I was curious to see how this year’s WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship was possibly going to top last year’s installment, and while this is arguably more of an extended-feature edition there is enough new and upcoming content that serious rally racers will want to sign on for a new year. 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. As I mentioned last year, WRC is a hard core simulation and as such does not play as well with a gamepad, and that is even truer this year as the driving mechanics have gotten even more realistic with mass transfer and tire grip playing much bigger roles in car handling. Yes, you can struggle to play the game with a controller but you will never feel comfortable or in tune with the game until you switch to a wheel/pedal combo. And it doesn’t even have to be a fancy or expensive setup; just something that offers a sweeping analog range of motion for steering and some nice travel distance for breaking and throttle. Given the crazy RPM’s of these mighty cars and the general lack of traction on these off-road tracks trying to use triggers for gas and break is a recipe for a wipeout. Before each race you can dial in the difficulty on a percentage scale and to be even remotely competitive (and enjoyable) you’ll probably want to put that slider between 75-80% difficulty if you persist in using a gamepad. 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 months 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.
WRC 9 has never looked better or more realistic; something you can appreciate in the new Photo mode that allows you to setup and take stunning screenshots of your favorite cars in your favorite locations, or maybe you just want to document that dented fender for insurance purposes. 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 light reflects 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. WRC 9 demands a pretty hefty PC to recreate all this realism and my RTX2060 Super was definitely struggling in places, but I was able to maintain a locked 60fps at 1440p with just a few tweaks to things like lighting and shadows, textures and particles, draw distance, vegetation, crowd density, and water quality. Your choice of camera can also impact your performance, as driving behind the car (shame on you) takes more horsepower than the hood or cockpit cam.
Between the time when I started this review and now I had the chance 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 wheel/pedal combo and become one with the machine and the road. WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship has once again set the standard for reality racing.