Although you don’t hear a lot about it in North America, rally racing happens to be a rather popular sport throughout other parts of the world, such as Europe, Asia and South America. It may be wrong to assume this, but it almost seems like the video games are more popular than the sport itself, when it comes to the United States and Canada. Games like DiRT through DiRT 5 and DiRT Rally, specifically, and to a lesser extent, the WRC series.
In September of this year, developer Kylotonn and publisher Nacon (which used to be called Big Ben Interactive) combined to release WRC 9: FIA World Championship. The official video game of the 2020 World Rally Championship, it follows in the footsteps of 2019’s WRC 8 and is part of a series that dates back to 2001. Rally games were pretty popular on the original PlayStation, if I remember correctly, and have continued to be a staple since. This series may not have begun its life until the PlayStation 2 era, but it was preceded by others like 1998’s Colin McRae Rally, which eventually became Colin McRae: DiRT.
WRC 9 first appeared on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, before making its way to Nintendo’s Switch. It has since been updated for, and launched alongside of, Sony’s new PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s brand new Xbox Series S|X consoles.
My first introduction into rally racing video games may not have come until the first DiRT game, because I can’t remember playing any before it. That game looked like such amazing fun when it was first revealed, that I ended up buying it on day one. I loved it, but didn’t finish it because I was juggling too many games at the time. It’s something I regret. Either way, I discovered a new favourite genre then, and have tried not to miss a rally racing game since. This includes SEGA Rally REVO, DiRT Rally and now WRC 9, which I’m playing for the first time.
As great as DiRT Rally was, it was far too difficult and unforgiving. The game simply wasn’t accessible to those of us who weren’t purists looking for a Dark Souls style racing game. Although I consider myself to be pretty good at arcade racing games, I’m far from the best, and simply did not find the game’s gruelling difficulty fun in any way. It looked beautiful and controlled well, but was just too hard, which is why I soon deleted it and ended up skipping the critically acclaimed sequel. DiRT 4 was quite similar, though, and was thankfully not nearly as difficult, so it ended up becoming my most played game of its release year. I sunk at least forty hours into that thing.
When I heard that WRC 9 was coming to next-gen consoles, I decided to give it a shot, hoping that it wouldn’t be as difficult as its competitor. Thankfully, that ended up being the case, although it’s because this particular series offers more difficulty customization. There happens to be a slider, which you can move from side to side, adjusting your chosen challenge level to the percentile. It looks dated, but it works well, and has allowed me to enjoy things without having to worry too much about being perfect.
Don’t get me wrong, though, as WRC 9 isn’t a straight on arcade racer like DiRT 5 or Forza Horizon 4. Instead, it’s more of a simcade, meaning that it borrows from both sub-genres. Those who want more of a realistic, sim-like, experience can adjust the sliders so that damage is detrimental and the cars behave more like they do in real life. However, I was fine with sticking with the basic settings and limiting the difficulty.
The Career Mode is a very good example of this, because it’s more in-depth than anything I’d ever expected to find. Much like in some of the Monster Supercross games, you’re responsible for creating your driver’s calender outside of scheduled events, at least some of which were cancelled due to the current global pandemic. Thus, you’ll find yourself scheduling training laps, days of rest and historic races, all of which are designed to keep you ready for action. The events themselves appear every number of weeks, and usually require multiple stages. It’s all designed to be as realistic as possible, and seems to do a good job of it, although I admittedly do not follow this sport. I do respect it, though. It’s amazing watching highly skilled rally drivers speed through such confined tracks, where they’re a mistake away from danger.
In Career Mode, you’ll be tasked with naming your racer, picking a sponsor and attempting to meet that sponsor’s requirements. On top of this, managing one’s team will also be important. Hell, you’ll find yourself being pushed to do this after each event, because new specialists will become available. People who work on your car, manage your career and the like. You’ll be hiring and firing different professionals based on their overall scores, how much they cost and what they do. It’s all handled through a menu, though, so it feels very impersonal and doesn’t feel as if you’re actually dealing with people. Then again, this is a video game.
There are a lot of sub-menus to lose oneself in, including emails and minutia. Those who wish to become incredibly immersed in their favourite sport can do just that, and will appreciate these details. As someone who doesn’t follow it, though, I was more interested in the racing.
