It only took me a few minutes of playing WRC 9 to realise that reviewing this game was going to be very difficult indeed. If you want a short summary of my thoughts, it’s this: long-time players of rally driving games will find a lot to enjoy here; everyone else probably isn’t going to have a good time. To some extent this is to be expected and it’s not really fair to criticise a game for playing to its primary audience, but there’s a certain amount of nuance here that’s worth exploring.
First, the good. On a technical level, WRC 9 is brilliant, from the graphics to the music to the controls. Everything feels very polished and the environments are stunning, even when they’re whipping past the windows at 100 miles an hour. Similarly, the controls are very easy to learn and feel tremendously responsive, so with enough skill you can expertly round a corner using just the slightest twitch of the thumbsticks.
This performance holds up remarkably well on old-gen consoles as well. As an Xbox Series X/PlayStation 5 title, I was a little worried going in that my six-year-old Xbox One was going to fall apart under the pressure, but aside from a handful of lengthy load times, I didn’t encounter any performance issues. Even those load times weren’t a particularly significant hurdle, and they were worth it to experience the beauty of WRC 9’s environments.
On the content side of things, there’s still more to enjoy, with a whole host of game modes to let you play WRC 9 in whatever way you want, for as long as you want. The main game, such as it is, is a career mode which involves managing your team, maintaining your relationship with car manufacturers, training, and participating in events, and there’s a level of complexity involved in these elements coming together that you might not initially expect. However, if you’re not looking for that kind of strategic gameplay, you also have the option of the ‘Season’ mode, which allows you to participate in the racing championships without any of the other features slowing you down.
For more competitive play, there is of course the option of online races to pit you against real players, as well as time-dependent challenges that really test your skills.
So with all of this said, why have I come away from the game so conflicted? The root of the problem boils down to a simple concept: approachability. Rally racing is already a fairly insulated market and it can be a difficult sell to someone who wouldn’t normally pick up this kind of game, which is why it is incomprehensible to me that this game has been made so unfriendly to new players.
At the very beginning of the game, you’re going to be faced with a screen that asks you how experienced with racing games you are. If you’re a returning player you can skip the tutorial stages but, should you need it, new players will have the option of telling it that they are a complete novice with no prior experience. Having selected such an option, you might expect to then be put through a tutorial that explains the controls and some general tips on how to actually control the car in a way that is both fast and accurate – this does not happen.
WRC 9 explains the controls, yes, but then immediately throws you into a series of training courses that do nothing to explain how you might succeed. Things like knowing when to use the handbrake, how to take corners at speed without losing control, and how to handle adverse weather are all vital skills in WRC 9 and they are given no consideration at all in the tutorial. These are obviously concepts that aren’t important to players who already have experience with racing games, but as someone new to the genre, they’re an indispensable part of learning how to play. Without them, the early part of the game is near unplayable without a lot of trial and error – or leaving to find some tutorials online – and the endless crashing gets old very quickly.
Another, much more minor annoyance for me was the navigator, the person who sits beside the driver and calls out upcoming features of the course. Everything they say is accompanied by simple icons on-screen that do a great job at quickly and clearly demonstrating what you need to look out for, even if you’re unfamiliar with the game genre. Personally, I found that the icons on screen did the job well enough on their own and as the navigator talks very quickly in shorthand that is difficult to understand for new players, I had hoped to find the option of turning off his audio. While you are able to change the language he speaks in, which is a nice touch, there doesn’t appear to be an option to switch the feature off entirely, leaving him as a vaguely annoying distraction throughout the game.
To someone who has played and enjoyed these types of games before, WRC 9 probably won’t have anything to particularly surprise you, but there will definitely be something in there worthwhile. The game is extremely well put together and it’s clear a lot of work has gone into polishing it up to the highest standard possible. Sadly, however, if you’re someone who hasn’t really got into rallying before and is looking to try a new experience, I have to advise that you skip this title and look for something a little more approachable.