Rally fans rejoice: Codemasters is now in charge of the WRC game license. The British studio is synonymous with making rally games dating back to 1998's seminal Colin McRae Rally.
Since then, the DiRT Rally series has set new standards for rally simulations. Now, Codemasters is coming full circle, with EA Sports WRC ushering in a new era of rally games this November.
We caught up with Senior Creative Director Ross Gowing to find out how EA Sports WRC will revolutionise rally games.
“We knew we would be doing rallying”
Work on Codemasters’ new rally game began after DiRT Rally 2.0’s Colin McRae Flat Out Pack DLC in 2020. DiRT Rally 3 was rumoured to be in development before Codemasters acquired the WRC license. While it wasn't decided if it would be a direct sequel, Codemasters knew its next rally game would retain DiRT Rally's DNA.
“We weren’t sure what the title of the next game was going to be, but we knew we would be doing rallying,” Gowing tells us. “We carried on the work in the DiRT Rally mindset. It was very much the DiRT Rally team and DNA. At its heart, it’s that rally sim that people will know and love from DiRT Rally.”
With work on Codemasters’ next rally game underway, negotiations led to the studio acquiring the rights to make official WRC games in a five-year deal from 2023 - 2027, taking over from Nacon and KT Racing.
“What we were working on became WRC. It was an unusual way of doing things, but we knew we were aiming towards a rally title.”
A new era begins
Unlike the F1 series, Codemasters’ first WRC is launching without a number or year in the title. This, combined with the lower price, led to players wondering if EA’s WRC series will rely on live service updates instead of annual sequels.
However, the name change reflects the franchise’s reboot. “It’s the first time Codemasters and EA have held the WRC license. We want to come out with a bang,” Gowing explains.
“In future years, we’ll look at whether we want to put a number there. There’s less conspiracy behind it than you might think.”
EA Sports WRC is surprisingly cheap at £44.99/€49.99/£44.99. Comparatively, F1 23 launched at £69.99/$69.99. "There’s no trick here,” says Gowing. “The game is lower priced than some other games, but it’s in line with our previous rally games and what we feel is a good price. By offering an attractive price point, we hope loads of people will come in and see what rallying is about if they haven’t tried it before.”
“The game is about three times the size of how we launched DiRT Rally 2.0, so it’s a massive game.” DiRT Rally 2.0 only had six locations at launch, with more added as paid DLC. EA Sports WRC won’t get an expensive deluxe edition – all content will be available on day one.
“The biggest rally game we’ve ever made”
EA Sports WRC will feature 12 official WRC 2023 stages at launch, with the Central Europe rally coming in a future update. Each location has 35 km of unique track. “It’s been a massive undertaking – we’ve built over 600 km of bespoke track in this game. We’re so proud of what the team has achieved,” says Gowing.
Some stages are 30 km long and over 20 minutes to complete in a Rally1 hybrid. That’s a significant increase over DiRT Rally 2.0, where the longest stages were around 13 km (21 miles).
A gameplay demonstration saw game designer and ERC3 champion Jon Armstrong wrestle a Toyota Yaris Rally1 hybrid around a tight and technical stage in Sardina. Based on the demo, the stage design surpasses DiRT Rally 2.0. The environment is highly detailed with treacherous narrow roads requiring precise steering and throttle management.
Not every stage is a 1:1 recreation, but each location is based on real roads built from satellite and terrain data, combined with photo and video references bringing them to life.
While some of F1 23’s tracks were accurately laser-scanned, this isn’t a viable way of building tracks in EA Sports WRC. “With some of our track-based games, laser scanning has been an achievable body of work,” says Gowing. “To do it in the world of rally is a different undertaking. It’s not the right solution for us right now.”
With a push for longer and more complex stages, Codemasters’ in-house EGO engine, which has powered every racing game the studio has produced since the original 2007 DiRT game, was replaced with Unreal. “EGO was not going to handle that push, so we did a widespread engine evaluation. Unreal came out as the direction we wanted to go in,” says Gowing.
“It allowed us to pick up the physics and handling from the EGO engine, bring it to Unreal and use their tools to create these massive environments. Epic and Unreal have been fantastic partners in helping with that engine transition. The potential it’s unlocked and allowed us to achieve has made it all worthwhile.”
Improving the tarmac handling is a priority
While the engine under the bonnet is brand new, the physics are adapted from DIRT Rally 2.0. Tarmac handling is one of DiRT Rally 2.0’s weakest aspects, but Gowing assures EA Sports WRC’s cars will feel better driving on asphalt.
“One of the big areas of community feedback from DiRT Rally 2.0 was the tarmac handling,” Gowing explains. “That became priority number one for our gameplay and physics teams. While the main focus is improving the tarmac handling, refinements have also been made to the gravel handling.”
DiRT Rally 2.0 has a notoriously steep learning curve. EA Sports WRC will be more welcoming for new players. To help rookie drivers tame these powerful rally cars, Codemasters has added a suite of assists like throttle clamping, stability, and traction control.
