The racing genre is still poorly represented on the PlayStation 4, with Evolution Studios' hardy DriveClub the only real option on the appliance outside of launch title Need for Speed: Rivals and Milestone's many motorcycle simulations. Polyphony Digital overlord Kazunori Yamauchi doesn't seem in any real hurry to reveal Gran Turismo 7 – one would assume that he's holding the driving sim back while he individually checks each included vehicle's hubcaps for authenticity – while Codemasters hasn't exactly blessed us with the kind of console output that we expected following the PlayStation 3 era. With the new Need for Speed still a few weeks away, then, it falls upon French developer Kylotonn Games to fill the emerging space with WRC 5. The Parisian developer's previous release was the abysmal Motorcycle Club, so what could possibly go wrong?
Not quite as much as you'd think, because this is a confident first step into the world of rally from a company that clearly cares about the sport. Where previous custodian Milestone felt like it was designing its licensed rally games due to contractual obligations, there's a playfulness to this fifth instalment which stems from its slick handling system.
Petrol heads may be disappointed to learn that WRC 5 sits closer to SEGA Rally than DiRT Rally on the simulation spectrum, but the model is well-executed all the same. Even on the most difficult settings, vehicles are gentle and relatively simple to manoeuvre, but the game's just tough enough to make you feel like you're bullying your Ford Fiesta around slippy Swedish corners and sandy Mexican bends. The game does a great job of communicating the different types of road surface, too, and with all 13 venues from this year's real-world WRC championship included, there's an enormous amount of track for you to wrap your head around.
The problem is that the game just doesn't have the budget to back up its impressive driving model. The poppy punctuated plains of Poland really stand out, for example, but the forestry of Finland is indistinguishable from other areas of the game. More importantly, the technical performance is never quite up to scratch, with screen tearing a constant annoyance even with the sheer horsepower of the PS4 available. While this is little more than an irritation, though, it's the frame rate that causes the biggest headaches, temporarily wrecking the responsiveness of the controls when the system is under particular strain. Considering how simple this game looks, it should be running flawlessly.
The cheap and cheerful nature of the racer does have it's advantages, however – primarily in career mode. Here the developer's stripped away all of the guff from previous releases, plotting a progression from Junior WRC right the way through to the big league. There's very little management for you to partake in, meaning that you're able to focus your attention on the best bits: the racing. You will need to hop into menus between Special Stages in order to repair certain parts of your car, but this offers momentary respite rather than the kind of hindrance that has plagued the property in the past.
The online aspects are also refreshingly threadbare, allowing you to hop into one-off races with other players from around the world. The lazy lobby system – which is built around a ready up system – means that you will spend time waiting for other inconsiderate racers to raise their handbrake, but it all works great when you buddy up with a friendly group. There's also a pass-the-controller option if you want to play offline, while spotlighted events offer timed DriveClub-esque challenges for you to compete in.
A surprisingly solid racing game, WRC 5's biggest undoing is its evident lack of budget. Kylotonn Games has put its priorities in the right place, delivering a slick handling model that captures the spontaneous nature of the sport well, but the presentation is fairly poor across the board – and the frame rate issues really detract from the responsiveness of the driving. Still, this is a strong base to work from, and we can only hope that the positive reception results in the studio receiving a bigger budget for the release's inevitable sequel.