The DiRT franchise finally has legit competition.

It's not easy creating a racing game based on a motorsport where the surface of the track constantly changes. That's just one of the challenges facing WRC 9, which launched for Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC on September 3. The World Rally Championship's official gaming franchise dates back nearly two decades to the early Playstation 2 era, and the numerous titles since then haven't garnered the best reputation for realism or playability.

Things have improved in recent years, and that is readily apparent in WRC 9. This is easily the best WRC-branded game of them all, combining good fun with challenging action, a realistic WRC environment, and it looks great. But is it a legitimate competitor to the current gold standard of sim rally racing, DiRT Rally 2.0? The answer to that question is complicated, but the fact that it’s in the ballpark is a very good thing for rally gamers.

WRC 9 Rally Screenshot Night
WRC 9 Rally Screenshot

Balance To The Rally Genre

I sampled WRC 9 through a Logitech G920 sim setup on an Xbox One X, and right off the bat I can say the physics are impressive. Feedback through the wheel is good, and the game offers prolific wheel settings to dial in the preferred amount of force in various situations. However, the physics aren't as sharp or precise as compared to DiRT. There’s a slight arcade sensation at work here, but it’s only slight and in this context, I think it's actually a good thing.

WRC 9’s learning curve could be a perfect compromise between hardcore sim and weaksauce arcade, offering a challenging experience for armchair racers that stops just short of frustrating.

Hardcore sim racers yearn for knife-edge physics that demand considerable practice to master, but that might be too much for many gamers, especially in the rally genre where very precise control means the difference between a podium finish and an event-ending crash. WRC 9’s learning curve could be a perfect compromise between hardcore sim and weaksauce arcade, offering a challenging experience for armchair racers that stops just short of frustrating. At the same time, it has enough mojo to keep the interest of more experienced simmers.

WRC 9 Rally Screenshot Main Screen
WRC 9 Rally Screenshot Stages

Live WRC Life Like Never Before

There’s so much more to WRC 9 than just the driving though. Being an official WRC title, it’s the digital bible for those who live and breathe the modern-day championship and those teams are faithfully represented. The career mode is incredibly in-depth with everything from team building and management to marketing, skills development, and of course, sponsorships. Or, if that stuff doesn’t interest you, simply jump into a season championship and enjoy all the same racing success without the corporate red tape. You can also run individual rally stages or tinker with your car on one of many practice courses.

WRC 9 Rally Screenshot Career
WRC 9 Rally Screenshot Training Screen

Speaking of which, WRC 9 gives players an exquisite microcosm of test stages. These quick-load, quick-access courses are a godsend for dialing in your wheel settings and experimenting with different car setups. Tuners have a plethora of settings to play with in advanced mode, and you won’t want a one-size-fits-all tune. Different cars have different handling characteristics, so either choose one car and master it, or be prepared to spend an obscene amount of time in the practice courses tinkering with mechanical settings.

When it comes to racing, the visuals are crisp but still not as sharp as you get in DiRT. What you do get, however, are 13 iconic WRC destinations and each one looks the part in beautiful detail. Weather can be manually selected or randomized, and I’m not sure there’s another racing title currently available that looks as good at night. Ripping through a rainy night stage in Kenya is downright humbling, but heed this advice: spend lots of time practicing and getting all your settings right before embarking on a season. As I said, there is a learning curve here, especially when it comes to racing in the rain.

WRC 9 Rally Screenshot
WRC 9 Rally Screenshot Night

Glitches In The Matrix

Unfortunately, there are some issues to discuss, and it starts with the array of vehicle settings mentioned previously. Most are just arbitrary numbers without any context to what they mean, which isn't a bit deal for things like short or long gear ratios. But what exactly does a 2 setting for camber or 8,000 for shock compression mean? The only way to step through these advanced settings is trial and error, and with so many advanced settings available, that could take a long time. Even for mechanically inclined tuners, sticking with basic might be the best option.

WRC 9 Rally Screenshot Car Setup

I consider that a symptom of WRC 9’s mild arcade flavor, and sadly, the pace notes also suffer a similar fate. You can adjust the speed at which the co-driver calls them out, but frankly, it’s hard to trust them. Distance and corner calls can be vague, especially when it comes to long or extra-long corners. Smaller details are often omitted completely, such as small crests, slight bends, obstacle locations, or areas requiring caution. That’s not good considering accurate pace notes are absolutely vital to achieving a fast time.

WRC 9 also isn’t for those who yearn to relive the WRC’s glorious past. Historical cars like the Lancia Stratos and Alpine A110 are included, but Subaru, Peugeot, and Mitsubishi are all MIA. You’ll find some Fords, but the Sierra or Escort Cossies aren’t among them and unless you bought the preorder game, you won't find Audi either. The flip side of that is a flood of present-day WRC content that even includes online events coinciding with real-life WRC action. Rallye Monte Carlo kicks off in 124 days as-of this posting in mid-September. How cool is that?

Gallery: WRC 9 Review

So, does WRC 9 unseat DiRT Rally 2.0 as the benchmark rally sim? From a sim standpoint, DiRT still looks a bit better, the physics are tighter, and the pace notes are more accurate. WRC 9 is very close though, and it could be the better title for those seeking rally excitement that's not quite as frustrating. It's also the only title to give you a properly immersive WRC experience with teams, careers, and online events that will eventually include Esports action.

The pace notes could be better, the sounds could be better, there are occasional bugs with steering feedback, and water-related vehicle physics are sketchy. These issues will hopefully be addressed in future updates, but in the grand scheme, they are small potatoes compared to the satisfying payoff of nailing a good stage in WRC 9.