Over the past few years, the WRC series of rally games has gained a reputation for providing arguably the most accurate depiction of the sport. While the Colin McRae Rally series has over time evolved into Dirt – which tends to focus on more over-the-top racing (not that it’s on Switch anyway) – the official games of the World Rally Championship continue to stick with a completely straight-laced approach to a sport that was never about Dirt’s chaotic 12-car races and has always been about two people – a driver and their navigator – conquering the environment together.
Unfortunately, while the WRC franchise has gained accolades on other systems, it’s struggled to find a foothold on the Switch due to a number of technical and practical issues – and last year’s effort was sadly lacking in a number of areas, particularly visually. Sadly, WRC 9 has failed to address these, leading us to believe that, at this point, this is probably the best Switch owners are going to get without some sort of upgraded hardware.
For those who missed out on last year's game. WRC 9 provides a video game representation of the official FIA World Rally Championship. This year’s game is technically based on the 2020 Championship, but because of real-world, pandemic-related events that were no fault of the developers, it’s no longer accurate. In real life, the 13-round season was suspended after three rounds, found itself stuck in limbo for six months, returned with a couple of previously unplanned rallies in Estonia and Monza (which therefore aren’t in this game), went on for a while longer, then was eventually cancelled after just 7 rounds.
Here, then, you instead get the normal 13-round season as it was originally listed by the WRC before it started. What this means is that four rallies (Australia, Catalunya, Chile and Corsica) have been removed from the last game, and the three new rallies originally planned for this season (Japan, New Zealand and Kenya) have been included. If you’re keeping count, this means there are fewer locations in WRC 9 than there were in WRC 8.
Again, it could be argued that this is no fault of the development team: we’re sure licensing issues prevented them from keeping in a few of the other tracks, even just as an option to play them outside of the main season. The result can’t be denied, though: there are simply fewer locations in this new game, though this is somewhat compensated for by the addition of a load of extra stages in the Finland and Portugal rallies, meaning the total number of races is still higher (108 this time compared to 102 in last year’s game), even if the diversity in scenery has dropped a little.
As in the previous game, there’s a fully-featured career mode, which lets you return back to your team’s office building and control various behind-the-scenes aspects, like planning your upcoming calendar, hiring and firing crew members (while keeping an eye on their total salary) and using the game’s enormous skill tree to develop the performance of both your car and crew. None of this is massively different from last year’s game, where the mode made its debut in this form, but we suppose if it ain’t broke and all that. Naturally, if you aren’t interested in any of this backstage tomfoolery, there’s also a Season mode where you can simply take on the rallies without having to ever see the inside of an office.
Naturally, games like this live and die by how they actually play out on the road, and it’s here where WRC 9 remains a bit disappointing. The racing itself is difficult to get used to, but that’s not necessarily a criticism: anyone who’s played a good rally game in the past (a realistic one, not something like Sega Rally) knows that you can’t just pick one up and start swinging your car around corners like the ghost of Sébastian Loeb. (Not that he’s dead or anything.)
We understand that these games take a long time to master, and the fact that Career mode gives you the option to start off in the WRC Junior class is useful because it gives you a bit more time to get used to the extremely sensitive handling, which at times can feel like steering a shopping trolley around a milk spillage in a supermarket. Take time to not only master your car but also learn each stage’s layout and the work will pay off later; this is a game where you have to earn your success, and for a rally game, many would argue rightly so.
That said, there are still issues that, while once again not the fault of the development team, make playing WRC on the Switch a lot less satisfying than on other systems. The most obvious is the lack of analogue triggers: the game defaults to putting accelerate and brake on ZR and ZL, and while that may be fine for arcade-style racers, when your game revolves around making your way through extremely narrow and perilous landscapes, throttle control can be extremely useful on some of the sharper corners.
There is a way to get around this, by going to the options menu and assigning accelerating and braking to the right stick instead. This does bring its own complications, though: not only will you have to re-assign (or more likely ditch) the controls for looking around, you’ll also need to reassign the handbrake too so you don’t have to take your thumb off the right stick altogether to press the A button. Plus, if you wanted to get really nerdy about it, putting acceleration and braking on the right stick means you can’t do left-foot braking like some rally racers do in real life.
There’s also the matter of the frame rate, but it’s not the big issue you may think. We aren’t the type to get caught up in the 30 vs 60 frames per second debate; usually, we only mention it to stop people asking in the comments why we ignored it. That said, there’s an argument that a racing game running at 30fps can affect your ability to make extremely quick adjustments to your steering, and in a rally game where control is crucial, it’s understandable that WRC 9 may be lacking in that regard. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that the game also runs at 30 on the Xbox One and PS4, so Switch owners will have a similar experience to them for once.
More importantly is the fact that the frame rate’s stability, which was one of the things we disliked most about last year’s game, seems to have improved. There are still moments where it fails to hit 30 – especially when you’re playing in handheld mode – and there a handful of scenarios where it can chug quite severely (don't race in Wales during a storm if you can help it, which, as luck would have it, is sound advice in real-life as well as in this game), but, by and large, it feels more stable than it did before. To manage this, though, even more sacrifices have had to be made to the visuals, which is bad news for a game that already looked a bit ropey.
Put WRC 9 side-by-side with WRC 8 and you’ll notice that some of the environmental detail has been removed. It’s very subtle, but places like Finland have had some trees removed, for example; nothing that will affect your enjoyment of the game but certainly not an improvement. If you play exclusively in docked mode, which was a fairly consistent 30fps last time (with a few exceptions), then you may feel a bit short-changed in some stages.
Far more distracting is the game’s continued struggle to keep up with the environment. Some shadows don’t appear on the track until they’re just a few feet in front of you, drawing themselves as you go as if you were chasing some sort of ghost. Other roadside scenery pops up with alarming frequency, while some trees have a really distracting reverse-dissolving effect where detail sort of bubbles in as if acid has been thrown at it (instead of simply snapping into greater detail as they get closer).
We don’t usually put a lot of emphasis on how a game looks because we all know by this point that the Switch is four-year-old hardware that was already underpowered compared to other systems at launch. We usually let it slide (or powerslide, if you will) if a game doesn’t look as good as it does elsewhere, because of course it shouldn’t. That said, though, rally games are a special case, because the whole point is that it’s you versus the environment, and if that environment is constantly drawing itself in and its trees are bubbling in front of you (seriously, it’s weird) it can get extremely distracting because you usually have nothing else (such as other cars) to focus on.
The improved frame rate makes WRC 9 a better experience than WRC 8, but it still suffers from a number of issues through no fault of the developer, such as a lack of analogue triggers and a reduced rally count. However, the extremely distracting nature of the scenery, which is constantly drawing itself in right in front of you, makes it difficult to get properly immersed in the action. It's probably the best rally game on the Switch so far, but for fans of the sport, the wait continues for something truly brilliant on the system.