Platforms: PC (reviewed) PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch
I’ve played Dirt Rally 2.0 for more than 100 hours and it was my first rally racing love. I didn’t think anything could compete with it, so when WRC 8 came out last year, I missed out. But it got excellent reviews, so I made a point of watching for WRC 9.
Between then and now, WRC series developer Kylotonn lost the WRC license to Codemasters, and that’s a shame. Kylotonn poured a lot of detail and love into the latest incarnation of the WRC series, and it shows. It has great levels, a compelling single-player career, convincing physics, and solid racing wheel force feedback. While I’m sure Codemasters will do a great job with the series starting in 2023, it’s a shame to see a smaller developer kicking ass and losing anyway.
In a word, yes. If you’re a racing fan and you haven’t tried rally racing yet, you’re missing out. Very little compares to the exhilaration of blasting down a country road at 100mph, flicking your car around a hairpin, and rocketing away. I find that the tracks widen and narrow more often than they do in Dirt Rally 2.0 which gives you a little bit more freedom and flexibility in how you approach each race, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
The physics are enjoyable without feeling arcadey. It’s easy to drift through a square turn, even when using an on-wheel button for a hand brake. You always feel like you’re working hard to handle your car, which is as it should be.
The force feedback is solid and informative. I particularly enjoyed the difference in feel when your car transitions between dirt, gravel, and tarmac. Pad control also works well for folks looking for less full-body racing experience.
For folks who are new to rally racing, WRC 9 offers a wide array of looped training courses that will help you get used to the dramatic hairpin and square turns you’ll be working through. These alone are worth the price of admission for me. When rallying, you usually only get one attempt at each corner, and that can make learning an arduous experience. The short training courses are great for helping you practice the basics. If you’re still struggling with some of the techniques, don’t feel bad - rally racing is hard, and road/track racing skills don’t necessarily transfer.
WRC 9 has a simplified mode for car tuning, which is a nice feature for people like me who love racing but aren’t gearheads. You can also switch to advanced mode and get into the nitty-gritty if that’s your jam. However, I found that the cars I tried drove just fine with their stock settings.
I have two gripes. One is that the co-driver’s calls are slightly robotic. They’re not bad, but Dirt Rally 2.0 has spoiled me a bit with the excellent and highly meme-able co-driver. However, Kylotonn has promised us a multiplayer mode wherein your friend will get to play as your co-driver and read the pace notes. I look forward to playing out our own version of “Samir, you’re breaking the car!”
The other gripe is that there are a few bugs that mar the experience. The engine on the Lancia Stratos, for some reason, sounds like a hamster on a wheel. There’s no bass, especially in the hood view, which is the one I prefer. I tweeted this at Kylotonn, and they already knew about it and are working on a fix. I don’t love that there are bugs, but I do love that they’re communicating well with the community. So often when you buy a racing sim, you aren’t just buying what the game is; you’re buying what it could be. Seeing that the company cares enough to listen and fix its mistakes is promising.
Shaping your own rally experience
One of my favorite aspects of WRC 9 is the calendar system. You get to arrange, to some degree, the order of events. If you hate driving classic rally cars, you can skip those events. If you enjoy training events, hop into one of those. These events fill out your time between the full rally events and help generate cash for your team, usually with a bit less wear and tear on your vehicle.
Speaking of vehicles, since you’re paired with a manufacturer, you stick with one car. However, you can access every car in free play, and take them around any course. New players can hop into a WRC Junior League, where everyone gets a Ford Fiesta R2 (“You get a car and you get a car and you get a car!!!”). It’s front-wheel drive, and lower-powered than AWD WRC 3 cars, which means it’ll be a little bit easier for new drivers to get a handle on.
Participation in the WRC 3 championship requires passing a timed test, but if you’re familiar with rally racing, you shouldn’t have any problem with it. I beat the test in one try; my Dirt Rally 2.0 skills definitely helped me carry the day here.
There’s also a team management element to the game. You have a pool of workers, each with a specific role: an engineer, an agent, a financial planner, etc. Each one costs money to keep on payroll, helps with an aspect of running your racing team. The longer you use them, the more stamina they burn. Once they zero out, you need to drop them back into your reserve pool and replace them with someone else. This might mean that you end up with a less experienced mechanic during a critical time, but in practice, it doesn’t seem to make a huge impact on your race experience. I like this, but I wish there was more to it. I wish there was an option to hilariously throw your team under the bus when you finish last like you can in the F1 series.
While the team system is a little barebone, the objective system is cool. In addition to running and winning rallies, your manufacturer will set out objectives for you - stuff like only using soft tires for the next few rallies or avoiding any repair time penalties.
I found the soft tire requirement to be really tough. I had to complete two long rallies without hard tires, and after my softs were down to 60 percent my traction dropped significantly. However, succeeding at these objectives increases your manufacturer relationship and puts extra money in your pocket.
I completely pooched my first few rallies, but completing every manufacturer objective kept me in the green with Volkswagen. The objective system creates a balancing act that helps the game stay interesting. Completing objectives is usually easier than winning the rally itself; from a game design perspective, it’s the morale boost you need to keep playing even when things aren’t going your way.
How many rally sims do you really need?
Is there room in my life for two rally racing sims? If you’re obsessed with rallying the way I am, absolutely. It’s worth owning both Dirt Rally 2.0 and WRC 9. If you own one and enjoy it, go get the other; they pair well. If you’re new to rally racing in general, go with WRC 9 first, because their training courses will help you improve your skills faster. If you like rallycross, Dirt Rally 2.0 has a ton of it, and it’s great.
Their physics models are similar enough that your skills will transfer between games but different enough that one doesn’t feel like a reskinned version of the other. WRC 9 offers a deeper single-player campaign while DR2.0 lets you collect a wide array of rally cars, both current and historical. DR2.0 has Colin McRae mode, which lets you attempt to pull off his notable historical achievements in their simulator, while WRC 9 has couch multiplayer. Each offers something the other doesn’t. Maybe in 2023, there will be only one rally sim left standing. But I’m glad I can enjoy both now.
A note about release cycles
I really don’t think that racing games need to be on yearly release cycles. Yes, I know there’s a shuffling of teams and a change of tracks, but I don’t think that we need to be spending $60 per year on new releases. I wish the new tracks, cars, and improved physics would arrive as a lower-priced expansion pack, similar to how fighting games have new seasons of content, as opposed to entirely new games.
Rather than releasing a whole new game with minimal feature upgrades, devs could space out their releases, with yearly content packs in between. Full game releases could be more feature-packed and do more to help new players learn the necessary racing techniques.
A note for Steam users - last year’s WRC 8 is just hitting Steam now. If you want to play WRC 9, you’ll have to use Epic Game Store.