WRC 9 Review

November 25, 2020
Xbox Series
Also on: PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One
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Since picking up the WRC license in 2015, developer Kylotonn has taken its time to really make its mark. Its first three entries in the series — WRC 5, WRC 6 and WRC 7 respectively — were competent if unremarkable rally games that leaned more towards being a simcade racer than anything else. After taking a two-year hiatus it returned with the rather wonderful WRC 8 last year. Whilst it had its faults, it was a compelling competitor to Codemasters’ DiRT Rally 2.0 and in our opinion it had the best force-feedback model for wheel users. It was much more focussed and walked the line between pleasing simulation players and arcade racers rather well thanks to a host of options to tweak the gameplay.

So it seems that whilst last year’s efforts were a giant leap, WRC 9 is more a modest step forward than anything else. There are noticeable improvements, namely the frame-rates and load times when playing on a Series X, but Kylotonn have also managed to improve their already impressive handling model. However, it’s a shame to report that, at the time of writing there’s an issue with steering wheels being recognised by the game on next generation systems. This unfortunately affected our review rig — a Thrustmaster TX and an Xbox Series X — but thankfully WRC 9 plays astonishingly well on a gamepad. 

The vineyards of the German rally, and beautifully realised in digital form

Carrying on from where WRC 8 left off, WRC 9 passes on key feedback to pad users and highlights a wonderful simulation model that lies underneath. You can really feel the weight of the car and, with some careful handling and dabs of the breaks at the right time, you can tame any of the twenty-four cars on offer. If you decide to go through the full career path you’ll start in the rather dinky yet highly entertaining Ford Fiesta R2. Front-wheel drive and a lightweight when compared to the top-tier WRC cars, it has a tendency to understeer due to the fact that your turning wheels also provide the power. It’s nimble yet forgiving, allowing you to get a feel for how to properly apply weight transfer over the varied surfaces. As you progress through WRC 3 and WRC 2 with a view to reaching the pinnacle that is the WRC, you’ll really start to notice just how different each tier is in terms of power and performance.

With great power comes greater responsiveness but also heavier cars. Learning how they handle different surfaces is key to quick times and it’s no mean feat that this is translated so well, even on a pad. The loose gravel at rallies such as Mexico requires a deft touch and you really feel the heft of the more powerful WRC cars at rallies such as this. As you bob and weave through the twisty turns you hear and feel the popping gravel and the ruts on the surface that if you catch the wrong way can really put a dent in your stage as well as your car.  Your braking distances are much longer when compared to a full asphalt rally such as Germany where tyres squeal for mercy as you handbrake turn around another hairpin all the while dodging either vineyards or hinkelsteines with all the grip in the world teasing you to push that little bit more. It’s intoxicating to the point where we found ourselves not paying enough attention to our team and its development in order to race in our next rally.

There are some classic cars too, just not enough for our liking

The career mode of WRC 9 is not that much different from last year’s outing. Anyone who’s played any of Codemasters’ more recent F1 titles will recognise the tech tree that you can find in the R&D section. It’s perhaps a tad unrealistic — both there and in WRC 9 — to expect a driver to also run the team, look after the car, determine research and go out and win the rallies. However, without these aspects the career mode would be a rather pointless slog. Creating a compelling career mode in a racing game is a tough ask, with only TOCA Race Driver really achieving anything of note, so we’ll forgive the fact that it asks you to be the team owner and top driver without really complaining. It’s also not that intensive either with no need to earn research points by testing since you’ll acquire them each time you level up as a driver.

Realistically you don’t do that much to manage your team. After each event you organise the next one or two depending on how many slots have opened up. Your stature and certain aspects of your R&D tree will affect what type of events are on offer and will allow you to choose to either train, take part in a historic rally, take on some adverse conditions, involve yourself with a manufacturer’s challenge or rest. The latter is important to keep your team fresh and able to assist you in your next rally. You have a subs bench of sorts but once you move through your career and take part in more events, resting becomes an important task. What is rather fun to do in between rallies are the historic rallies. Here you’re given a stage and one of the nine classic cars to take part in a one-off race to see who’s fastest.

It’s all a bit pretty round here, really

These are exciting cars to drive as some of them, such as the Lancia Stratos, are rear-wheel drive. You’ll need to be much more delicate on the throttle unless you enjoy going round in circles. It’s a shame that things feel a little barren here, however. There’s not a Subaru or Mitsubishi in sight or even a Sierra Cosworth. You can acquire the Audi Quattro A2 and Toyota Corolla through DLC but even then there are some cars whose omission will be felt by long-time fans of the sport. That being said, it’s nicely woven into career mode much like it is in F1 and feels like an organic inclusion rather than one forced upon you.

The team objectives, however, do feel a touch forced and while I’m sure teams will have them in real life I can’t quite picture them asking their driver not to use the fastest tyres for a few rallies. Sure, cost-saving is important but then so is winning rallies and the two are not mutually exclusive. Most of them are innocuous but they also seem to fail even without you trying. We had one to not let our team's morale drop below minus four over the next two rallies. Your placement in rallies, events and even training can affect their morale and by extension their performance so it’s important to keep being successful. As we stormed to a strong win in one and a podium in the other our team’s morale wavered by one point but stayed healthily in the green and so in the positive. It came as a surprise, then, to see that we’d failed our objective with no clear reason as to why.

You may be going sideways but there’s beauty if you look for it

Once you hit the WRC you then get a season objective which will alter depending on which team you're driving for and failing any of them will alter not just your team but your car manufacturer’s opinion of you. Should you tire of pleasing everyone and their mum micromanaging your team, you can opt to just drive for a team under Season mode or take on the world’s best players through online events and multiplayer. There are also challenges, training and a testing area to help hone your skills should you find yourself having difficulties going fast whilst also going sideways. They’re well worth your time doing and whilst multiplayer is a bit hit-and-miss when it comes to finding lobbies, the leaderboards will call to anyone wanting to show just how good they are.

WRC 9 is a targeted improvement on its predecessor, and for fans of the series it’ll be the only way they’ll see their favourite drivers and cars dance around new rallies in Kenya, New Zealand and Japan, which were all cancelled, along with others, due to COVID-19. It’ll be interesting to see where Kylotonn takes the series knowing full well that Codemasters are taking over the reigns in 2023. Judging by this year’s entry, they’ll take an iterative approach and build upon what is a very solid platform. If we’re lucky they’ll bring in some non-lobby dependant multiplayer and expand the classic car roster a touch. WRC 9 does suffer from being a cross-generation title and, hopefully, next year’s entry will really show off what they can do with the extra grunt that the new generation of consoles can offer.

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We clearly had the big leap last year, as WRC 9 only shows minor improvements overall. It still suffers from a lacklustre multiplayer experience, but for those wishing to take cars and drive at speeds that defy all sense around roads ill-designed to be driven that fast, WRC 9 is the game to do it with.
Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.