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EA Sports WRC preview: tracks, cars, handling, and moving to Unreal Engine

Codemasters are switching to Unreal for their first licensed WRC game in two decades
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Codemasters has been missing from the rally genre for four years now, ever since it unleashed one of the last generation’s best rally games - Dirt Rally 2.0. But now that the WRC license has moved from Nacon to EA Sports, we’re finally able to get an EA Sports WRC first look, with the full game releasing on November 3, 2023.

Ross Gowing, senior creative director, and Jon Armstrong, game designer and real-world rally driver, took us by the hand in an early preview, starting with a clear point: it’s no longer Dirt Rally, but the team behind the game is still the one that brought us some of the best rally games ever. Gowing worked on Dirt 3, Dirt Rally, and Dirt Rally 2.0, while Armstrong came on board from version 2.0.

The studio’s history speaks for itself: it’s the team behind the legendary Colin McRae Rally franchise for the first PlayStation, now perhaps best known for F1 23. 

EA Sports WRC

EA Sports WRC will be available exclusively on PC (via Steam, Epic Games Store, and Origin), PS5, and Xbox Series X|S – no last-gen version. It will also have no editions other than the Standard and, against the odds, will cost only $50.

The game has three different covers depending on the platform: PS5 features a Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, Xbox Series X|S a Hyundai i20 N Rally1, and finally the PC gets a nice “digital cover” starring the Ford Puma Rally1.

Similarly to how EA Sports hired this generation’s greatest talent - Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen - as an ambassador for Formula 1, the same goes for WRC: the first EA Sports WRC game’s ambassador is reigning world champion Kalle Rovanperä. As with the Dutchman in F1, the 23-year-old is expected to dominate the rally scene for the foreseeable future, and maybe even beyond.

The goal of the game is to come across as “authentic and reflecting the real world of the WRC. It’s live and connected with the action, constantly updated with what’s going on in the world of rally. It’s immersive - we want players to feel like they are real drivers. They’re sitting in a rally car, and that’s as close to the sport as you can get without having to leave the couch. And this is all wrapped up in a broadcast-quality presentation as an official game,” says Gowing.

“Now that we hold the WRC license, we include all the locations, crews, cars, and teams from the real competition. And then, of course, our best-in-class driving model. It’s a true pedal to the medal experience, a quest for speed and clinging to the edge of grip to complement that.” 

EA Sports WRC screenshot

But it’s also true that EA Sports WRC wants to appeal to a wide audience, which is why the team has added some additional assists. Among the new features, the game comes with a throttle clamping assist so that we can “get to grips with some of the more powerful cars,” in addition to the classic traction and stability control, and a whole suite of accessibility settings, such as those for color-blind users.

The game features 18 locations spread around the world, 17 at launch and one (the Central Europe Rally) to be added after release as a free update. The entire World Championship calendar will be represented, with each location having 35km, for a grand total of 600km throughout the game. There will also be five bonus locations, each with an additional 35km to cover. “In most locations, these routes have been used in the last couple of years in WRC events, but everything is based on reality,” thanks to data extracted from satellite mapping and combined with photographs and videos.

As for the cars, the racer comes with all the 10 official vehicles from WRC, WRC 2, and Junior WRC, with a total of 50 crews in three categories, as well as 68 historic vehicles taking you all the way back to the 1960s - from the classic Mini to Group B and Group A: “there’s something for everyone. It’s a real rally history book, with every car feeling like its characteristics, every car feeling unique from one another.”

Interestingly, the historic cars’ damage model works in a different way. They have “predominantly metal panels,” so “they’ll behave differently on impact to carbon fiber panels in more modern cars.” Of course, “there are limits on how much we can damage some cars, and we work closely with each manufacturer to make sure we respect their requirements.”

Damage is both cosmetic and mechanical, and there’s even a hardcore setting, too. “If you have a big impact with the front of the car, if you do that with hardcore damage, a couple of hard hits to the front will compromise your radiator, and then further along, you might have some engine trouble because of that.” So, once the car is damaged, we’ll have to deal with that damage until the end of a stage, and just gearing up could further compromise the damaged components.

EA Sports WRC screenshot

With Jon Armstrong on the team (currently racing as part of WRC Juniores, he was the WRC esports’ 2018 World Champion and 2019 Vice-World Champion), Codemasters got plenty of real driver feedback, but the team didn’t stop there. “We also work with a handling consultant, Ryan Champion, who’s worked in the studio for a long time,” Gowing says. “Between him and Jon, and our gameplay handling team, they had some epic feedback sessions on handling, and then we worked with the WRC teams throughout development in terms of the drivers themselves.”

It’s also worth noting the British developer is moving to a new engine for this game. EA Sports WRC runs on Unreal Engine, parting ways with the more traditional, in-house Ego Engine. “The Ego Engine served us incredibly well for a long time, but we realized, from what we were trying to do, we started pushing it to its absolute limits when we wanted to do longer and longer stages,” says Gowing.

“The Unreal Engine is what gave us the opportunity to do that. Unreal has been a fantastic partner in supporting our transition to the engine,” even though other EA Sports games are based on DICE’s Frostbite, including the upcoming EA Sports FC 24. With some assistance from Epic Games, the team was able to “take the physics and driving engine from Dirt Rally, and bring it to Unreal, [...] simplifying what has been a lot of work, and the code teams worked incredibly hard.” That has allowed the studio to design “the longest stages we’ve ever been able to create and the largest amount of content we’ve ever put into a game.”

EA Sports WRC screenshot

We’ll have more to discuss in the coming weeks, with a second preview covering other aspects of the reveal and, coming soon, an early hands-on preview, just to see how it feels behind the wheel. In the meantime, EA Sports WRC is scheduled for release on November 3, 2023, for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.