The prospect of a title that harnesses the soul and overall concept of the classic Neo Geo arcade racing titles such as Mille Miglia (The Great 1000 Miles Rally) and Neo Drift Out, and mixes it with the fun and high quality multiplayer gameplay of Mario Kart 7 is a mouthwatering one, to say the least. When you throw the official WRC licence into that mix, you’ve got a combination that really has the potential to impress.
Unfortunately, potential is just about all that Milestone’s WRC Powerslide has going for it. Played from a camera angle that’s reminiscent of Mashed or the later Micro Machines titles, the game pits four cars against each other, all racing at the same time to reach each stage’s finish line. Eight different rallies are on offer, each comprising three individual stages apiece. The twist in this particular tale, is that power ups are on offer, allowing the racers to hinder each other along the way.
There are only six different power ups available, and none of them can be used defensively. This means that you can be five seconds ahead with only a few hundred metres to the finish, only to be slowed to a halt by a hailstorm attack (which affects all players, no matter where they are on the track) from one of the other three drivers, and there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about it. If you’re lucky and have a nitrous pickup stored, you might be able to still blast your way to the finish. Or you would be able to, if the boost lasted for more than – and we’re not exaggerating - a quarter of a second. Maybe you’ve got a “Horn Shot” (read: “Red Shell”) attack in the locker. An attack that (according to the in-game manual) “spins the opponent out when hit” – which it does, apart from well…actually spinning them out. It turns out that this attack generally does nothing but raise their back tyres off the ground while they carry on accelerating away into the distance, unfettered. In addition to this, the power ups take less than a second to regenerate once collected, so there's not even any way of preventing every driver from picking one up every time they're available. Fortunately, you can play with power ups turned off all together if you'd like, although this comes with the removal of collisions, too - making every race incredibly boring as you all just drift through each other's vehicles like you're Casper the Friendly Ghost taking his driving test.
WRC Powerslide is full of strange design decisions such as these. Take game progression as a whole as an example. Each of the game’s stages can be tackled in any of three different classes of car – WRC, Class 2, or Class 3. On the first stage of a three-stage rally, you’ll need to win in a Class 2 car in order to unlock the next stage. That second stage needs to be beaten in a WRC-level car in order to progress, only this time you’ll unlock the first stage of the next rally, rather than the third stage of the one that you’re currently on. In essence, it means that the third stage of each rally is there for no reason at all.
The actual driving action itself isn’t much better. The stages are beautiful and very nicely detailed, but the cars slip and slide around them with handling that’s nothing short of infuriating. With practice, you can get to the point where your “Scandinavian Flick” looks like it was honed in the snowy hills of Sweden rather than back streets of Penzance but more often than not, any sort of slide you enter into has an entirely random chance of lasting long enough to slam you into a barrier. And once you do careen into an obstacle of any sort, you may fall victim of a piece of scenery that juts out (which you can’t see because of the camera angle) meaning that you can’t accelerate away, and have to reset your car.
WRC Powerslide’s CPU AI is generally quite solid, meaning that if you switch the default difficulty setting from “easy” to “normal” (and you’ll need to go into the menus to do this, as it just assumes that you want to play on easy mode from the outset), you’ll at least have a battle on your hands. That you’ll lose that battle more often than not to a collision that inexplicably flipped your car, a terribly balanced power up hitting you as you exit the final bend, or just the fact that the game has decided that the opposition is going to be able to go faster than you for a while, is just one of the reasons you’ll probably not bother pressing on. The game could be a little bit more fun against three opponents over Xbox Live, but there are massive issues with the game’s lobby system at the time of writing, meaning that nobody can even start a game of any type.
At a wallet-busting 1200 MSP, WRC Powerslide needed to stand head and shoulders above the waves of high-quality titles that are available on XBLA for less money. The final product seems to be standing at the back of the pack, waving its hand in the air in order to try and get someone’s attention – and at the back of the pack is where it should stay.