Thank you Nacon for sending us this game to review!
WRC 9 The Official Game on Nintendo Switch is a ported and reduced version of WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship that was released last year on PC and the more powerful consoles. This Switch version is remarkable in several ways - both with what was kept compared to its bigger cousins, and what was removed to fit on Nintendo's diminutive console. It's also a sequel to WRC 8, which is also on those same systems. Unfortunately, I can't compare the Switch versions of WRC 8 and 9, since I don't have that one. I did review them both on PC, however. For the purposes of this review, I am assuming that the Switch version of WRC 8 is as similar as the PC versions of WRC 8 and 9 are similar.
Any time there are yearly franchise updates, you’ll often find that some years are evolutionary, and others are revolutionary, or complete engine rebuilds. WRC 8’s release, which I reviewed, was a revolutionary release – it looked and played dramatically better than its predecessor. WRC 9, however, is most definitely an evolutionary release – if you’ve played WRC 8, you know exactly what to expect. On the same levels (there is some overlap), the two games are barely distinguishable. What sets WRC 9 apart is the improved physics, new levels and environments, and some of the new features.
WRC 9 The Official Game is a 3D rendered racing game where you can drive over one hundred (!) different courses, racing against the clock as you try to maneuver through tarmac, gravel, mud, and snow, through all kinds of weather and terrain challenges. It is also the official game of the real-life WRC league: the levels are faithful recreations of real locations and tracks, and the racers you compete against (or as) are also real. During a race, you have a co-driver who gives you a heads up as to what is coming up next, as without his help, you could find yourself off of a cliff in a hurry (well, at speeds ranging from one to one hundred-plus miles-per-hour, at any rate).
With so many courses to choose from, you will no doubt find more than a few to like. I found the physics and handling, especially on tarmac/asphalt courses, to be excellent. Like in WRC 8, you can do an airborne flip fairly easily if you hit a bump at high speed, especially while offroad. While I’m sure it’s possible in real life, I do wonder if it’s really as easy to do in a real car as it seems to be here.
Other than that, I really enjoyed my time with this game. I will say though that the Switch version has a few rather unfortunate compromises, compared to the big boy versions. Compared to the PC version's Xbox Controller, the lack of analog triggers is a rather unfortunate omission on Nintendo's part - racing games in particular really suffer from a lack of analog throttle. Another thing I noticed is that the way the Switch's HD Rumble works, on both the Joy Cons and Pro Controller, is really not well suited for this game. What would otherwise be a nice, subtle rumble on an Xbox controller (on PC), was a loud, high-pitched buzz that made my teeth rattle here. I highly recommend turning down the vibration in the settings to no higher than 30%, if you don't turn them off entirely. I do like how when you drive over gravel, or accelerate, or hit a bump, the controller vibrates in various ways to signal what you are doing. I'm just not thrilled with the implementation on Switch, while I love how it works on PC using either the Xbox or PS4 controllers (and presumably Xbox and PS4, since they use the same controllers), or even better, a racing wheel. Fortunately, once I had vibration dialed in, I was able to enjoy WRC 9, though the change to pulsing pressing the accelerator vs. holding it down only partially does take some getting used to. Also, this isn't an issue on a Switch Lite, since it has no rumble feature.
The vast majority of my time in-game was spent in career mode, which is the meatiest of the modes available. This mode is virtually identical to WRC 8, to the point that the transition screens are exactly the same outside of the game logo. Here, you are starting as a new driver, working with your corporate sponsor (it usually starts as Ford), trying to win race after race. At the end of each season, you have the opportunity to choose a new contract; if you have taken enough opportunities to drive manufacturer tryouts, you may be offered a chance to switch to a new car brand, or to a new league.
Like many games with a career mode, you get to manage your budget, repairs, and your crew. Money is easy to come by, as long as you are willing to replay levels as often as you need to in order to win each race. Outside of just repairs, crew also helps increase your efficiency. Crew does cost money, but is often worth it. Better Mechanics allow you to repair more in between races on a multi-day rally than a poor mechanic would be able to. Financial Directors help you be more efficient with your money, by earning more and spending less. Engineers help you gain more experience, which helps you level up your team's skills. Physical Therapists help keep your crew energy levels high; if they get exhausted, you have to hire another to take their place. Agents help you get rare and more valuable races. Meteorologists help you determine the weather, which is far more useful then you might think, since you need to pick a set of tires for an entire day of races, and making the wrong choice can kill traction. You can also gain levels. Each level you gain grants you a skill point to allocate, and by doing so, you can improve one of four areas: Team, Crew, Performance, and Reliability.
