“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage“.
It is the 30th November 2001. “Have you Ever” by S Club 7 is the UK No. 1 single. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, produced by David Heyman, continues its third week at the top of the Northern American box office. Evolution Studios publishes WRC: World Rally Championship.
After the success of the Colin McRae Rally games, which proved that realistic rally games can be both good and profitable, the World Rally Championship’s governing body, the FIA, decided it would be a missed opportunity to not license their own.
The advantage they had was access to their library of copyrighted rally content: graphics, presentation style, the entire package that went into making the televised rally coverage. Instead of being a generic rally game cashing-in on the popularity of a particular rally driver, they could manufacturer an interactive version of the real thing. This is exactly the kind of tie-in game that rally viewers had been hoping would one day be developed – after all, if FIFA could make such a success of it with association football, why couldn’t the FIA replicate that success with rallying?
The usage rights of McRae’s name in video games being exclusively owned by Codemasters prevented him from being involved, but every other driver in the world championship at that time was included as a virtual avatar of their likeness, each matched to their corresponding team and car. An intro was put together, showing real rally footage, and the rallies featured in the game’s championship have their own, smaller version, previewing what to expect and accompanied with a voice-over. Aesthetically, it all looks just like the real WRC, and that provides an immediate point of comparison with what’s to come.
It’s a game that’s all about verisimilitude and immersion – the game, if effective enough, is intended not to be noticed but to be indistinguishable from its inspiration. The intention was for the player to forget they were playing a game, and instead to think of themselves of having entered the rally as they see it before them. It’s wish fulfilment, realising through a video game exactly the kind of fantasy that comes from watching it on a small screen.
This achievement is testified by the series it spawned – a twelfth sequel is due soon. But such longevity has proven to have a diminishing effect, due to the limitations of the concept. There’s only so far you can go before news of yet another one is met with even more scepticism than last time. Certainly, graphical realism and handling mechanics have improved, but in terms of gameplay, it’s a simple case of swapping the countries, drivers and co-drivers, teams and cars for whichever are featured in that year’s championship. They don’t add anything, only changing the details. In terms of reason(s) to play, the series’ visuals and gameplay chart a perfect upwards gradient, but it’s directly inversely proportional to uniqueness. This is also after three publishers have had a shot of it.
Eventually, the Colin McRae Rally games evolved into DiRT. What DiRT gets right, so WRC’s critics say, is that simulated realism in a game only matters as much as how fun the game is to play overall. That right there is the problem: the FIA were never interested in WRC being fun games. This first instalment may have been popular in its day, but it was only in the novelty of such a game finally being real and playable. Now, the focus is on being an esports game carted around the world to various different WRC events in order to advertise itself on the consumer market. Are its young competitors extremely attractive and exotic? Most of the time, yes. But within rally fandom, it’s a classic case of creators being out of touch with their consumers.
The WRC series has had a troubled history. It started off fulfilling a simple desire from enthusiasts that didn’t really require much at all, to becoming infamous due to its shifting focus on esports gaming and lack of desire for innovation where it actually matters. But the first game in that series, WRC: World Rally Championship, just goes to show why, sometimes, one is enough.
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog, covering the real World Rally Championship and generally posting about what he’s been playing, at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.
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Categories: Racing Column