The good news is that WRC 9‘s racing is solid and fast. It can be balls to the wall, and can also be relaxing once you get into a good groove. How the races play out will depend on your skill, chosen difficulty level, co-pilot and the track you’re on. For instance, it’s possible to adjust things so that your co-pilot gives you lots of advance warning about turns and the like. I stuck with the normal setting, though, because I felt I’d get confused if he announced things too far in advance.
I must admit that the racing took some time to get used to, and that it didn’t wow me as much as DiRT Rally or DiRT 4 did. This is a pretty faithful recreation of the sport, but it doesn’t feel as polished as its competition, nor is it as stunning. The physics have surely been adjusted since WRC 8, but the cars sometimes feel as if they’re driving on ice when they’re not. I found that it was very easy to slide and fishtail, not to mention crash, after pressing the gas. I wasn’t driving crazily or trying to drive too fast for my own good. The car simply went very fast very quickly, and took time to get used to. Even after playing for a bit, I still found myself being careful around corners and thankful that I was able to adjust the difficulty. I just didn’t feel like I had the same type of control and precision as I did in DiRT 4.
The above may be blasphemous to some, specifically those who adore this series, but it’s how I felt when I excitedly booted this thing up. I did, however, get more used to the controls as I played, and started to like the experience more.
WRC 9 features a good amount of real-life locations and events, including new rallies in Japan, Kenya and New Zealand, plus more than 100 of the WRC’s legendary stages. There’s a lot of content for those who love the sport, and for those who enjoy rally racing video games, such as me. It’s all much more structured than what you’ll find in DiRT 4, though, so go in knowing that.
Folks who aren’t interested in starting a new Career Mode can partake in season play, engage in one off events, or practice in the Test Arena. There is, of course, also multiplayer gameplay. It features competitive and limited time events.
Players can also engage in the new Clubs mode, create their own championships, play cooperatively with friends and design their own leagues that can be shared with others. Needless to say, there’s quite a bit of stuff to do within this latest iteration of the long running and seemingly popular series.
On the presentation side of things, WRC 9: FIA World Championship can be hit and miss. For starters, the menus aren’t very attractive and feel like they were made for PC, with its mouse and keyboard inputs, as opposed to consoles. The cursor is a mouse, and the text can be hard to read from several to ten feet away. The career mode menus are a good example of this ‘problem,’ as they can be a bit difficult to read and navigate if you’re not sitting close to your TV. I found my emails particularly hard to read.
The in-game visuals are better, of course, and present a pretty nice looking rally driving experience. The cars are nicely detailed, as are the environments, which feature weather and geographical effects that obviously vary from location to location. You may start out driving in the snow, and then find yourself racing on desert ground the next time around. Still, the controls felt too twitchy either way, and that driving on ice effect was almost always present.
It’s hard not to compare this game to DiRT 4 or DiRT Rally, both of which were through the roof in terms of presentation. It doesn’t seem as if WRC 9 had as big of a budget, though, and it kind of shows in the menus and graphics. The textures on the ground and nearby foliage weren’t as rich or detailed, there were what I would refer to as some scan lines when I’d quickly speed past something or make a turn, and there just wasn’t as much immersive realism. I didn’t see a lot of mud or snow flying up around my wheels, and often felt as if the car was kind of floating over the landscape instead of changing it with its vicious tires and manmade engine.
As far as sound goes, things are good. You have multiple different languages to choose from, when it comes to picking a co-pilot, and the directions are pretty audible. They were confusing at first, but that’s not a knock against the game because it was merely due to my lack of experience and general ignorance. It’s been years since I last played DiRT 4, and I didn’t have all the commands down pat then. I do, however, wish WRC 9 had more of a map. Maybe I had to toggle something in the menus, but I didn’t really see one.
In conclusion, WRC 9: FIA World Championship is something that I respected more than I enjoyed. While I had fun with the game, and appreciated its attention to detail, robust Career Mode and obvious love for the sport, I didn’t enjoy playing it as much as I’d hoped to. After I got used to the controls, things started becoming more enjoyable, but I never fell in love with this game like I have with most of the DiRT titles. Still, I do understand and am not above mentioning that I may not be the true target audience for this type of game, and that those who follow the sport will probably enjoy it more.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with.
- A robust career mode
- Lots of content
- New modes and rallies, which would've taken place in 2020
- Bland menus, with hard to read text
- Lots of micromanaging
- Too often feels like you're driving on ice, and doesn't feel as polished as its competition