There are no two ways about it that the rally game genre is somewhat of a niche sphere these days. It might well be the rose-tinted spectacles of youth, but it feels like the old Colin McRae Rally games for the original PlayStation were very much a mainstream kind of deal, but as time has passed, these games seem to have lost their popularity, proven by the Colin McRae Rally series morphing into Colin McRae: Dirt and then more simply becoming Dirt as it left traditional rallying behind in favour for one-off events with an array of different cars and race types. Although the Dirt games are fantastic in their own right, it was always somewhat of a shame that a ‘proper’ rally game wasn’t really available, and when they did come along, they lacked the budget to make them worth paying attention to. Happily, this reality is taking a short hiatus as WRC 9 FIA World Championship, at least on the face of it, seems to have been offered the time, attention, and budget to make this the best outing in the rally genre for years.
From a gameplay perspective, this is the most faithful rally game we have seen in some time. It has a dedication to recreating the sport that hasn’t been seen in some time, and although this may prove to be too much wading into the weeds for some, for others this will be a welcome and fresh addition to the racing genre as a whole. Fans of racing games will bemoan the days where they could pick a motorsport almost at will and find a decent game to cater to their interest, so it’s nice to see that we once more appear to have a growing presence in quality racing titles.
The developers have clearly put a lot of work into improving the way the cars handle and feel between WRC 9 and WRC 8. This mainly comes in the form of specific attention to suspension, braking and what the developers call ‘mass transfer’ to faithfully recreate not only the individual feeling of each car type on offer in the game but also the differences to handling and performance that would result in the tweaks players can make to the set up of their car. What this does is create a nuance to approaching individual races that players who are willing to put in the time and effort to learn will find a great deal of enjoyment. This nuance isn’t isolated within the car physics either. The real joy in WRC 9 is to be found in investigating the ins and outs of the career mode.
For the most part, WRC 9 players who have an interest in this game will spend most of their time exploring the career mode. In its most basic form, career mode allows players to follow the general rally calendar and compete in weekend events to win the WRC title, and it intersperses the base career mode with special events that allow the player to take control of a variety of cars from different manufacturers and time periods. Not only does this serve to keep the player interested and the career mode vibrant, but it’s also a nice trip down memory lane to look at and use classic cars that have, for many reasons, a history in the sport.
As players progress through the career mode, they have a number of balls to juggle. Firstly and most importantly, there are the results on the course. Players will have to approach races tactically to allow them to capitalise on sections where their car excels and minimise the risk and losses they will make on more challenging sections. For example, if the player has spent the bulk of their R&D researching parts for their vehicle that make it a force to be reckoned with on gravel or mud, then it might be sorely lacking in other areas, like tarmac, ice or snow. Some rallies will have sections that include all of these conditions, meaning that it’s on the player to preserve the car well enough so they can capitalise on the gravel and mud while minimising their time losses on tarmac, which other competitors will be trying to capitalise on.
Of course, in the career mode, it isn’t all about the racing, and this iteration of the WRC series has put a lot of effort into padding out the world around the races to make you feel more connected to a team of people. Players have a plethora of options to choose from. This will range from assigning the R&D budget to choose how to develop your car to hiring the appropriate staff for jobs, including media managers to engineers and even weather experts that will more accurately predict track conditions over the race weekend. As you perform better in races, players will be able to allocate bigger budgets to improve staff. Another welcome wrinkle to all this is that the staff you use will need breaks. This leads to situations in which the staff will become less productive as time goes on, forcing the payer to allocate time off, which will in turn affect particular race weekends. If you spend your whole budget on one really amazing engineer, then there might not be much left for a replacement when they inevitably need some time off to recharge. Beyond this, players also have to juggle their relationships with a manufacturer. If a race goes wrong or an objective isn’t met, then this will negatively affect the manufacturer relationship, leading to less support and discounts when it comes to car management and upgrades.
As players progress through the game, these added features will prove to be both a positive and a negative. On one hand, it pads the world out and makes it feel more ‘lived in’ and genuine, but on the other hand, the more time goes on, the more it will become apparent that, in essence, you are grinding stats that will slowly improve over time. At no time did I worry about my engineering team getting worse or losing support from the manufacturer. These features eventually felt like a sort of levelling system that would improve over time. This isn’t something that will come as too much of a surprise and is present in many games, but the very fact that players will become aware of the fact that they’re grinding stats is a failure on the developer’s part with regards to immersion.
Graphically, the game also isn’t that great. Traditionally, racing games are an opportunity for developers to stretch their legs from a graphical perspective. Fast moving environments mean that real detailed care and attention isn’t needed on the same level as a platformer or RPG, and the static nature of the cars relative to the screen means that much more care and attention can be paid to the cars themselves. The game is by no means ugly, and the lack of polish is probably due to budget constraints, but if graphical fidelity is your thing, then you won’t find it here. What we have is a serviceable and passable looking game that does just enough but certainly no more.
As mentioned earlier in this review, the rally genre has undergone a bit of a re-imagining over the years that has seen traditional rally titles move away from the rally genre, with the rally features becoming more of a periphery feature than something that is front and centre. Depending on your feelings towards rally as a sport, this will be either a good or a bad thing, but WRC 9 takes rally sport and places it very much at the front and centre once more…and as you are reading a review about a rally game, I think we can take that as very much of a good thing. What makes the game feel slightly more authentic is that when players turn the game on for the first time, they will take part in a race that will be analysed, and then a difficulty setting will be recommended based on your skill level. This means that at least in the early stages of a player’s time with this game, races will be close, hard-fought affairs, making it feel as if the game adapts to the player to provide a compelling and interesting experience. It’s not fun to be handily beaten over and over again, just as it’s equally not fun to win easily every time. This is a fantastic addition, and I’d like to see more games adopt this feature. WRC 9 is a good if not great outing in the racing genre. It perhaps says more about the support the rally genre gets than to the quality of the game, but if rally is a sport that interests you in the video game sphere, than this is the best one around. Their nearest competitor being the Dirt series by Codemasters are still making the best handling and looking games in the rally sphere, but WRC is easily the most faithful and respectful recreation currently on offer.
Platforms: PS4/Xbox One/PC
Release Date: 1st September 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of WRC 9 was provided by the publisher.