There’s a simple pleasure to rally simulation video games. The player versus the road (and sometimes the weather) armed with nothing more than your car and a co-driver telling you which way to go next. WRC 9 is a game that revels in that simplicity. It’s a game that celebrates the battle of car vs gravel, the quest to go faster than everyone else and the FIA World Rally Championship itself. It’s just that there’s a few corners I wish this game hadn’t cut.
If you came to this review expecting a detailed breakdown of how WRC 9 differs from last year’s entries or the other rally games out there, I’m sorry to disappoint. This is a review by more of a rally enthusiast and lapsed fan rather than someone who picks up a title in this genre every year. It has been a few years since I played a rally game with Paul covering V-Rally 4 and Greg taking WRC 8 for a spin last year. The last time I strapped myself into a virtual rally car it was with WRC 7 back in 2017. Things have really progressed since then.
Let’s start with the handling in WRC 9 as this is the part of a rally game that really makes it or breaks it. Simulation rally games can be a little impenetrable at first but this game has you complete a track before you really get into the game which will then offer up suggestions on the difficulty and assists you should start with. There’s no steering assists here like have become commonplace in sim racers. The assists here are related to the sport specific nuances, like ABS, traction and starting line control.
No matter what assists you pick, tackling a course in WRC 9 is a challenge. That’s not a bad thing. Each corner is a test of your thumbs, your observation, your reactions and how brave you want to be. Depending on your car set up (all altered via an easy to use slider system), the assists, the weather and surface, you can have a twitchy ride or a fight around each corner. It’s an impressive system that KT Racing have put together here that really allows you to feel the road and the friction you’re facing. Take a corner that starts on gravel but transitions to tarmac and you’ll feel where the tyres start to bite on the road rather than the rubble.
This system takes a little time getting used too. At first there feels like a real disconnect between how fast you feel like you’re going and how fast you’re actually going. It wasn’t uncommon to feel like I was going slowly to look at the speedo and see I’m doing more than 100mph. When it all clicks though and you find your rhythm, racing in WRC 9 becomes an enjoyable balance of speed and precision. Every 1-3 severity corner you manage to take at speed without clipping the environment, your fingers working in unison to brake and accelerate perfectly, feels like an achievement. The feeling of stringing these corners together to really own a section of a track is immense. This is assisted by well implemented co-driver instructions that aren’t just barked out at nonsense times. They’re timed to perfection.
WRC 9 doesn’t deviate from the format of the FIA World Rally Championship. Everything is time and stage based. There’s no traditional races with multiple cars on track here; you might see other cars on a track but they’re simply laying down their best times too. Being a licensed product, you’ll see all of the top teams and drivers from the WRC-J & WRC 3 through to the WRC proper. So to do all of the rally locations make an appearance. Sweden’s snow kissed and slippery tracks feel very different to the tiny tarmac streets of the German rally and you’ll have to approach them differently. The 3 new rally’s included in this years calendar – Kenya, Japan, New Zealand – are included and while they don’t offer anything mechanically different from the rest of the game, they offer new backdrops to take in.
This is where WRC 9 falters. There’s a lot of inconsistency in the visuals. While the roads themselves and the immediate surroundings are detailed and lifelike, some of the environments you’re driving through looks incredibly ropey on a standard PS4. Drive through Sweden and some of the tree’s look so poor they almost become distracting. The vineyard section of the German rally borders on looking awful. The tree’s in the forests of Japan are so similar, they start to look copied and pasted. There’s a lot of 2D images placed together to give a 3D feeling which doesn’t at all look realistic. This is never more apparent during “extreme weather” events which take place during the night while it’s raining. The rain? Impressive, as are the water effects after driving through streams. The environments? They look so rough highlighted by the headlights. While this is far from a deal breaker, it’s poor in comparison to the car models which are excellent.
The other area that WRC 9 could use some work is the consistency of the AI. There’s a fantastically intuitive set of sliders which can change how difficult a rally is from 50% to 150% difficulty, damage setting and one crash mode (for veterans only – trust me). No matter what settings you choose there’s some weird foibles that can pop up regarding the time other drivers post. Complete a stage like a drunk in Tesco trying to find a 4 pack of Skol while pushing a shopping trolley around with a wobbly wheel and you can still end up 15 seconds ahead of the rest of the pack over the stage. Complete a stage like a surgeon, dissecting each corner with precision and smashing your personal best and you can still end up 15 seconds behind the whole field. While the game certainly leans towards accessibility and leniency, there’s still the odd round where it feels like no matter what you do, you’re coming in last.
That focus on accessibility is something that is most aptly shown in the game modes, especially the career mode. Guided step by step through the process, here you can create a driver (just the name and nationality – there’s no customisable physical model for the player here) and start your rally career in either WRC Junior or WRC 3 (the latter of which will require you to try out for teams and hopefully get offers). No matter where you start, you can play out season after season as you train via events and compete in rally’s. You’ve also got to manage your staff and finances, making sure you’re got reliable and competent people on your team who need to be rotated to ensure they don’t burn out. The career mode in WRC 9 has RPG elements too; for every training event, extreme weather, classic car race or rally you take part in you’re rewarded with experience that’ll result in an increase of level. With each new level you’re granted R&D points which can be spent on a massive number of career changing aspects like team effectiveness, XP earn rate, car performance and a load more. You have to do all of this while keeping your current race team’s morale up and your relationship with your sponsors in a healthy condition. Start to lose rally’s or try out for other manufacturers and there’s every chance you could get dropped by your team. The career mode is the most fleshed out mode in the game and while it’s not particularly deep, there’s enough here to entertain for a few weeks as you work your way up to the WRC system.
If you’re not interested in the training or RPG like elements, you can simply jump into a single rally or the season mode which has you play through all the rallies without the team management. If you want to get used to a vehicle, there’s the test arena which allows you to take the car for a test drive in an open area. There’s multiple multiplayer modes which I’ve been unable to test as there’s no one else online prior to launch. Lastly, there’s the challenge mode, a very interesting addition which brings some of the tests from the career mode and sets them against a time limit. It’s safe to say there’s quite a lot of content in WRC 9 and there’s more to come in the future with the promised co-driver and photo mode arriving later.
It’s almost impressive how far KT Racing have gone with WRC 9 to replicate the rally experience with many little touches that build the environment. Helicopters that move around the stages (leaving some pretty rough shadows but that’s by the by) as well as drones that’ll hover alongside the track, just like you see in the real FIA World Rally Championship. The crowds around the side of the track – despite looking like they just stepped off the stage of the Dreamcast version of Virtua Fighter 3 – set up in realistic places and provide a lovely cheer as you drive through. The engine noises are brilliant too, especially for the classic cars. The hum of the Ford Focus 2007 while the sound of the gravel crackles against the mudflaps in Portugal is excellent.
There’s one small issue with the sound though – after a big bump, sometimes the engine noise will completely disappear. This happens 20% of the time after a big crash and no matter how fast you go, the engine noise just completely disappears. They do however randomly come back after an indeterminate amount of time. I thought this was to do with damaging the turbo at first but even after turning car damage off completely, it still happened. This is probably a bug that can hopefully be patched out.
WRC 9 is a challenging rally game that celebrates the FIA World Rally Championship’s past and present. The driving mechanics themselves are very well implemented and there’s plenty of modes that’ll keep you busy – but there’s more than a few rough edges that prevent it from being a real champion.
WRC 9 is launching on PS4 (reviewed on base PS4), Xbox One and PC via EGS on September 3rd. A Nintendo Switch version is due to release later. An Xbox Series X and PS5 version will also release in the future.
Developer: KT Racing
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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