Motorsport games are having a terrific 2019.
F1 2019 hit in June and was another remarkable success for the franchise. MotoGP 19 was a triumph for bike fans and accessible for new players, and with Codemasters releasing a new version of GRID in October there is plenty of competition for the attention and money of racing gamers. Which is why the return of the WRC series needs to be impressive.
WRC 7, which came out in 2017, received strong reviews. However, after 2 years away French developers Kylotonn need to wow with their latest release.
We have heard a lot about improved physics, better handling and weather. The usual things developers improve on in every title. But what about the actual user interaction and gameplay? What about career mode? And do the promised steps forward in weather and physics really come through?
We got a hands on-preview with game director Alain Jarniou to see just how good this game is.
The first thing that hits you is the look of the game.
We were lucky to test the game alongside Robbie Durant, co-driver for action sports star Travis Pastrana, who said "When you sit on the start line at El Condor it's as close to the real thing as I've seen!"
The graphics are as near to live-action as you can imagine. WRC 8 shines in clear weather, but once the clouds roll in the whole feel of the environment changes.
In wet weather you can feel the loss of grip even with a controller, the gradient WRC 8's weather system has is more subtle than that of any racing game this year. Traction and grip don't just suddenly disappear, it changes with surface and environment and the difference between a few showers and heavy rain is far more noticeable than it is in, say, F1 2019.
The dynamic weather means that no stage drives the same way twice, and the realism means that you are more likely to see rain in Wales and snow in Sweden than you are elsewhere.
Rally driving is like nothing else. With an undefined path, long stages, and difficult to spot barriers, getting behind the wheel of a rally car quickly becomes an immersive experience. Listening to pace notes becomes crucial, making constant corrections to stop the car sliding into rocks is vital.
The number of camera angles available in WRC 8 allow you to experience the stage from the classic high trail, the new dash cam, or even a bumper view.
All of these are adjustable as well. You can tilt the view, and even change the depth of field if you want a wider view or a more focused picture of the road ahead. This is a real plus for experienced gamers with their own racing rig, but also for newbies who need to see more or want to cut out the stunning scenery.
The feel of the car changes noticeably with the surfaces, and you can feel some engine braking when you lift off, allowing you to be more precise with throttle application and less quick to slam on the brakes.
One thing fans don't like about the F1 series from Codemasters is the lack of realistic damage, but in WRC 8 everything is up for grabs. Our preview was mercilessly set to easy damage, meaning smashing a lamppost head on didn't end our day, but with simulation damage one clip of a rock can break the wheel, while the brakes fade, the suspension takes a pounding, and the car can become dinged and dented everywhere, even the roof.
This is WRC 8's pièce de résistance. After two years in development Kylotonn have unveiled a career mode with more depth than anything seen before. Taking some inspiration from others, WRC 8's career mode combines R&D trees you see in F1 2019 with a card-system of team building that is reminiscent of FIFA Ultimate Team.
It doesn't just put you in the driver seat and let you race for season after season. It also puts you in the team manager role previously reserved for games like Motorsport Manager. You can do everything from hit the training course to improve your own skills, to finding a better mechanic to work on your car, a more accurate meteorologist for the teams weather reports, and even a physical therapist to keep everyone functioning at a high level.
Game director Alain Jarniou called it "a game within a game". While you can focus on just the racing with the "seasons" mode, career mode puts you at the heart of everything, starting you with the junior series and working up to the pinnicle of rallying.
"we want players to be active. When you are looking at a cut scene, yeah it looks good but nothing is really happening"
There is no "story" as such, the career mode is what you make of it, but as Robbie Durant told us this style of career mode more reflects what drivers do in real life and how teams operate.
It also provides stage statistics for all your rivals with comparable graphs, giving you all the information you need to spot where you are losing time to your rivals. This looks like it will be the new benchmark for career modes moving forward.
We didn't get to try our hand at online modes, but from what Alain Jarniou told us it should be exceptionally engaging.
There will be weekly events with a leaderboard to climb, but also up to 8 player races that will drop you all onto a stage at the same time with each car ghosting, allowing to see where your opponents are and giving you something to directly race against without bashing each other and trying to get two cars down a 1 car lane.
The total package of WRC 8 is very impressive. The driving will be a challenge for those more used to track racing, but with esports competitions on the horizon and the incredible depth of the career mode this game should keep giving to dedicated racers. There will also be a host of classic and legendary cars to drive as well as the current roster of WRC teams.
WRC 8 will hit the shelves on 5 September 2019 for PS4, Xbox, and PC, with Nintendo Switch availability in October. Early access is available with the digital deluxe edition.