There are some places all rally fans just must visit.
Col de Turini in Monte Carlo, Fafe in Portugal, Jyväskylä and in general Rally Finland and so on.
Sadly I’ve not been to any of these places, yet at the same time I have. Because I spent the day travelling to them in the virtual world, all while spending time at arguably one of the biggest rallying meccas of all time.
Colin McRae Rally, DiRT, DiRT Rally – all these gaming titles are synonymous with rally fans and gamers all over the world (not least this 26-year-old rally obsessive from Edinburgh), but the ante has been upped now the benchmark rally game developer has the keys to the official World Rally Championship license.
That’s what brought me to Southam and Codemasters HQ – to learn about, and experience, the game everyone’s talking about: EA Sports WRC.
Straight away when you walk into the Codemasters studios, you feel as if you’ve walked into any young rally fan’s imagination. Remember when your mom and dad told you gaming was a waste of time as it’s not good for you? Try telling these guys that – the place is a shrine for all things virtual.
But not all of it’s virtual. My eyes can’t help but catch one of Colin McRae’s lids from his Ford days – one of my personal favorites with the Scottish Saltire draped over the back – displayed in the hallway, adjacent to one of Kris Meeke’s from when he was a Citroën driver. Nice touch.
The next set of doors then open and I’m greeted with what I immediately decided was the perfect living room. A standard chair and table setup with a fake engine block as the table stand – it might have been a V8, but I can’t honestly tell you as my gaze darted towards the fully-fledged simulator in the other corner.
And the fish tank, that was a homely touch and very much unexpected!
But the rig was the reason I was here. I’d be taking on WRC eSports champion, reigning ERC3 champion and Codemasters game designer Jon Armstrong very soon, while also getting a chance to get a feel for Codemasters’ latest creation.
We’ve a special edition of SPIN, The Rally Pod coming very soon where we explored the finer nuances and incredible features of the game with Jon and senior creative director Ross Gowing, so I’ll save the details for that when it lands!
But suffice to say you will not be disappointed. I’m probably a bad frame of reference as I’ve not really played a rally game since lockdown and had never, ever driven any sort of game with a steering wheel and pedals before, so it’s fair to say I was quite… accident-prone, when I first got in.
However with a bit more practice I started to get the hang of it, and truly started to appreciate the realism Codemasters has managed to achieve with EA Sports WRC. Sitting in a sim rig worth thousands of dollars undoubtedly helps, but it felt real. I felt like I really was Ott Tänak taking on the Rally Estonia stages in my M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1.
Except for the awful driving part. That wasn’t very Ott of me.
The handling feels crisp, the feedback through the controls is remarkable, and the sounds of the cars really blew me away – particularly in cockpit view. Close my eyes and I’d have struggled to tell if I was playing a video game or watching a real-life onboard.
A sneaky bit of practice while Jon headed off for another meeting gradually began to build my own confidence behind the wheel, which was just as well as the crescendo was coming. Rally and sim racing pro vs balding, overweright bloke. There could only be one winner!
Rally Portugal was the battleground of choice, and actually EA Sports WRC allowed me to appreciate the nature of those tests more. But to give me half a chance, I’d be driving an M-Sport Rally1 car while Jon used the Ford Fiesta Rally3 he drove for real in last year’s Junior WRC.
Was 200 extra brake horsepower and far more aerodynamics enough for me to clinch the win? Stay tuned to the DirtFish YouTube channel to find out…
What I won’t leave you in suspense over is my opinion on EA Sports WRC, though. It’s awesome. Buy it.
And if you order it now, you can play it early! How to tell my bosses that I might be a lot less available in the coming weeks and months…?