In a year that’s seen every major sporting championship curtailed or postponed, the digital recreations of them seem to hold more importance as the only place fans can see them play out. The FIA World Rally Championship is no exception, and after three events at the start of the year it was put on hold until September. We’re now approaching the restart of the season and to coincide with this Kylotonn and NACON are releasing this year’s tie in game. WRC 9 takes the new developments from 2019, adds a few more bells and whistles, some new locations, and gives rally enthusiasts a chance at experiencing what 2020 should have been. Has it done enough this time around to be taken as seriously as the DiRT Rally series, or does the official license elevate it to a completely different experience?
I enjoyed last year’s game, it surprised with fun handling and a deep enough team management mode that felt like it genuinely impacted the career. Sure, it was rough around the edges, but the team had brought innovation into what can be a quite stale license with each annual release. There’s high hopes for WRC 9 then with an update to the dynamics, AI, driving feel and the addition of three new locations in New Zealand, Japan and Kenya, and a Clubs mode. On the surface though it’ll look familiar to anyone who dived in before – career, quick play, eSports and online modes – so does it actually play differently? Yes… and, well… no. The career setup is pretty much a copy and paste of last year so it’s immediately familiar in the team management and some of the tracks, but the handling feels very different. Out is the solid and dependable approach from before, and in comes a twitchy, unpredictable system that takes quite a bit of time to dial in. There’s a definite update to the way the weight shift of the car affects its performance, and in particular the off-throttle braking can be brutal as the nose pitches forward when the accelerator is lifted too quickly; plus the actual controls feel a mix of dull and too sensitive at the same time. I know it sounds weird, and it is. Be ready to spend a lot of time figuring out how the controls need to be calibrated to your style. It’s not a negative as such, though it feels like it’s lost the “not-quite-sim” balance that was one of the great things from before.
Spend the time getting used to the new model and adjusting the controls to suit, and you’ll find a lot of depth and nuance in WRC 9. It’s precise, there’s no way around that, and being even a couple of inches off is punished with a crash or spin. There’s speed though, and lots of it. Even in the lower ranked WRC Junior and WRC3’s it can be thrilling as you barrel through tight forest roads or along cliff edges. Move up to the majors or take a spin in a classic car and the thrills become borderline terror as the car narrowly avoids being written off on a jutting rock. Maintaining momentum is essential for being competitive, and whilst there are no out right tutorials, there are practice events that subtly – and I mean subtle in that it doesn’t get mentioned at all – teach the finer points of car control. When to brake, when not to brake, how to manage bumps, handbrake vs heavy braking; it all comes together over time and makes you a better driver for it, yet it would have been nice to get some more verbal communication as these points can easily be missed.
With the training events dotted around the career mode in between full blown rally weekends, the format follows what was implemented last year. It’s still a good setup: perform well enough to be given a team offer, build the crew and manage their fatigue, meet sponsor objectives, and take part in various other events all designed to boost XP and cash. The HQ side of things is very well explained, to the point where it’s a little too smothering. It doesn’t let anything progress without finishing off the specific action it’s explaining, and when there are exclamation points all over the place demanding attention it feels restrictive. Eventually it relaxes the reins and you’re free to be hit with demoralising results because the first randomly assigned objectives have been failed because it wouldn’t let you get to the screen showing what they were. I love the idea of this mode, I just would have liked to see it refined and not raising the same issues as before. Randomly disappearing team members, impossible objectives, needing to pay for car repairs in the email screen… it detracts from the updates to the R&D trees and how that knits together with the whole team’s progression. At least this time it doesn’t feel like the venture is on the edge of bankruptcy every day.
Head away from the career and there are a lot of other modes to get stuck into. Almost tucked away in the corner is the Challenge mode which presents a long list of alternate training, maintenance and extreme events to master. If the skills aren’t being learnt in career mode fast enough, here is where you’ll spend a lot of time perfecting them to earn points to open up more. It’s compelling stuff. Then there’s the standard quickplay that brings the option to try out any stage on any country in any car in any weather condition. Underestimating the impact of the weather is a rookie mistake, and trying to speed up a mountain with a tropical storm raging all around is its own special form of hell. With such a considerable change to the surface and grip levels, each corner is a new adventure, and layer on the dynamic nature too and it brings a huge amount of replayability to the shortish number of stages on offer. Speaking of short, there’s not a lot in the vehicle selection unfortunately, so hope you like I20’s, C3’s and Fabia’s. There are a few nods in the classic cars, though it’s clear that licensing is an issue with the omission of the really iconic cars.