In Career mode, you also get to reply to emails (yes, more work!) and even pay the bills. If that wasn't enough, you get to set your own calendar, to an extent - certain days are big rallies that you can't skip. But in between them you can rest (for the crew), perform maintenance, train, do a historic race, practice in extreme conditions, do manufacturer tryouts, or perhaps some other event that is escaping me. These all give you plenty to do and keep the game from getting too boring or repetitive, though at the end of the day most events are more racing, in one form or another.
You can also customize your ride to an extent. While you can't change the looks (at least to the point I got to), you can adjust the suspension, differential, brakes, transmission, and aerodynamics. You can save profiles to help optimize for each road type, and choose them when you race. This, in addition to tires, should be enough for most needs.
Other modes you can choose to play include a simplified Season mode, where all of the crew management is removed; you just go from one rally to the next, eventually getting promoted based on your performance. There is the perennial Quick Play, which simply lets you choose your track, category, and vehicle. From there, you can have a race without consequences - just have fun. There is also a Test Area where you can drive and car on a test track in any car with any weather you choose. There is also a Training mode which helps you get better at certain driving skills.
Multiplayer modes are mostly about beating another's time on the track. There is a really neat new mode to WRC 9 called Clubs, where you can create a set of rally races for you and your friends to play through, and compete for the best results. I was surprised how active these modes are; there are literally hundreds of existing clubs, and hundreds of people in others’ clubs. What a great way to extend gameplay and interest in this game!
Other online modes include leaderboards, which are simply the best track times that anyone has. The other modes are specific challenges (like can you make a jump on this track bigger than our professional?) or play a specific, pre-planned event, and compete against the world to see who is best.
As I mentioned before, the Nintendo Switch port is both amazing and lacking. In one sense, it's absolutely amazing how much of this game, from the full-fat versions, made it into a tiny handheld console! It's certainly the best way to play this game on the go - unless you are blessed with some of the powerful handheld PCs that are on the market these days, though at a much higher price. It's also a bit over 14GB, which can take quite a chunk out of your console's system memory or microSD card. While the load times can be long, it's understandable. Most of the main game modes are all accounted for, and that's quite remarkable.
The graphics took a huge hit with the port to Nintendo Switch. In some sense it's understandable - racing games generally need to run at at least 30 frames per second (fps) in order to be enjoyable, and that frame rate has to be rock solid, or players will be able to feel stutters during gameplay. But what surprised me is that it's noticably lower than even the PC version's graphical settings when everything it set to the lowest fidelity. What this means is that they had to create an all-new graphical preset that is even lower than what integrated graphics can handle on PCs.
I spent some time comparing graphics quality on low with the PC version and on Switch, and learned a few things. For one, the resolution is higher than 1280x720 while docked; my personal guess is somewhere around 1600x900, but I'm not certain on this. I also discovered that a form of anti-aliasing, what I believe to be TXAA, is always present, especially on your vehicles. Most of the environmental items, like trees, fences, and so on, are rendered at much lower resolutions. The sky is empty, with no clouds to speak of. The grass is missing most, if not all, foliage. The dirt, hills, and other parts of the environment also have dramatically reduced polygon counts. These, all together, make the game look not just a bit dated, but generations out of date. While I know this isn't entirely accurate, my first thought was 'wow - does that look like Wii-level graphics?' Thankfully, the solid frame rate, tons of content, and ability to play this on the go largely makes up for this.
WRC 9 The Official Game takes the already excellent WRC 8, and tweaks the physics and replaces a bunch of tracks to include all new ones from Japan, New Zealand, and Kenya, while keeping fan favorites. While at first glance it may seem like a ‘lazy’ upgrade, I’ve become convinced that when something is already this good, small tweaks can make it just that much better. The port to Switch, while some necessary compromises were made, largely plays great. It's also completely appropriate - unless you consider hitting a pedestrian to deserve a penalty higher than nine seconds, or consider driving off of a cliff violent. If you have any interest in rally racing games, WRC 9 should easily be on your short list to check out.