Rally games aren’t exactly the most common genre on the planet and tend to have a pretty niche target market, so the best way of reaching that audience is with a licensed title featuring all the rounds and contenders. The official World Rally Championship games have fulfilled that need yet haven’t necessarily managed to provide an alternative to the masters of DiRT racing. To compliment the 2019 FIA season, KT Racing and Big Ben Interactive have brought out their fourth iteration of the franchise, but with one minor difference since the last one in 2017… they’ve developed V-Rally 4 in the intervening time. Will the learnings by taking a year out and working on a rally game without the license constraints have fed its way into WRC 8?
It’s an odd beast is official FIA series. Previous versions have left me a bit cold, lacking much in the way of character to get behind, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s put me off playing every instalment. They’re also (quite bizarrely for officially licensed games) not always the most highly polished offerings. So with a little trepidation I dived into the career mode to see what WRC 8 was going to offer. It skips the menus for your first visit, dropping you directly into a short test track with little to no guidance and expecting you to know how everything works. So far so typical of a later version of a series with a hardcore fan base. Looking forward to finding out what setting it would tweak for me based on my driving style, I belted through the course and waited for the result… traction control off, ABS on. That was it. Slightly deflated after expecting something a bit more nuanced I ploughed on to trying out for the WRC2 division instead of starting in the Junior formula. Why not? I’m far from a novice at rally games. Apparently, I’m too much of a novice to skip the basics through missing the time target by some distance.
It wasn’t a great introduction to WRC 8, feeling a bit devoid of substance and implying that the more exciting racing was locked off. If I couldn’t even get into WRC2, how was I going to be rally champion in the big boy leagues. I won’t lie, I was beginning to think that this was a deliberate ploy to draw out any career mode, but fortunately it loaded the team HQ and it started to pick up from there when it became clear that running a crew was integral to your success. Maybe starting in the lower ranks isn’t such a bad idea. There aren’t any driving tutorials on hand, yet there is a well thought out spoken overview of every part of the team management, so at least you’ll know where to pick events from even if the handbrake button is a mystery. The career runs from a calendar with set rallies scheduled through the year, and mostly optional events in each week between. Events vary as time progresses, but initially there are training sessions that act as time trials on short courses to help hone the driving skills, and successful completion nets cash, XP, kudos with the car manufacturer and morale in the team.
It’s the multistage rallies that are the showcase events though, and are what you need to build up to. No matter which category you end up driving in there are 6 set countries that span across them all, and as you go up the ranks, more weekends appear until you’re tackling all 14 rounds of these year’s competition. Each is a standard setup – typically 2 stages of varying length, set at different times of the day, on to a service stop, then the next paring. In Junior WRC the front wheel drive cars can’t be setup so services are only about repairs. Step up to the support formulas of WRC2 and WRC2 Pro and tweaks can be made. Nicely, there’s a default option for the current surface if automotive engineering isn’t your thing, and depending on your driving styles you can select between hard and soft tyres that actually wear down over the stages. Make it through all the race stages and the finishing position is converted into more XP/morale/standing and it’s back home to swap to the team manager role again and invest. Cash is awarded after events, though the real target is a level up and a point to spend on the skill tree.
Levelling up brings a host of benefits to whichever area you’re specialising in – whether it’s reliability, performance, prestige, or just the ability to read the weather. It’s definitely worth spending the time focusing on how you want things to work in the early weeks because it can have quite a significant effect. Crew management in WRC 8 is also critical as that will dictate all manner of things during an event or rally, not least being able to repair the car. Keeping the team refreshed and ready is an interesting twist as once they’re fatigued they drop out of the race team. New staff come onboard with your success, and others can be hired, though the specialisations aren’t always the ones you might need at that point in time. It all comes at a cost though and bank balance is king. Everything costs money, from the repairs in a rally to the wages of the team, and even the cost of entering every event. Given the beginner rallies are not exactly cheap to take on, and the 1st prize money is only just enough to recoup the entry cost, wages and repairs, you’ll never be flush with cash. That’s assuming you don’t go bankrupt.