Assuming you’re happy to stick with the 2020 roster of teams and drivers, you can take them online for direct multiplayer competition, eSports events, and the now mandatory daily/weekly/monthly challenges. These three elements will be where most come for their regular rally fix, and the latter is the one that’s most immediate, allowing you to jump into a scenario and pit yourself against the rest of the world. Bizarrely though there’s no real reward for taking part. A form of XP separate from the career is awarded and gets added to the player card to build towards a rank, though right now it’s hard to see if there’s anything else to this. It’s not as if there are cars to buy or upgrade, or barriers to particular race events. Maybe it’ll come into its own when the eSports competition starts later this year. For now there’s simply the enjoyment of seeing how high up the leaderboard you can climb with each stage completed. If you want a break there’s a showroom that details the cars in all their glory, only it’s another strange addition as you can’t actually pick the car you want to look at or really control the camera.
The online diversions aside, in career mode it doesn’t take too long before some of the niggles start to grate. The unpredictability of the handling, like going through a water splash that has no qualms in spinning your car 180 degrees, or being flung into a barrel roll by by a 2 foot high sapling. Despite the AI updates the way WRC 9 maintains its difficulty levels is the same as before – it simply adjusts the timing for the drivers. It’s evident in nearly every Super Special Stage when the AI car has finished ahead, but the clock says you were 10 seconds faster. You lose any feeling of accomplishment knowing there’s a behind the scenes fudge. It wouldn’t be too bad if it was consistent, but sometimes it’s like it forgets and one stage you can be finishing ahead by a decent margin, then in the next not being able to get within a minute of the opposition. Worst of all is heading for a championship win only to find that where there’s limited events, the series winner has done more than any other competitor, meaning there was no way to actually score more points. That was particularly galling in my first season where the champion took part in 8 events, everyone else in 7. I’ve also had timing stopping mid-stage forcing a retry, crashes to the XMB, trophies failing to ping, and the inability to select any options whilst ghost data is being uploaded (where to and for what purpose is anyone’s guess, I’ve not seen an option for replays outside the end of the event anywhere). It’s not the slickest of presentations.
Going into the visuals, they aren’t bad and the stages are convincing with the roads meandering off into the distance. There’s a slightly odd washed out style to them, almost like it needs a bit more contrast, and that would certainly help in seeing the terrain. Sometimes it’s a nightmare working out where the road ends and the speed sapping verges start. Maybe I’m too used to 4K HDR in racing games and it’s just my eyes that need to adjust. Aurally it does what you’d expect with solid engine notes, flying gravel and calming pace notes being the soundtrack. Crashes all sound exactly the same with the cars obviously being made of glass panels that tinkle and crackle, but WRC 9 doesn’t want that to happen so is keen to reset to track before things get too messy and you notice the effects aren’t quite right. One thing for DiRT Rally fans to be aware of – the pace notes corner severity is different. WRC 9 classes them one less severe so it’ll say 3 when it would be a 2 in the other game, so if you’re used that you’ll need to re-train to these. That might save a lot of track resetting in the early stages. Photo mode freaks hold your horses, there’s one coming, but it’s not in the game at launch.
It’s with some reluctance that I say I’m a bit disappointed with WRC 9 because there was so much potential to build on. Don’t misunderstand, there’s a good rally game here, and the only place to experience the 2020 season as it would have been. The use of the license and the dedication to the on track realism is going to be good for the hardcore, and therein is where my issues mainly lie. It’s too hardcore from the off, to the point of being alienating. It took a few hours to get the controls dialled in to where I felt any degree of confidence in the handling, and that was across both the joypad and the wheel/pedals. That shouldn’t really be the case. Maybe it’s something to do with the heavy Fanatec branding that’s even on the loading icon? It’s clearly done on a budget, and the cash is going to the right places on the whole, but with so much seeming to be exactly the same as the last game, and this year’s real world championship not being anything like what was planned, I’d be hard pushed to recommend upgrading from WRC 8 just yet.
A PS4 review copy of WRC 9 was provided by Kylotonn’s PR team, and the game will be available from the 3rd September on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £45.