Review: WRC 8

While everyone may go on about just what exactly an iterative title can genuinely add to feel new and refreshing, a series having “taken a year off” will always impose greater scrutiny. Has the developer/studio justified the supposedly extended break? If not, then why the yearly absence previous? In a genre, niche it may be, that has found itself dominated by the likes of UK-based Codemasters — and their consistent, quality output of racing titles covering a breadth of departments of the sport — over on the other side of the English channel, French-based developer Kylotonn have been happily supplying a healthy alternative to Codemasters’ dominance, via the World Rally Championship license, or WRC for short. Having taken a year off following the commendable WRC 7, WRC 8 aims to be more than just an alternative for fans of rally sport — seeking to be the true competitor to Codemasters’ crown as the go-to name for authentic simulation-orientated racing. WRC 8 may well look like the same respectable outing on the outside, but it doesn’t take long for that impression to change. It’s not perfect, but the twelve-or-so month break for the series has nonetheless been worth it.

Just as it was in 2017, to those coming to the WRC license for the first time, it should be noted [again] that WRC 8 is as unforgiving as it is demanding. Those who approach things with an arcade-like mind-set — or at the very least think that focus should only be invested in steering and acceleration — will quickly and easily find themselves slamming head-first into surrounding hazards or skirting off into nearby ditches. WRC 8 is a game all about quick, mindful decision-making. Of finding the perfect balance between many a component: speed, acceleration, breaking (and the type of breaking to pull off), even the very gear you should be in. How to approach a corner, how to approach incoming jumps so as to land at the right angle and not incur unwanted damage to your suspension. Whether it’s a perilous series of hair-pin turns at the edge of a cliff or something as deceptive as long stretches with uneven ground, WRC 8 makes sure to impose as accurate (and maybe unruly) a take on car management as it can be. Something of which is expanded upon this year with the game’s more modular-like approach to damage representation, both in its UI as well as the very appearance of the car you’re handling.

Car parts, as well as individual tyres, all have their own separate quality rating — tyres specifically valued on a score of 100 and naturally wear as races progress. While managing your car is still a paramount importance, it’s one’s long-term strategy that too will be tested. Particularly as you approach the half-way mark in a rally and you’re given an allotted 45 minutes to spend on either replacing otherwise faulty parts or simply getting components as close to 100% again. All the while making sure not to go over the limit and incur a time penalty. This isn’t something that hasn’t been a staple of WRC’s gameplay, but with its tweaks and alterations to how information is presented, the experience feels a lot more manageable, if still quite the dilemma on which areas of your car to prioritize. A dilemma that can result in dire consequences if your choice goes awry and you, for example, lose top speed as a result of a faulty engine or find your car leaning to either side because of previous misuse of your tyres.

WRC 8 Review Screenshot
It’s here where sound design comes to the forefront and once more displays Kylotonn’s dedication to their craft. Though minor, it’s hard not to admire the detail put into the varying stages of quality that components like the engine and body parts come in. The way the former struggles to maintain performance, the latter displaying dents and scratches alike — dirt accumulating in the event of having to drive through mud and rain. Even the way your speedometer’s dial struggles or the slight delay added on when you desire to change gear. It’s for this very reason why the driving comes across greater than the sum of its parts and it only adds authenticity to the game’s simulation of rally racing’s unpredictable nature. And as a by-product, it allows the mistakes made to feel even more disastrous.

Regardless of whether you’re listening in to the first or even last set of instructions from your co-pilot, the game is not one you can take for granted. Sailing easily into first place in pursuit of the fastest time around a select chunk of a rally, only to misjudge the angle of your car — slamming into the side of a cliff, tail-spinning and inevitably ruining your whole run. Genuinely curse-inducing these small, insignificant moments are, WRC 8 does a terrific job at drawing you into that articulately calculating mind-set. Frantically, but intently so, measuring how much you should brake and when to employ the hand-brake so as to drift around a corner for better acceleration thereafter. You needn’t be an ardent follower of the sport to find one’s self enthralled by the very micro-management approach the game requires. That love and appreciation extends further once you factor in the feedback and emphasis on in-game physics of WRC 8.

