WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship Review – PlayStation 5

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A few months ago I reviewed WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship on the PC and found it a highly enjoyable and satisfying racing simulation that tackled the world of rally racing from both a driver and business management perspective.  Running on top-end PC hardware, the game looked and performed amazingly, so I was excited to see how close the new PlayStation 5 could come in matching the experience.

First off, let’s just say that the PS5 is a nearly identical match for the PC running on high settings with all the immersive lighting, dynamic weather, draw distances, and loads of texture detail both in the environments and the detailed car models that exhibit real-time damage, both in visuals and performance degradation.  WRC 9 is further enhanced by two PS5 accessories; one that everyone has, the DualSense controller, and the other being the 3D Pulse Headset.  Whether you play games with headphones or not, the 3D Pulse does an amazing job of immersing you in the aural aspects of racing, not only with the perfect mix of engines, road, and environmental effects, but also in their perfect placement within the 3D listening space.  Assuming you are driving from inside the car (and you better be if you are playing a sim like this) the sound of rain hitting the metal roof of the car inches above your head is perfectly recreated when using the headphones.

The DualSense controller is the real game-changer here, in many ways outperforming my racing wheel setup on my PC…almost…but it does come very close to replicating the precision a $400 racing accessory offers.  First, all of the road surface noise comes from the controller speaker which adds a bit more immersion to the soundscape.  Hearing gravel clinking off your undercarriage and the pop of your exhaust is pretty cool, but the real savior to the experience is the controls themselves.  The haptic feedback in the triggers combined with the rumble of the pad and the extra-long travel distance of the L2/R2 buttons provide an uncanny connection with the road.  You can literally “feel” when your car is about to lose traction, and the new trigger design provides much more variable input for throttle and braking, allowing for cleaner driving and fewer mistakes.  Compared to playing with an Xbox controller on the PC I was shaving 10-30 seconds off my times.  The DualSense is still a close second to an actual wheel/pedal setup but Sony’s new pad is coming awfully close.

The PS5 version also benefits from the snappy load times on their internal SSD.  Menu navigation is fast and fluid and event and stage load times are just a couple of seconds.  The PS5 version still offers support for up to 8 online racers (PS Plus required) and those who may have already gotten the game on PS4 can enjoy a free upgrade to the PS5.  But beyond the PS5 specifics, what’s going on under the hood of WRC 9?

As I stated last year, I play dozens of racing games every year, and I also drive these cars in real-life and nothing comes close to the level of complete and total immersion you will find in WRC 8, not just in the actual driving of the cars, but in every facet of what goes on behind the scenes of a professional race team.  For those who place value on stats welcome back more than 50 teams from all the WRC categories with all the current season liveries including fan-favorites Toyota Gazoo Racing, M-Sport Ford and Hyundai Motorsport.  Play as numerous racing stars in the Season mode or create your own driver to seek fame and fortune in the elaborate and lengthy Career mode.  As always, you also have Quickplay, Training, a test area to test your setups, and 50 unlockable Challenges that will test your proficiency with specific cars, earning you gold, silver, and bronze medals.  There is no shortage of racing in WRC 9.

Career mode is the cornerstone of the content allowing you to start in the lesser leagues and make your way to the WRC or just jump in.  In career mode you not only have to worry about what happens on the track but also manage your crew and team behind the scenes worrying about things like fatigue, mechanics, business agents, and even a meteorologist to predict the weather for your next event.  Keeping your staff healthy and happy is just as important as navigating the massive R&D tech tree that lets you customize your career by spending points earned through leveling up while racing.  It’s an amazingly intricate and often overwhelming multi-layer system that’s running behind the scenes and all visualized quite nicely with a fun and detailed isometric view of your racing HQ.  Of course if you’d rather not worry about all the non-racing stuff you can just jump into the Season mode for pure racing and none of the paperwork.  WRC 9 also offers up a nice set of multiplayer options including online events, split-screen local play, and daily, weekly, and special challenges. Some are available for a limited timed only, encouraging you to check in with the game regularly.,

There can be a lot to micromanage if you want there to be.  You can populate your own race calendar with specific events, but make sure to put in “rest days” so your team can recover.  You have to maintain a staff of six professionals, often with backups in case someone decides to take off right before a big race.  You get to affect manufacturer reputations and setup season and short term goals that all factor into rep and team morale.  Your race results will all factor into money, XP, reputation, and morale and if you’re rep drops too low a sponsor could drop you.

While much of this sounds the same as WRC 8 there is quite a bit that is new including three new rally championships in three new countries; Kenya with its stunning diversity of scenery and technical difficulty, New Zealand offering some of the most twisted gravel tracks in the game along with stunning coastal views and of course, Japan offering high-speed asphalt racing and crazy hairpin turns through small towns.  Naturally, you get the other 13 countries that are already part of the championship, all offering their own unique visual presentation and specific technical driving elements that can all change based on time of day and type of weather.

The underlying physics engine is as advanced as it gets with plenty of setup options allowing you the ability to setup variations for race surface, temperature, weather, etc., and then save those settings to test or keep as presets for future use.  Lots of player feedback from last year went into many of the changes we’re seeing in WRC 9, making this a game that is truly for the fans.  Before each race you can dial in the difficulty on a percentage scale, and you can also tweak the level of damage effects and toggle perma-crash for each event.  Reckless driving is discouraged not only with potential time penalties between rally race days while you repair the car but also the fact you have to pay for repairs after each event with your earnings…team salaries too.  Lose too many races and you could go broke.

Also new to WRC 9 is the highly requested Clubs mode that allows gamers to create their own groups with their own tournaments, members, and leaderboards.  You can choose up to eight stages in any of the countries with cars, categories, and conditions to create your own custom championship then either offer it to the public or invite your own friends for some private racing action.  Also look for lots of future extended content coming in regular updates to keep the game fresh.  A newly designed Finland is due to arrive shortly with six new stages and Portugal is two months out, not to mention new cars, teams, and game modes.  One of my most anticipated new features is still a few weeks away but will allow an online co-pilot to call out the track and pace notes in what promises to be one of the coolest co-op modes in racing history.  Best of all this is all free content and not reliant on a season pass or special edition of the game.  Look for the first big update in December.

WRC 9 has never looked better or more realistic now that it’s gliding along at 4K 60fps with PC-quality special effects.  If you have a supporting display you can even try out the 120fps performance mode if you’re willing to sacrifice some visual fidelity.  When played on a large screen from the cockpit view with a wheel and pedals the level of total immersion is unparalleled.  The tracks and environments are photo-real and the lighting effects for nighttime and extreme weather racing events can be terrifying.  The way the headlights reflect off fog, snow, or sheets of rain is eerily realistic; both visually and how it impacts the road surface and the way your car handles.  The god rays streaking through the trees and the improved shadows combined with water and ice reflections and glare, water splashing the windshield before being stroked away with a wiper blade, or even the droplets that sprinkle the external camera totally sell this experience.

A few months ago I was able to enroll in a week-long rally driving school in New Hampshire to get a feel for what these cars are like in the real world.  Before that I had driven NASCAR, Indy Car, and Formula F1 and I can say that rally is unlike any other type of racing; a fact that this game clearly communicates through stunning visuals and incredibly realistic physics and driving mechanics.  While I would never discourage anyone from playing this game just please go into it knowing that this is a hardcore simulation that rewards patience and dedication and punishes casual racers who are coming to sightsee while crashing around corners.  For those up to the challenge grab that DualSense controller and become one with the machine and the road.  WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship has once again set the standard for reality racing.

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