The team management side of WRC 8 is filled with diversions and interesting bits of data and stats, and acts as the way to impress other manufacturers so you can swap contracts and be promoted to a higher formula. This is a rally game though and 1,000 words in I suppose I should be mentioning how it handles. Pretty good it turns out. There’s a focus on authenticity rather than accessibility, though not at the detriment of playability. Each surface feels different and the dynamic conditions play their part in giving a unique experience on every stage. It won’t matter if you know the corners and straights like the back of your hand when a storm builds up. Rain intensity ebbs and flows over the distance of the course and really does present a challenge when it’s coming down in buckets. It eases off under tree canopies, stops in tunnels, but comes back with a vengeance in the open. Managing the ever shifting grip brings a new challenge with every stage and there’s a tangible relief cutting the timing beam at the end.
Damage is well modelled with the aforementioned tyre wear being just a small part of the overall impact. For the careful drivers there are challenges that pit man against the elements with broken machinery… try stopping for hairpins on waterlogged tarmac with no brakes, or driving rocky mountain roads in the dark with very little visibility. It’s an awesome feeling when it all comes together and you’ve slipped into the groove of navigating purely through the co-pilot’s pace notes. The handling model doesn’t feel as refined as some of its peers, but it’s not something that spoils the game, particularly if you’re playing on a control pad which is smooth and easy to get on with. With a wheel and pedals setup (for the Logitech G29 at least) it feels reasonable from the off, and there’s not much need to dive into the impressively detailed controller config, though the force feedback does need adjusting to get the feel right. Comfort with the inputs and knowledge of the responsiveness is essential before heading off to the other modes in the game, especially if you’re competitive.
With nothing much different to other recent rally games, the online offering works and comes in a couple of different flavours. There are weekly challenges which are all about leaderboard position at the end of the event, and the ability to replay as many times as you like is a bonus. Points will be deducted though to put more emphasis on playing it as a one off. There’s eSports that works in a similar way, but expect hugely difficult opponents there. Then there’s a synchronous stage competition where you’re racing alongside others on the same stage in the same cars at the same time, without seeing each other. I expected to spend quite a bit of time in this mode as it brings out the competitive animal in me whilst allowing the focus on what makes a rally game unique, and there’s a thrill in the close races where the progress slider shows it being nip and tuck between everyone. Sadly it’s a bit broken at the moment because once the first player crosses the line it readjusts the times and you realise it’s not at all been close. You feel a bit cheated, and not impressed with the lag.
WRC 8 has a few other niggles as well. In the career mode swapping teams means losing all your accumulated cash and the team members you’ve built up, plus it re-specs your upgrades. There’s no warning on this, and if you’re not paying close attention it’s easy to do because you can’t actually find which team you’re driving for in the HQ. Make sure you’ve memorised those liveries! The difficulty options are good for accessibility, yet useless whenever another car is in sight (like in the head to head stages). Many a time you’ll see the AI blitz the track and finish ahead, but you’ll still win in the timings by an inconceivable margin. Getting promoted to a higher category isn’t clear either, and you can easily get stuck in a loop of repeating the cycle if you don’t take part in the manufacturer tryouts. These will dock you morale and respect with your current team by the way. Team objectives are a bit of a farce too as the two active at any time will often contradict each other so you can only win one, which negates the benefit; or you’ll fail even if you hit the conditions. Trophies have a habit of popping under the wrong conditions as well, or not registering at all.
Gripes aside though, there’s been more than enough in WRC 8 to keep me engaged in managing a team and trying become the FIA World Rally Champion of whatever year it ends up being when I get there. The HQ is charming, innovative for the career mode, and easy to use once the tutorials are done. Handling and performance are solid and responsive, and even with a shift towards simulation it doesn’t alienate the more casual player. Most impressive though is the dynamic weather and how much that impacts what happens in a stage. It can be brutal, and you’ll curse the aquaplaning, but there’s not really anything like it in other rally titles. It’s got a lot of rough edges, and could have done with more of a bodywork touch up in the service area, yet it’s a lot of fun to play. The license looks like it’s being taken in the right direction and the competition need to start looking in their rear view mirrors.
A PS4 review code for WRC 8 was provided by Big Ben Interactive’s PR team and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £45. If you’re looking for some tips on wheel setup, try our article here.