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Like its predecessor, Kylotonn nail the peril and resulting pride that comes with wrestling with one’s car. Minor this detail is, WRC 8 is a game all about the small details and it’s great to see a developer commit so passionately — and successfully — to replicating the many levels of friction that its varying terrains impose. More so with this year’s outing. Be it the rough, demanding grip of off-road dirt or the precariousness of snow, it’s impossible to predict just how your car will perform yet it’s this constant stream of questioning, of not taking anything for granted, where the simulation approach pays off. But WRC 8 is more than just vintage gameplay mechanics and where this year’s entry stands as one to take note of lies of course in its new features. While the improved visuals and graphics (for the most part; still there’s an unevenness about the quality of textures and geometry in many of the courses) are to be expected, it’s what the game does with the technology underneath that makes it feel like a new experience.

For one, the new dynamic weather system helps spice things up by throwing one more dilemma in to consider. Races that start clear and sunny may eventually subside to impending cloud cover, reduced visibility and in some cases, torrential rain. This in itself creates interesting perils like puddles forming on the track and rain-droplets even partially obscuring your view, but it’s the progressing transition of the use of weather that avoids feeling shoe-horned in. Perhaps the most notable feature then is the revamped Career mode, which outside of the regular scheduling of annual rallies to take part in, finds players managing an entire team. Presented overhead a la The Sims, tasks often involve things like cycling staff when eventual fatigue kicks in, hiring potentially higher-skilled members and generally making sure that you’re on good speaking terms with your team and manufacturer.

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Winning rallies will net you prize money — which is used to pay staff salaries, themselves varying depending on skill level — and usually helps to keep morale high, but there are also optional events like manufacture try-outs that judge you based on distance traveled. Determining how to use your calendar and what activities to schedule; where to place your skill points thanks to the RPG-like, level-based progression; even deciding whether to commit to optional/secondary objectives. All of these areas are critical and while the presentation admittedly is a little sparse — some sub-menu’s particularly little more than blocks and paragraphs of text in the exact same basic font — the mode’s charm, ease of usage and expanding upon that notion of thoughtful long-term tactics wins through. Of course you can still play through the courses back-to-back minus this new mode, but with the way the new RPG/strategy-like direction slots into place, it’s hard to see why you’d go back to such a format.

For all its improvements, tweaks and expanded content, though, WRC 8 does sadly fall short of being the complete package. One that should triumph in all corners — most notably, its performance and its overall design from an aesthetics standpoint. Crowds remain bafflingly low quality with the prominence of repeated NPC models and blocky, low-resolution builds popping up way too many times in such moments like the end-of-rally victory screen. During gameplay, running on PC, WRC 8 does jump to and fro on frame-rate, despite sacrificing many of the niceties in the game’s video settings. It’s not disastrous by any means, but the fact frame-rate can jump so wildly from high-40s to 60-plus, into the 50s and back up to 60FPS, does become apparent in the presence of passing objects and foliage.

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Closing Comments:

While it’s a slight shame that the series this year doesn’t quite come out unscathed, WRC 8 is nonetheless a fun and well-crafted entrant in the World Rally Championship series. The series’ unrelenting, doubling-down on the simulation approach — and barely giving its players room for error — is still as prominent and bound to put off those looking for an easy ride. If you’re the kind of person who appreciates the finer detail and are looking for a racing experience that rewards smart, split-second decision-making, however, this is the kind of package that can offer so many great and engaging moments. Even if the road there may be paved with a few harsh lessons. In the end, with an expanded and much-improved career mode, some thoughtful, small-and-subtle tweaks and even more unpredictable elements to keep wary of — on top of all the care put into the physics, feedback and very sound — Kylotonn’s latest in WRC 8 stands as the studio’s best interpretation yet.

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