Our Fanatec set is rumbling with happiness after leading us through KT Racing's upcoming title WRC 9.
For me, it's all about the WRC series if we're talking about rally racing, and the Assetto Corsa series if we're talking about sportscars on asphalt that have that special something, that essence that makes them incredibly satisfying to play from the get-go. It's like these realistic sim-racers found the sweet spot that makes them accessible and easy to learn, and then difficult and rewarding to master, but all the while keeping a very natural driving feel, especially if you use a racing wheel and pedals.
I've been playing KT Racing's newest racer for a few hours, the build I tried being an incomplete PC preview version of the full game that Nacon will release on every relevant platform later this year. And after playing for a few hours, I can tell you that they keep nailing that sweet spot with the handling and that they've made me sweat with the new challenges on offer.
There are several new features to talk through this year, but first and foremost I have to stress how much I appreciate when a racing game, even at a demo or early stage, fully supports and recognises my racing gear. It sounds like something we should always 'demand' on PC but, believe it or not, even some of the best-regarded sim-racers can have rushed or middling wheel support this far into development (and even at launch), which can make them really difficult to assess before release. With WRC 9 - and this might be due to their official partnership - I welcome the full support for my Fanatec ClubSport V2.5 Wheel Base and the rally-oriented Pedals V3 Inverted. This includes a nice response, software-controlled degrees of rotation (540º by default), or something as subtle (but also very appreciated in terms of feedback) as throttle pedal rumble.
I did a couple of training sessions (I suggest you go for the 200 hp Junior class first before you try and tame the 380 hp 4WD WRC beasts) and also started a new Career, which this year seems to be cleaner, more accessible and way more engaging than ever, with XP rewards, R&D unlocks, and the whole progression system that looks like it might well be able to maintain my interest in the long run.
But for this preview, I wanted to focus on the aforementioned driving feel and, of course, on the brand-new rallies coming to the game. These are Kenya, New Zealand, and Japan, which make a total of 13 when added to Monte Carlo, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Portugal, Italy-Sardinia, Finland, Turkey, Germany, and Wales. All this (around six or seven stages each), together with the officially-licensed Ford, Hyundai, and Toyota cars and teams, and the additional car categories such as Legends, makes for a packed offering content-wise, and there'll be more to come.
I obviously chose Kenya-Seyabei for my first couple of races. Why? Because It Began in Afrika, because it's got very interesting terrain, and because it was precisely a week ago when the real event should have been held in real life for the return of the Safari Rally after 18 years, but alas it was cancelled and postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, as you can tell by the accompanying gameplay, it indeed feels like a different challenge, with its bumpy-bumpy surface and its deliberately undefined roads. It might be a bit boring visually all things considered, but that is a plus when you're being asked to pay even more attention than usual, as it's a completely misleading rally that looks much easier than it really is.
New Zealand isn't a walk in the park either with all those rocks, fences and cliffs, but I just loved the transition from tarmac to gravel and back during every step of the stage, having to deal with the difference in grip as I approached every corner. This one is more beautiful as the vistas are more varied and, of course, way more uneven than the plains in the African savannah.
On the other extreme is the asphalt-based Japan, which also makes a triumphant return to the series. You don't get the same type of control and feedback in a rally game as you would in a racer more focused on sports cars (GT3, F1, etc), but KT Racing knows their tarmac as well and I had some great fun in the Japanese woods (switching to the Toyota Yaris WRC, of course).
When I switched to the Toyota I realised a noticeable downgrade in terms of sound quality (specifically with regards to the engine noise), as previously warned by KT Racing themselves, as in this build only the Ford had the newly-recorded, more authentic sounds integrated. In comparison, the Toyota and the Hyundai now sound like they're from a '90s arcade racer.
Elsewhere, technically speaking, I'd like to see some more detail and better lighting in the final version, as this looked a bit too flat despite setting all graphical options at "high" or "very high", and let's keep in mind the game not only releases on the current generation of PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, but also PS5, Xbox Series X and, naturally, high-end gaming PCs. That being said, WRC 9 boasts some of the fastest loading times in the genre, which goes on my "thank you" list together with the great force feedback/calibration, and the improved physics.
Finally, it's worth noting that, other than new versions of the Portugal and Finland rallies added to the whole, WRC 9 will get the experimental, co-op Co-driver Mode at the end of the year as a free update. With this, a friend takes the important role of reading the pace notes as your teammate. We're intrigued by it and it'll be online-only, to begin with at least, but we can imagine it evolving into a very cool tablet/phone app-based mode for local co-op as well.
Also as a free update for those who get WRC 9 on either PS4 or Xbox One, the game will upgrade to the next-gen versions on PS5 or Xbox Series X, and we're looking forward to seeing how performance, graphics and features reveal the future of rally racing.
WRC 9 is a pleasure to drive already and will be content-packed at launch, with a seemingly interesting campaign, with more free and paid updates on the horizon. Nacon and KT Racing told us this year's main focus was social features, whereas WRC 10 and 11 will take a new direction, but based on these initial impressions and the fact that we couldn't try all of the online-enabled features, and with the game getting next-gen updates, it's looking like a very promising season for the official rally game.