I’m leaning forward in my seat, urging the car to go faster. My fingers are grabbing the steering wheel as hard as they can, a picture of concentration painted across my face. This is what former rally driver Markku Alén once coined as ‘maximum attack’, which can only mean one thing, that WRC 9 is the first officially-licenced World Rally Championship game that has kept my attention for many years.
For the uninitiated, what we have here is a game that replicates the real-life FIA World Rally Championship. Traditionally held across 13 events around the world, this is point-to-point racing against the clock, with a co-driver delivering a rough idea of what sort of corner is coming up next.
The license means all the official drivers and cars, across four classes, are present alongside stages that are similar, but not like-for-like, to those found in the real world championship.
Think of this as F1 2020, but for those who wear bobble hats and like to spend their Sundays walking through a Welsh field at 5AM to catch a glimpse of a car driving past. Me, then.
The main focal point is the Career mode, working your way up from Junior WRC, through WRC 3, WRC 2 and finally into the main WRC to fight for the overall world championship. You can manage your team in terms of vehicle and personnel upgrades, contract offers, objectives and of course, winning rallies. Between all of this are fun events featuring historic cars or extreme conditions to break things up.
The problems start with the career objectives, which for the most point are stupid. How about not using hard tyres for the next two events? Completely pointless. Or let’s try completing a number of extra events within the next six weeks? Not possible, as the event calendar simply won’t allow you to. Thankfully your on-stage performance is a bigger determinant of success.
There’s also a lack of customisation in any form, which has become de rigueur these days, even for officially licensed titles. There’s an extensive upgrade path, effectively identical to the one in last year’s WRC 8, just don’t expect to have the ability to build your own team from the ground up.
Your rivals are more erratic than a Kris Meeke rally performance. You can have a good run and finish 20 seconds off the pace on one stage, only to beat everyone by half a minute driving like a rookie on the next. Some serious balancing is required across the events.
There’s also just a litany of strange, small, defects too. Your driver and co-driver have the same head. One of the in-game tutorial voice-overs plays at the wrong time, causing much confusion. I signed for M-Sport Ford in WRC 2, only to have a Škoda branded workshop. On one Monte Carlo stage, there’s the top of a tree growing in the middle of the road. The in-car steering wheel animation doesn’t match your inputs.
Usually, at this point in a WRC review, I would go on to talk about some slightly shabby graphics, unruly vehicle handling and moan about the sound, before summing up as an enjoyable game that lacks a certain sparkle.
Not this year.
The main breakthrough is the way the cars handle. The vehicles have significant weight to them. The WRC 2 cars have pliant suspension that soaks up bumps, rolls a little through corners and provides satisfying body control. Previously, the main WRC class cars would be very skittish, a slight abrasion throwing them around too much. Now, thanks to a leap forward in suspension control, they ride over lumps and even corner edges with ease. Just like they should.
This inspires confidence and rewards you for pushing harder each time. Now, instead of the game physics being the limitation to speedy progress, it’s your brain’s ability to stay up to speed with the action. Headphones on, steering wheel plugged in and a singular goal. Time to enable your race face.
Using a gamepad still results in the odd over-correction, being a bit too easy to end up weaving down the road in the quickest car, but you can adapt to that. Give it time and you will be rewarded. Handbraking around a hairpin is more satisfying than licking the lid of a yoghurt.
New locations for this season include Japan, New Zealand and Kenya. The African stages are a little bland, perhaps the most derivative in the whole game, but New Zealand offers some of the best roads in a rally game, flowing from one camber to the next. Understandably, last-minute post-Covid-19 events such as Estonia and Ypres are missing.
Even the stages that are carried over from previous WRC titles feel fresh because the overall look of the game has been given a polish, and it’s just so much more satisfying to drive. The lighting, in particular, is a dramatic step forward, especially at night or during a bedazzling sunrise. Detail in the surroundings have also moved forward, from the wind turbines of Portugal to the roadside fires in snowy Sweden.
While the cars themselves still sound less interesting than a health and safety seminar, other noises such as transmission whine, squeaky brakes and tyre scrubbing add to the authentic vibe alongside dynamic weather. One minute the sun is shining, the next you’ll need windscreen wipers and lights.
It would be remiss of me at this point not to mention the direct competition, DiRT Rally 2.0. The Clubs in that game helped power me through the lockdown. Rally drivers, motorsport publications and car manufacturers were able to set up online rallies for fans to compete in, at the end of which was an online leaderboard – I competed in several. Pleasingly, what is essentially the same feature is also part of WRC 9, alongside the now accustomed eSports and online lobby support.
An enhanced suite of online features and the promise of additional Finnish and Portuguese stages, not to mention next-gen upgrades coming for PS5 and Xbox Series X, will mean it has a longer shelf life than previous instalments. I certainly plan on playing it for the foreseeable future.