Let’s get this on the record first: WRC 8 is a very challenging racer, even with big-time driving assists like full traction control, in races against the easiest AI setting. It also has an outstanding career mode that makes me want to keep trying.
Sure, I gnash my teeth when the slightest thumbstick correction sends me into an irrevocable fishtail. I have so much car revving underneath me, it’s like only half of the right trigger accelerator is available for use. Counter-steering, such that I can sustain it, is the finest of lines between an intentional drift and a prolonged spin-out, making a lot of tight corner exits seem like luck more than skill.
After about six hours of driving, though, I felt like I had at least a clear idea of what could keep the car on the trail, which, thanks to the third-person camera position, always looks to be rail thin until you’re right over it. But I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been in fourth gear, dry pavement or not. While you can play WRC 8 on a gamepad (it’s available for PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One and Windows PC) and have a good time with it, I feel like a full blown driving wheel rig is necessary to get the precision this game demands. Understeer at high speeds and oversteer at low is more way more pronounced than in other driving games, for example. It makes recovering the vehicle, whether in motion or crashed out at a stop, difficult and perilous.
Luckily for KT Racing, I happen to be in a transitory period with my gaming where I actually like the reward of repeating a task until I get it right. And there is a real sense of ownership in the time I post at the end of a stage, whatever it is and particularly if it comes with no penalties for resetting to the track. The two dozen or so stages I’ve raced so far are all legitimately breathtaking, and the lighting, as much as anything, delivers a sense of time as well as place. An early afternoon winter sunset in Scandinavia and the sun-dappled seclusion of a Corsican hillside greet newcomers in the first two races on the career calendar. Dirt Rally 2.0 had a sameness problem with its stages, which reconditioned, reversed, or made different excerpts of about a dozen base courses. Thanks to a dynamic weather system (making a series debut) you never feel like you’re in the same place with WRC 8, which sports 14 real-life rallies offering seven or eight stages each.
From my first stage I could tell this is a game with a lot of polish, and that’s been a crapshoot for this series. Not to disparage past entries, but even with the FIA rally racing license, the WRC series has been largely a nominal competitor to Codemasters’ more established Dirt franchise, which launched Dirt Rally 2.0 earlier this year. The gap is smaller than ever this year, because Dirt has nothing like WRC 8’s career mode. F1 2019, also by Codemasters, doesn’t have anything like it, for that matter.
In career, I am in charge of all aspects of team management — from my relationship with the car’s constructor (and others, should I want or need a new ride) to hiring roles as granular as a booking agent (gets me more events and training) or meteorologist (deeper and more accurate reads on upcoming weather). There’s no such management layer in F1, where my attention is more focused to a perk tree of car development. WRC 8 has a perks tree for career advancement, too, but it can be molded more to a player’s style and priorities, rather than just be a linear arms race of development like F1.
Perks that smooth out dents in my team’s morale for a middling finish, or boost it for the times I really bring the groceries, are just as important as those that affect vehicle performance, I’ve found. That’s because even a respectable top-10 finish runs the risk of dinging my team’s morale by -2 — and my relationship with the constructor even more. This kind of arbitrary, severe punishment is really tough to accept, but there are ways to ameliorate it. My unhappy constructor can be pleased by meeting some kind of performance goal, such as coming in under a dollar figure for repairs in one race, or using only one type of tire for another. But players have to keep an eye on what incentives they have active, because the short-term objective and long-term incentive can sometimes conflict. WRC 8 lets drivers choose from a list of goals, rather than feed you one at a time, and I appreciated this twist on a common progression tool for sports video games.
Just the manner in which KT Racing presents the management layer of WRC 8 makes me want to fuss around with it and role-play Mr. Big Rally Driving Bigshot. It’s an isometric, Sims-style cut-out view of an office and a garage. There’s the shop floor, what looks like a live-streaming studio, and a truck backed up to the loading bay when you’re ready to haul off for the race in Chile. WRC 8 may not be accessible to newcomers in what the racing model expects of you, but if it didn’t have this kind of detailing and was just a hard-as-hell off-road racer going from event to event, I would write it off as a niche product for the hardcore as opposed to something worth checking out.
And after all, I suppose it does get boring when, even in an F1 career where I’m 11th in the driver standings for lowly Alfa Romeo, everyone still has a high opinion of me and I can sign with Ferrari at the drop of a hat. Ford, on the other hand, is an implacable presence in my WRC 8 life, with my dismissal always on the table. So there really is no stage where ninth-is-good-enough-this-time. It has me restarting my stages a lot — hell no, I am not taking this game’s perma-wreck option where you can’t — but the best thing I can say for WRC 8 is that it’s worth that kind of frustration.