WRC 9 is an amazing rally game with stunning graphics, but a bit too much deja-vu
- Developer: KT Racing
- Publisher: Nacon
- Release date: 8th September 2020
- Genre: Racing, Rally
- Platforms: Xbox One, Series X, PS4, PS5, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
There’s something immensely satisfying about nailing a drift around a hairpin bend and finding that perfect flow between corners. With your co-driver reeling off a steady stream of pace notes, your concentration levels are at their limit as you try to translate the vocal commands into an optimal line. You are always thinking several steps ahead, all the while focussing on the current corner.
It’s a kind of driving you don’t get in circuit racing. I can play Forza and hold a conversation, even taking my hand off the controller to grab a drink going down a straight. In WRC 9, there are times when I hardly dare blink, let alone allow my mind to wander. It’s an assault on the senses. An immersive experience very few games can provide.
I’ve never driven a real rally car, but WRC 9 makes me feel like I could.
A graphical overhaul
WRC 9 is a gorgeous looking game. The new lighting system gives a tangible depth to everything you see. Working alongside the dynamic weather system, it makes for a significant improvement over WRC 8, itself a great looking game. Sunlight flashes through the trees casting flickering shadows over your dashboard, and sunsets crest over hills, momentarily obscuring your vision as you pass the peak, greeted by a picturesque vista as ribbons of asphalt or gravelly trails wind through the landscape in front of you, all rendered in beautiful 4k on the Xbox One X.
Track surfaces have realistic-looking textures, and it’s possible to judge how the car will behave just by reading the terrain in front of you. I’ve bandied the word around a lot in this review, but it is utterly immersive.
It’s not just the graphics that impress, though. The audio in WRC 9 is outstanding, too. As a cockpit driver, I could hear the stones chipping the underside of my car, the swoosh of the wipers as the rain beats down on the windscreen, and the growl of the engine and whine of the transmission as I stepped on the go-fast pedal and wrenched every last bit of horsepower from the turbocharged engine.
It’s magnificent, and it truly feels like the pinnacle of what is possible with the current hardware.
The most authentic WRC game yet
The handling in the WRC games has steadily improved over the last few iterations. The dreaded controller twitch has been ironed out, and now it’s far more manageable. In the full-fat WRC spec cars, it’s still possible to over-correct into a tank-slapper, but with a bit of practice and smooth inputs, it’s much more manageable than in last years game.
Cutting corners and riding bumpy ground at the apex and exit of turns used to be a recipe for disaster, but suspension simulation improvements allow you to much more realistically ride this uneven ground without fear of being thrown off the edge off a cliff or smashed into a tree that has inconsiderately been placed right in front of your car.
Weight transfer is far more tangible now, and feels natural, making loading the weight up before you enter a corner more intuitive than it used to be. Adding a whiff of opposite lock, flicking the steering back and applying a judicial amount of handbrake sees you majestically drifting around corners. Misjudge the turn, though, and the momentum will see you unceremoniously thrown into a wall or vast abyss that always happens to be located at the edge of the most tantalising hairpins.
All of these improvements to the handling have lifted WRC 9 to another level. Where the previous games were great fun, they never quite provided that fluid and authentic off-road driving experience you get in WRC’s main rival, DiRT Rally 2.0. Now, there’s a new contender for the crown of best rally sim, and for me, when you factor in the superior stage design, WRC 9 has edged in front.
The career in WRC 9 is a direct evolution of the one found in WRC 8. Progression is made through a calendar of available events, alternating between the scheduled WRC races, and a selection of training and special events to fill the downtime between them. Everything you do earns cash and skill points, so it’s worth filling your calendar.
I like that WRC 8 gives you the freedom to progress at your own pace. You can begin in Junior WRC, or if you are feeling confident, go straight for a WRC 3 trial. Coming straight from WRC 8 and Dirt Rally 2.0, I went straight for the WRC 3 tryout and passed first-time, even with some admittedly abysmal driving.
The Junior WRC class and WRC 3 are great fun to drive, but the lack of power means you don’t get that visceral thrill you do in the higher classes. If you’re new to rally games, it’s probably advisable to cut your teeth in these more forgiving classes, and you can run several seasons in the lower classes with no pressure to move on until you are ready.
If you’re like me, and can’t wait to get your hands on the Rally-bred monsters, though, there is a shortcut to get there: Manufacturer tryouts and challenges will pop up in your events, and if you perform well, it’s possible to get an invite to the next tier of racing around the time you finish your third rally.
This freedom to move on when you feel ready, and not determined by completing a set number of races or finishing in X place in the championship is a great design choice. I ran a few rallies in each category, got a feel for the handling improvements and off I went. Within just a few hours of gameplay, I was up in the big leagues, powering along bumpy roads, drifting inches from jagged outcrops, and occasionally hurtling off the edges of cliffs.
New and improved
The career in WRC 8 was a big step in the right direction, but some of the systems weren’t as clear as they could have been. Career management is very similar to WRC 8, except now there is a much more in-depth tutorial to help you get the most out of the various systems. They’ve struck a good balance by adding plenty of things to tinker with between stages, without bogging you down with too much micro-management.