Harking back to the original Colin McRae Rally, a new Rally School will help players master the art of rallying, with ten lessons on each surface type culminating with a time challenge.
These lessons will help players learn to do manual starts, use manual gears, and read pace notes. Speaking of pace notes, a simplified pace note option makes the co-driver calls easier to understand for all players.
Colin McRae R4 inspired the car builder
EA Sports WRC doesn’t just let you put 78 licensed rally cars through their paces – you can also build a car from scratch. A first for rally games, Codemasters’ groundbreaking Build Mode was inspired by the Colin McRae R4 prototype built by DJM Motorsport. EA Sports WRC will mark the R4’s first appearance in a rally game since DiRT 3 in 2011.
“That was all about crafting a car to his perfect spec. After we’d made the Colin McRae Expansion Pack for DiRT Rally 2.0, we thought that was a cool thing – wouldn’t that be an incredible thing for players to do as well?”
Players start by choosing a chassis and selecting the engine position, which affects the weight transfer and handling characteristics. Adding mechanical components is a balancing act of selecting high-quality components within budget and reducing repair times.
Once mechanical components are chosen, players can select the front and back half of the bodywork before customising it with exterior items such as wing mirrors and air scoops. Everything from the steering wheel to the seats can be customised in the interior to make the car your own. Once the car is fully built, players can take it for a test drive to see how it handles before decorating it in the livery editor – a highly requested feature from the community.
Like how F1 23's My Team lets you become the eleventh manufacturer on the grid, Build Mode enables you to become the fourth manufacturer in WRC’s premiere class, or you can build cars for the Rally2 and Rally3 classes. These custom cars can be played across the entire game, with you managing your garage size and budget to build them in career mode.
Speaking of career mode, you don’t need to start from the bottom in EA Sports WRC. “Some games force you to start at the bottom and work your way up. We wanted to give players the opportunity to dive into the premiere class if that’s what you want to do,” says Gowing.
You'll also need to manage your budget with a benefactor: “We wanted to move away from the player infinitely acquiring a massive pile of cash.” This budget management mechanic is a “more realistic representation of how the sport works."
“You can’t build the Homer Simpson car”
Crucially, cars in Build Mode are balanced against the licensed cars. Builder cars won’t be in EA Sports WRC’s 2024 esports to “ensure a fair and balanced competition.” Complying with real rule sets and regulations made getting WRC on board with the idea easy.
“You can’t build the Homer Simpson car. You build a realistic modern spec car conforming to regulations. That made the conversation quite smooth with WRC,” says Gowing.
“They’re excited to see the level of innovation we brought to the table with it. Internally, nine or ten internal teams have been involved in making it. It’s been a massive endeavour with the level of research and workflow change. I can’t wait for people to play with it and see what people create.”
Relive WRC’s 50-year history
'Moments' is another noteworthy new mode. An evolution of DiRT Rally 2.0’s daily challenges, this mode sees players relive iconic moments from the WRC’s illustrious 50-year history with footage. New Moments will be available every 24 hours but won’t disappear like DiRT Rally’s daily challenges.
Each Moment opens with a 20 or 30-second clip of the actual event, while EA Play subscribers will get exclusive Moments. Players can also capture their favourite game moments in a Photo Mode – something that was absent in DIRT Rally 2.0.
“By holding the WRC license, we’ve been able to leverage all the incredible moments from the 50-year history of the WRC,” Gowing explains. “We’ve been able to use footage from their WRC+ video streaming service to give the player context on what they’re about to play.”
One scenario, for example, sees you recreate Ott Tanak’s victory at the 2022 Rally Finland in a return to glory for Hyundai. Hyundai WRC driver Craig Breen will also be honoured after the Irish rally driver was tragically killed in a crash at the 2023 Croatia Rally.
"That was incredibly upsetting and tragic. We worked with the WRC who worked with Craig’s family. We’ve got Craig in the game. There is a tribute ribbon to him on the driver select screen," says Gowing.
"In our Moments mode, we’re also including some moments dedicated to him. Some of the fantastic things he achieved in his career. We've also done a slight edit of a special video WRC released at the time and put it in the game. We want to honour him – he was such a character within the sport."
VR support delayed until 2024
Playing DiRT Rally 2.0 in VR is the closest you can get to experience what it’s like to be a rally driver taking on unforgiving terrain. EA Sports WRC won’t support VR at launch, but this feature will be added in a post-launch update.
Codemasters wouldn’t confirm if EA Sports WRC will support PSVR2. We’re keeping our fingers crossed because Sony’s VR headset lacks a quality racing game besides Gran Turismo 7.
“We want to make sure we’ve got everything to the quality level that we know VR players expect,” says Gowing, speaking about the delay. “You don’t want VR players playing something with a wonky frame rate that will make people sick. We’re committed to investing the time to get it to that quality and optimisation.”
EA Sports WRC slides onto PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S on 3 November. Players who pre-order can start rallying three days earlier on 31 October.
For more articles like this, take a look at our WRC page.