn’t happen as often as it has in the past, but it’s still a niggling issue which needs more thorough play-testing prior to release. Fortunately, that’s the only notable setback that the game has; although the menu system also has a small annoyance.

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The in-car viewpoint.
The menu system, options and setup are crisp, clear and intuitive to use. However, I’m seriously considering the proposition that Evolution Studios had the work experience kid choose the sounds for the menus. “Wow, this sound effect p0wnz!” he said, listening to a brief sample of a car starting… and then with a quick copy-paste that sound became used for each press of the X button in the menu system. Sure it would have been okay to be used as the final effect prior to beginning a race, but no, having it for every single press of the X button (that’s for navigating menus, as well as entering your name for high scores and saves) becomes comparable to fingernails down a chalkboard. It’s no reason to stay away from the game, by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn’t exactly something which will grow on you in the slightest.

Once again, Evolution Studios haven’t failed in the graphics department by further improving the visuals for WRC4. The sense of the track ‘cutting through’ the scenery (rather than the scenery just being a visual afterthought) is as strong as ever. They claim that they’ve implemented a new multi-layer particle system to cope with different road surfaces… I’m not entirely sure how it works, but the difference is noticeable when power sliding around a gravel corner onto bitumen when the tires bite and lurch the car onward to the next obstacle. Polishing up the graphics has come at a slight performance tradeoff however, with drops in frame rate occurring at least during most races; particularly those with water-splash hazards. It isn’t significant enough to detriment the gameplay, but it is definitely noticeable. For the majority of the time however the framerate stays around the 50fps mark which is more than adequate.

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The scenery is spectacular.
Aside from the issues with the work experience kid, the sound is top notch with all of the effects and engine whines that you would expect. Post-stage replays are also backed with suitable tracks, so while you admire your work while studying the telemetry data there’s some nice tunes to listen to (rather than diving for the mute button on your remote).

World Rally Championship 4 has more of a proper ‘sequel’ feel to it rather than the simple ‘upgrade’ that we’re slowly becoming used to in particular with the racing genre. The online play (including downloadable replays and record times) adds a new dimension to the game; though it’s a shame it hasn’t yet been taken up by enough people to show off its full potential. The points scheme that operates in-game will have you earning points with each win and spending them on unlockables of your choice; you’ll be going for weeks to entirely unlock everything. If you’re a racing fan then it’s definitely worth a look at, however if you’re not up for a challenging drive or not online then Colin McRae 2005 may be a slightly less-serious and more enjoyable alternative.

Review By: Chris Gobbett

GRAPHICSLooks fabulous, except for the odd drop in frame rate.
SOUNDHigh-quality car samples backed with convincing dirt, gravel, snow and asphalt effects.
GAMEPLAYRealistic and unforgiving physics, true to the sport.
VALUEIt’s tough, and the points unlocking system and trophy room will take a fair while to be fully utilized.
OVERALLWorld Rally Championship 4 is a strong sequel for the series, however the online play may be underutilized for some, and the unforgiving nature of the game is a love/hate thing which will either motivate you or give up early.

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