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WRC 9 joins sports gaming’s big time with ... a modest update?

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Welcome to the club, KT racing; just don’t stick around too long

a dirty rally car, trailing dust from a gravel road, slides through a turn Image: KT Racing/Nacon

KT Racing’s WRC series was a good companion during a summer spent in limbo. Being on a video game treadmill for work often left me with half-abandoned career modes spread across multiple titles. With no obligation to stay current with more popular games, I sunk into WRC 8’s career mode, which made last year’s rally racing title an out-of-nowhere delight.

All of that off-the-course management I found so engaging in WRC 8 is back in the latest game, WRC 9, which arrived at the beginning of September, and which I’ve just now climbed into. It’s familiar to the point of picking up right where I left off — the pool of hires for my crew still has the same names and nationalities. This ordinarily is not a good thing for the subject I cover. But I suppose the true sign of joining the big boys in sports games isn’t the year one adds a major, heavyweight-class mode like WRC’s career. It’s the year after, when fans like me tut-tut about incremental changes.

Still, I have to allow KT Racing some leeway after last year’s overhaul. No other licensed sports title in 2019 attempted as much, and then succeeded at it, as WRC 8. All sports games have to be graded on some kind of curve accounting for iteration, so WRC 9’s modest improvements come off as a virtue — the kind of cleanup effort one can afford to do after getting huge things in place, and getting them right.

It means that what’s new in WRC 9 are things that serve all modes of play, such as a variable difficulty slider that works better than last year’s all-or-nothing options; some refinements in the handling, especially helpful to the faster cars; and three lavishly designed and illustrated new rallies, which fans will see only in this game. And like those two, the World Rally Championship also had its schedule decimated by the global pandemic. The only rallying in Japan, New Zealand, and Kenya this year is in this game — all three were canceled.

Real life’s loss is my living room’s gain, however. All three are so atmospherically different from last season’s runs through Europe and South America that hauling across the wide-open Kenyan savanna in a one-off, single-player time attack can feel like an entirely new video game. New Zealand’s precise routes are a little more familiar to the Wales rally (particularly Wales’ seaside course on pavement) that’s been in this game since 2016.

A helicopter, filming the race, chases a rally car sliding through a dirt road turn
Better handling in WRC 9 means some camera angles, like the hood view, are more useful, too.
Image: KT Racing/Nacon

As much as I wish these rallies were in the junior series, which form a very manageable beginning to the racing career, I don’t mind starting all that over with the same events from last year, to be honest. The career mode that is worth a restart — to get everything about my rise to fame just right — is the best one, I have found. And while I don’t have the most educated palate for virtual vehicle handling, I feel enough improvement in WRC 9’s that I have an “OK, now I’m doing this the right way” feeling about the career.

WRC 9 is less floaty, less given to spontaneous fishtailing, than its predecessor. In WRC 8 I spent whole stages without touching fifth gear, even in straights, because the unpredictably strong weight transfer behind any sudden movement made it more risk than reward. There’s a juke move I try to make, branching off the end of a long straight in the Rallye Monte-Carlo, that is now as easy as flicking a thumbstick. Last year, it required the kind of hard braking I use on square lefts, and tighter.

The higher available speed works in tandem with a variable AI slider to deliver a better challenge in the career events, even if I don’t think I’ve found the sweet spot yet. Last year’s game set difficulty by named categories, with a huge spike in AI driver time at the top end. That gave me the choice of laying waste to the field, even if I had two or three bad spinouts, or struggling to finish anywhere that would keep me in good graces with my sponsor. My changes to the AI’s strength aren’t as precise as the ones I can make in other racing games (particularly F1 2020), but I do think I’ll come to something realistic — and then want to start my career over at that setting.

Personally, WRC 9 feels less like a sequel, and more like a coda to a unique summer whose memories I can now recall with warmth rather than regret. There’s a sense of affirmation in WRC 9, that not only is it worth my time, or worth starting over, it’s worth nitpicking, and worth chiding in the same way I do the Maddens and the FIFAs of this scene. Sports gaming needs more members of that club, particularly smaller developers from outside North America. But KT Racing has to be careful not to overstay its welcome.

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