My favourite feature is the R&D points you earn that you can use on perks for your Team, Performance, Crew and Reliability. This allows you to tailor your perks to your playstyle and makes WRC 9 much more accessible. If/when you move to a new team, your points carry over, but somewhat annoyingly some teams have mandatory perks and it will auto-assign some of your points.
Crew management is my least favourite part of the campaign, as trying to keep a full team of high-end crew cards can be a chore as they fatigue and become unselectable. They can give you a significant advantage in events, with things like more efficient repairs or lower costs and increased rewards, so I’d much rather just unlock the best ones and keep them active instead of constantly having to switch them out for inferior ones.
There’s enough variety in the calendar events to prevent things from becoming monotonous. It’s a significant improvement over just running stage after stage, and I really enjoyed playing through the career. Coming off the back of WRC 8, I could easily have become fatigued with completing what is essentially a very similar career all over again, but the handling improvements and graphical overhaul has kept me gripped all the way through to winning the WRC Championship, and I still want to keep playing.
Superb selection of stages
The WRC series has always provided an excellent selection of rally stages, and WRC 9 has gone above and beyond this year. WRC 9 sticks to the originally planned schedule, and now features all thirteen of the originally planned stages from the 2019 WRC championship (damn you, pandemic), including three new and iconic countries that feature for the first time in the series.
The first of these is Kenya, that alternates between fast, wide-open savannah and narrow roads cutting through villages, while the Japanese stages offer some of the best tarmac stages yet seen in a rally game. The highlight, though, is the gorgeous vistas of New Zealand, a highly challenging and technical rally with rapid successions of corners and a smooth flow.
I couldn’t help but get a strong feeling of Deja Vu, though; Many of the stages are lifted straight from the previous game. The improved dynamic weather affects the surfaces more now, and the refined graphics and updated lighting system keep the stages feeling fresh, but it’s hard to shake the feeling you’ve done this all before.
While a lot of the stages clock in with around four to six minutes of flat-out action, the longer stages are still included, and they are among my favourites. These epic stages can take upwards of ten minutes to finish, and require deep focus and concentration. When you are in the zone, though, it’s absolutely gripping, and before you know it you’re at the finish.
There’s no flashback or rewind system in WRC 9, which piles on the pressure. Lose focus near the end of a long stage, and you can easily come off the track and pick up a large penalty that could cost you the stage. It adds an intensity that other racing games just can’t match, and these longer stages are probably the closest you’ll get to the feeling of running a real-life rally stage in a game.
Clubs come to WRC 9!
Clubs for many are a large part of the appeal of DiRT Rally 2.0, and they have proved to be hugely popular over lockdown, giving the game some serious longevity. WRC 9 has wisely adopted them, too. They allow you to run intra-club championships, with club rankings based on performance both in internal events and towards overall club ranking.
Disappointingly for me, you can’t choose the name of your car club. Instead, each club is called <gamertag>’s Car Club. It doesn’t affect how they work, but established clubs who are looking for a home in WRC 9 will no doubt lament the absence. There is a workaround by making a free Gamertag with the name you want for your club, but it’s an unnecessary extra step that I hope they can remedy in a future update.
Improper naming conventions aside, Clubs are set to be a great way to bring longevity to your time with WRC 9. Find a good group of fellow racers, and you can arrange events perfectly tailored to how frequently you want to play and how much time you have spare.
Multiplayer, eSports and Time Trial
I love a good time trial, but in WRC 9, they don’t separate them by car class: A time set in a WRC Junior is classed in the same leaderboard as full-on WRC cars. It was the same in the last game, and it’s a big misstep here as well.
We’re still ahead of the official console launch at the time of writing, so I haven’t been able to test out the multiplayer, but a glance through the menus shows a comprehensive set of options for hosting or finding a race. Once the game fully releases, I’ll update the review with a bit of hands-on feedback for those who are interested.
The daily and weekly challenges are live, though, and they are a welcome addition for anyone wanting to prove themselves against other drivers.
Free updates coming soon
KT Racing have announced a series of free updates coming soon that will introduce photo mode and new special stages, cars and teams. The big announcement, though, and one rally fans have been clamouring after for years, is online co-op Co-driver mode.
Details on co-driver mode are scant at present, but if it’s well implemented, I can’t wait to be sat in the navigator’s seat, attempting to meaningfully communicate a complicated set of pace notes to my driver, or spouting pearls of wisdom like, “Samir, you’re breaking the car!”
Bring on the next generation!
If I had to pick a fault, and I do, because that’s my job, it is that the games frame rate could be better. It’s stable, which is good, but it falls well short of 60 fps.
WRC 9, however, offers you a free upgrade to the Series X or PS5 version.
On the next-gen consoles, we can expect a solid 60 fps, and this already amazing looking game should look even better. I can only dream how good WRC 9 could look with ray-tracing activated. Bring on November – I have my first next-gen console game, and I can’t wait to play it!
WRC 9 has improved on almost everything since its last outing, but the re-used stages could make it feel a little too familiar to anyone who spent significant time with the last game. The handling model is a big improvement, especially on a controller, and the improved graphics gives just enough visual sheen to keep it feeling fresh.
It’s tremendously good fun to play, and it is a true contender for the title of best rally game. And, with its free next-gen upgrade, it’s also going to be the de facto best next-gen rally game. KT Racing may be losing the WRC license in a few years, but until then, they have produced one of the best rally games to date.