I’m up to my knees in fresh snow. I can just about feel my legs thanks to four layers of clothing. It’s been a two-hour walk through the Swedish wilderness at dawn to arrive here, but where ‘here’ exactly is I’m not too sure.
The noise isn’t sudden. It seems distant, a buzzing sound. The buzzing slowly becomes a growl, something is very angry and getting closer. Then Ott Tänak and Martin Järveoja appear broadside in their Toyota Yaris from a fast left-hand corner 200 yards in front of me. Rapidly approaching, Ott flings the car with little regard for potential consequences at a right-handed kink without lifting off the throttle. As he flies by me at around 100 mph – on sheet ice, I might add – the rear of the car skims the bank I am stood on and flings a cloud of snow into my face. I’m so taken aback I lose my footing and stumble onto my backside.
This is spectating the WRC and it’s my idea of heaven. I adore this sport and after a visit to WRC Sweden earlier this year, I am more besotted than ever. The championship has been in great form in recent years, with multiple drivers all capable of rally wins, but that’s not been matched by the official WRC games. Having been in the doldrums of well over a decade, even the shift a few years ago to Kylotonn Games hasn’t really improved my opinion and last year there wasn’t even a release, with the team focusing on V-Rally 4 instead. I’m happy to report that WRC is back in the form of WRC 8, providing a welcome step forward for the franchise.
There are a lot of changes to get through, many of which we detailed in our recent preview, not least of which is the career mode. Long overdue a thorough re-design, WRC 8 delivers a detailed campaign which will see you managing budgets, team members, car development and your own path to WRC glory.
If you’ve played F1 2019, then the development tree will feel very familiar, but despite this obvious comparison, I still found it refreshing, collecting resource points to move either my car or the team forward. Adding an extra performance incentive to a previously monotonous trudge, in-between main events there are historic rallies, training or car testing to take part in. They don’t outstay their welcome, and because they contribute to your bank balance and driver morale, they are worth attempting.
There are some downsides, such as the progression from WRC 2 class to WRC 2 Pro being poorly signposted and the game sometimes throws you a daft bonus objective like not using hard tyres, even though that’s the best option for the next rally. Wet tarmac tyres are also locked until you spend development points, which seems a little bizarre. However, for the most part, this feels like going from dial-up internet to broadband for the first time.
All of the cars used in the real WRC are present across the Junior, WRC 2, WRC2 Pro and main WRC classes. You progress from the lowest category, JWRC, using 1.0-litre turbo front-wheel-drive Ford Fiestas, up to the top across at least four seasons of rallying. All countries used in the WRC are included too, which means many varied stages from the likes of icy bitumen in Monte Carlo, muddy forestry tracks in Wales and even the new gravel roads of Chile.
Quantity of stages is really WRC 8’s trump card. Many countries are essentially one short Super Special stage and one big stage, called Epic Stages, which is then cut up into smaller chunks and reverse layouts. The trick is that it never feels that way, and the unique character of each nation means this game has far more tracks out of the box than chief rival DiRT Rally 2.0.
The previous incarnation, WRC 7, had robust eSports support, with a worldwide hunt for the best online rallying star culminating in the prize of a new Hyundai road car. WRC 8 looks set to continue this trend, with eSports receiving a dedicated mode. The first event will kick off in the new year, but there are online lobbies, weekly online challenges and even split-screen multiplayer to keep your attention in the meantime.
Online, the game is solid, if unspectacular. The rally doesn’t start until every player selects a ready state, which means there can be an infuriating wait for one person who has gone to make a sandwich. During a stage, it can also be difficult to work out who’s in the lead and the results currently display in the wrong order until all drivers finish. They’re little niggles that I’m sure can be rectified, and at least online performance seems stable.
But the career structure, number of stages and online modes are all window dressing. What really separates a good racing game from a great racing game is how the cars drive. In this respect, WRC 8 is a mixed bag.
There are two major gameplay additions this time around, tyre wear and dynamic weather, both of which are great additions. The tyre wear especially is something to keep an eye on. Soft tyres are typically quicker over one stage, but you will feel the difference two-stages in, as the car reacts differently to the worn rubber. Choosing between soft and hard rubber is a tactical challenge. If rain starts to fall midway through a stage, you have to slow things down to avoid spearing off into a field.
Controller users will not have a fun time of things, however. I often found that the cars were too twitchy, even the entry-level JWRC car being on a knife-edge. Tank slappers are the order of the day, weaving left and right down the road in the vague hope that it may be recoverable, before ending upside down in a ditch and receiving a nine-second penalty for my troubles.
Things are a little less frustrating in the four wheel drive WRC 2 cars, which are less prone to lift-off oversteer, but still a tall order to keep on the straight and narrow. You can almost forget the full-fat WRC level vehicles, where over-correcting a slide is all too easy. Nailing a handbrake turn, however, is extremely satisfying.
A steering wheel is a must. I was instantly quicker, winning rallies with ease in comparison to a controller on the same AI difficulty level. Even so, there isn’t enough heft on the road and the spiky responses make it hard to be precise. Top-level cars have to be driven at eight-tenths to attain the best results, a gear lower than each of the co-driver calls being my strategy, making them feel like they are on a leash.
Visually, the game is also hit and miss. While many stages are impressive and new to the game, there are some less inspiring stages carried across from older WRC games that are pretty jarring. Other racing games also have better damage models and slicker looks. Driving through a puddle sounds like someone firing a shotgun. Even with the co-driver set to ‘far ahead’ there are times where they call “hairpin left” too late. I’m already barrel rolling down a cliff as the note is delivered. The penalty system seems to be set-up around eSports, without the non-competitive player in mind. These items along with the vehicle handling take away from what is overall a big improvement.