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A landmark year for racing video games means even better days ahead on new consoles

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WRC 8’s breakout performance highlights a renaissance for licensed motorsports sims

A red rally car, dust trailing behind it, soars over a jump and through the air.
WRC 8, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.
Image: KT Games/Bigben Interactive

In a banner year for motorsports video games, KT Racing’s lightly regarded WRC series stands out as the best example of a genre undergoing a renaissance.

At the time it launched in early September, little was expected from WRC 8. Dirt Rally 2.0 had launched seven months before, and under KT Racing (a department of Paris-based Kylotonn) the series had been known as a serviceable, no-frills and even arcade-like presentation of the World Rally Championship. A code slid under my door one week and I said I’d get around to it.

When I finally did, what I found didn’t look like WRC at all. It isn’t just the robust career mode, whose emphasis on team development and personnel management can’t be found in any other racing game. Nor was it just the historical fleet of cars (29 in all) or — critically for races run in the elements — weather that now changes mid-stage. WRC 8’s makers, working with an extra year of development time, had the guts to remake the cars’ handling, to refine the aerodynamics and surface physics to create a tougher, more demanding racer, something that projects a sense that it is worth your time.

And KT Racing’s confidence that they were doing the right thing was borne out in their first play tests, said Benoit Gomes, WRC 8’s lead level designer. “They were the kind of players who are used to your Project Cars, to rally racing simulation games, they understood instantly,” Gomes said. “The first ride or the second one, it was perfect for them; there’s no fake dynamics, they could do real driving techniques inside of our game.” That wasn’t the case with WRC’s predecessors.

“It was just this instant feeling of understanding the car,” Gomes said.

When a labor of love like NASCAR Heat 4 becomes the anchor for a major esports series, it’s a good year for fans. When, in that same year, heavy hitters like Codemasters drop all three of their racing series — including F1 2019, which featured Formula 2 in all modes for the first time, on a nine-month development schedule — it’s a great year for fans. But, when even a marginal competitor like WRC 8 can break through with a standout performance at the same time, then you’re talking about a landmark year.

This year’s offerings mean motorsports fans can feel confident that their demands have the attention of the studios and publishers, who are happy to serve up more titles in the genre. Codemasters’ recent acquisition of Slightly Mad Studios, the Project Cars makers, should be evidence of that. This ramp-up also comes as the market is about to embark upon the next console generation. KT Racing’s designers think that will deliver benefits specific to the racing segment.

“We don’t have a clear idea of why we have so many racing games at this moment, but there are more people who want to play racing games. I think it’s the fact they are more realistic,” said Alain Jarniou, WRC 8’s director. What he means is, now six years into this console generation (where most consume their licensed sports), developers are using that hardware to the fullest. The Xbox One/PlayStation 4 generation is showcasing the variety, technicial sophistication and visual appeal of motorsports, where those capabilities have seemed to plateau in other sports titles.

Motorsports titles, among sports’ many classes of games, may be positioned to take the most advantage of the new hardware, at least at the outset of this next generation. Jarniou pointed to real-time ray tracing as a “holy grail” of technology that is particularly important to a subgenre whose fans expect state-of-the-art visual fidelity and attention to detail. The processing muscle that can handle that kind of rendering in a video game can also support things like faster loading times — of particular importance to motorsports gamers, who probably wait the longest of any genre’s fans as their elaborate stages and lifelike race courses load into the game.

“Despite the new consoles, the new power, what’s great is that any good idea is better with more power,” Gomes said. And KT Games goes into 2020 with plenty of good ideas, principally the career mode that Gomes designed.

“It’s like the game in the game,” Jarniou said. “You don’t win the championship just by being behind the wheel, but in all the choices you will make on your calendar, in your departments, all of the stuff that we think is what makes a team operate.” Even in a year where F1 2019 has vacuumed up some 200 hours of my time, WRC 8’s career layer is shades more varied off the track. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Codemasters implementing team personnel management to meet what WRC 8 has done, when F1’s career mode already has the player driver steering the development of the car as if they were a team director..

Whatever developers like Codemasters, KT Racing or 704Games end up doing, it’s clear there is plenty of demand to support development of racing as a simulation-style sport on par with Pro Evolution Soccer, MLB the Show and NBA 2K. Perhaps the increasing distribution of these games online has helped a boutique product shed the expectations and doubts that major publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts always seemed to have. Perhaps, as racing bodies like FIA and NASCAR see the ability of esports to draw a crowd, they’re feeling an urgency to get these things made, too. But there’s never been a better time to be a motorsports video game fan, and WRC 8 rising to the occasion for its audience is proof enough.

“The WRC license is not AAA [as a games brand], and we know that, but still we try to be at the top of our game and reach that,” Gomes said. “We don’t have the biggest content on the market, but we just targeted something people wanted — career mode, historical cars, more realism.

“With WRC, we tried to find where the community was, we tried to be smarter than other racing games that are AAA and tried to focus on everything,” Gomes said, “where we always had just one focus.”

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.