Annual games have a bit of a reputation for rehashing the same old thing year after year with only minor improvements. Some say it’s a license to print money. Rally is hardly in the mainstream, however, and neither is developer Kylotonn’s approach to the FIA World Rally Championship. With significant strides made with each new release, this is one series that has bucked the trend. It may not draw the crowds of other motorsports, but for pure gameplay, you cannot beat a good rally sim. And WRC 9 is a great rally sim.

Make no mistake, this is no poor man’s DiRT Rally; neither is it an arcade-oriented alternative focused on accessibility. You can switch the difficulty toggles in the settings all you like, turn on traction control and the anti-lock breaking system, but you still have to navigate these overpowered hatchbacks down some of the most demanding off-road tracks from across the globe.

It’s worth pointing out that this is purely focused on traditional point-to-point rallying, and within this it offers all of the modes you would want – daily, weekly, and monthly events with online leaderboards, multiplayer lobbies, and even a new Club mode, enabling you to rank up alongside your buddies in a series of online events. Not online? No problem, because this is precisely where WRC 9 shines the most, and not just because it includes a local split-screen mode.

Just like its direct competitor, WRC 9 is a challenging simulator that rewards the patient but committed fan. As a single player experience, it even exceeds its contemporary in some crucial ways. In Career mode, you start out by signing for a team in the reduced Junior WRC. All teams at this level run front-wheel drive Ford Fiesta R2s, which are forgiving and fairly accommodating at easing you in. Throughout the season, you get opportunities to test drive cars from manufacturers in the higher four-wheel drive leagues. Impress them to increase your reputation with that firm, thereby improving your chances of receiving team offers and moving up the ranks through WRC 3, WRC 2 and eventually into the full WRC Championship. This allows you try out each of the cars and see which team takes your fancy for when the offers come rolling in.

Career mode is an all-hands-on-deck effort that requires you to manage your finances, objectives, crew, R&D upgrades, and even the events you take part in. Each event costs money to enter, but each type has the potential for different payouts in return. Some events increase your team morale, for instance, or allows you to practice in your team car, achieving objectives and providing you the opportunity to get to grips with its unique characteristics. Other events, such as historic races, are fun distractions that are challenging but with the potential for big payouts. Here you to take control of classic cars like the famous Group B Audi Quattro A2, which is about as difficult to tame as a lion, just as you would want it to be, and the Lancia Delta Integrale, which feels exactly how you would expect a car that dominated the sport in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to feel.

All of this is to say that WRC 9 handles absolutely beautifully. Gone are the early days of the series when cars were erratic, bouncing from side to side like a pinball machine. Now cars handle as you would expect, and they react to the environment and its elements. You’ll definitely want to make use of those extreme weather trials. During a heavy downpour in Germany, a river formed down one side of the road. You’ll soon learn to avoid that, carefully positioning your car away lest you spin out of control. Lighting has also massively improved over the last few entries, and while there’s no HDR in sight, there are still some beautiful vistas. Descending down the hillside into a valley of damp fog is often a beautiful thing. Just don’t look too closely at the foliage away from the track or you may notice some jagged edges.

As a fully licensed property, all the official branding and teams are present, alongside all 14 rallies. Some of these are making a return from prior games, so series regulars may recognise routes they’ve already been down. There are, however, also new additions, including Japan, Kenya, and New Zealand. While the developer has clearly mastered the layouts of some of its older countries, we did find some of the newer rallies to be of varying quality. The Kenyan Safari, for instance, has some dull sections that remind us somewhat of the rudimentary twitch-based course design of the original V-Rally. That other countries, such as Turkey, Sweden, Wales, and Monte Carlo, feel so spectacular and varied serves to heighten the disparity.

There are a couple of other minor complaints. We often have a hard time hearing the co-driver over the engine. We realise this is a sim and he is supposed to be wearing a helmet, but we’re not sure that the middle of an intense rally is the best time to perform Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. The game is also just a little too eager to punish you for veering off track. Warnings often pop up as soon as one side of the car touches the verge, and we’ve been given penalties for what we intended to be cute corner cuts, something that is usually encouraged and inconsistently punished.

But let’s not get too bogged down by these relatively minor issues. The majority of the time, WRC 9 is a breathtaking rally sim that has come leaps and bounds from where it was a few years ago. Out of the box, it’s a more complete single player point-to-point rally game than its competition. It just lacks a smidgen of finesse in a few small areas. However, if you love rally, we think you will want to board this rollercoaster time and time again.

Conclusion

WRC 9 continues the series' hot run of form with another year of keen improvements to handling, lighting, and layout design. With tons of content across a variety of multiplayer modes and timed challenges, it offers plenty to keep you returning for more. However, WRC 9 is at its finest as a single player rally game, offering the best rally career mode available. Despite a few rough edges, this offers some of the most compelling rally driving we’ve come across this generation. Given the level of competition, this is no mean feat.