WRC 9 versus Dirt Rally 2.0 on controller

Thoughts from an experienced sim racer

5 September 2020
Played on Windows

First up, why not a steering wheel? I've been playing racing games for a long time, and have my own wheel and pedals for the PC. I don't want to have to get them out for a quick splash on a rally game, so I've always favoured using a controller.

That's not to say controllers are "better". Just that I'm willing to take the "hit" of a controller for a game like WRC 9 whereas for a purer simulation like Assetto Corsa or iRacing I would plug in the wheel.

TL;DR

Avoid this game on PC unless you have a steering wheel and you're prepared to use it. Read below for more detailed info, but it's almost unplayable on controller, due to very very dumb design decisions.

It's almost an exact copy/paste of WRC 8, the previous year's game, so if you already got that one, there's almost nothing for you here.

The Good

  • Lots of content, cars, and stages included

The Bad

  • Pretty much the exact same game as WRC 8
  • Controller input with this game is whaaaack
  • Physics seem to have been made up on the spot
  • Lazy stage design and modelling
  • Collision hit boxes are laughable

Don't buy this if you bought WRC 8

First up, if you already own WRC 8, there's almost no reason to spend full price on this game, unless you are a die-hard arcade rally fanatic. Very very little has been added to the game this time around. It's pretty shameful really, how little has been changed.

I can only think that perhaps developers Kylotonn felt like they put so much effort into the fairly widely praised WRC 8 that they took this year off and didn't turn up.

This game feels like a $5-10 addon for WRC 8, but is sold as a full price title. That, and the cost of WRC 8 on Windows hasn't been reduced very much since last year (thanks a lot, Epic Games).

If you don't own either title, WRC 9 is definitely the one to go for, but read on, first!

Technical stuff ahead

This is quite a technical article from someone who understands cars, driving physics, and handling inside out and has been doing "the sim racing thing" for many years.

If you're looking for a bit of arcade fun and you're not too fussed about the technical details, feel free to read another review, like this one from DriveTribe!

Anyway, just so you know, I'm playing this on Windows 10 with a Core i9, 32 GB RAM and a GTX 1080 Ti. I set it to 1920 x 1080 resolution in a fullscreen borderless window, and I'm using a wireless Xbox 360 controller.

Controller centering

This is the fundamental issue with playing WRC 9 and the main reason why I think it's absolutely and completely broken at the moment.

Compromises have to be made when you're playing with a controller. In a real car, it's impossible to turn the steering wheel all the way to the left in a fraction of a second, but on a controller, it's pretty common.j

Most games (ahem, Gran Turismo Sport nails it) will actually take this into account with their driving physics, in that, flicking the controller's analog stick all the way to the left, but only for a fraction of a second, will be interpreted by the game as a "slight movement" of the wheel, not literally turning the wheel left through several rotations and then back, in the blink of an eye.

I can't understand why, but for whatever reason, Kylotonn have decided to "make up" for controllers not being exactly like steering wheels, by adding a "slow-centering" system to controller inputs.

This means that, if you move the analog stick all the way to the left, and then let go, the steering wheel will not move immediately back to the middle. Instead, it will continue steering to the left for a bit. This is less than a second by my estimation but it makes a huge difference.

This is exactly the opposite of what you want in a controller game. The result is awful. It means that the slightest touch on the analog stick will send the car into a huge sideways movement, but in order to correct this, you can't simply let off the analog stick, because the steering won't straighten right away, it sort of "lags behind" a bit.

The natural reaction to this, as a player, is to flick the analog stick to the right, to get some countersteering and try to avert the slide. However, it's way too easy to apply full right lock, meaning you over-countersteer, and then left, and then... you end up in a classic pendulum, which is something an experienced driver (with a steering wheel) can easily avoid.

In fact, most driving games that support controllers will compensate for this. I can't actually remember the last one that didn't.

It's absolutely inexplicable to me that Kylotonn have messed this up so badly on PC. I hope it's not the same at all on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but I didn't try those ones out.

Controller setup

Controller setup would usually be where I'd adjust this sort of thing. The default steering is way too sensitive, and I don't want it to return to the center gradually. I want it to be immediate.

Unfortunately, the settings page won't help. My game was automatically set to minimum sensitivity on the steering, so I couldn't actually lower it any further, which was infuriating. Any higher and farting on the analog stick would be able to turn the car.

There's also no linearity settings, no centering settings, and the scant few settings for analog controller sticks are pretty much useless.

The worst crime is that this "slow centering" problem isn't shown in the controller setup menu. It will show you the analog stick movement, and how it maps to steering wheel movement, given your saturation settings, and sensitivity, but it's a big fat lie! This doesn't relate to the way the car behaves while you're driving it.

Out of control(ler)

The good news is, there's a tiny workaround, in that, I was able to change some of the options in the car setup to slightly compensate for this. I found that stiffening the suspension and applying a little bit of diff lock would improve things, but still nowhere near enough to make driving feel anything like pleasant.

The feel of the car varies, with front wheel drive being easiest to control, all wheel drive harder, and rear wheel drive almost impossible with a controller. This is because, of course, in a rear wheel slide, you want to be able to control the countersteer, not have the wheel instantly snap in the other direction like the Hulk is your co-driver and he felt like taking over for a while.

User interface woes

On PC, the controller flat out doesn't work with the user interface and menus sometimes. For example, sometimes, you'll have to visit the "crew" screen, to pick or recruit crew members, and then back out of that menu, back to the one before.

But, instead of "crew" still being highlighted when you back out, like any rational person would expect, nothing is highlighted, and you have to move all the way from the bottom of the menu back up to where you want to go.

Even worse, in the event calendar, it's actually not possible to move the selection to the "next event" and choose an event. It's literally the only part of that page you can actually interact with, and the controller simply refuses to do it.

Luckily, we're on PC, so we have a mouse, but it's still shoddy and cheap, and any full price title should be picking this sort of thing up in playtesting and fixing it before release.

Controller conclusions

If you're just here for the controller stuff, there it is. I highly recommend either waiting for an official patch to fix the atrocious way steering is handled on a controller, or avoiding this title altogether. It's a shame as well because there's a lot to like, but as you'll find out below, there's plenty of other issues that, even if the controller stuff gets patched, make me hesitant to recommend WRC 9 to anyone who has the slightest knowledge of car physics.

Physics

Car and handling physics is crucial to the driving feel of any game, but this is another area where WRC 9 is way off the mark. Cars just feel floaty and weightless. The original Dirt Rally had this issue as well, but one of the reasons I really took a shine to Dirt Rally 2.0 was Codemasters' commitment to fixing it by making the car feel attached to the road surface.

All of this is speculation, because we're not privvy to the methods used by Kylotonn to develop the game, but it very much feels to me like the car is being modelled as a single point in space rather than four tyres interacting with the road surface.

It doesn't seem to matter what each individual tyre is doing, or where the weight of the car is distributed. It's a kind of Mario Kart handling model. There's a point at which the tyres will lose traction, and, at that point, all the surfaces seem to behave like ice. Cars also feel like they're initially moving in the opposite direction to the actual turn, a bit like when you "hop" to initiate a Mario Kart power slide.

This "opposite direction" feeling is likely down to the point at which traction is broken being far too soon compared to real world physics. In a real car, even on a very loose surface, the initial part of any turn will happen with the tyres maintaining grip with the road, up until the point where friction is no longer possible, and the slide will happen gradually, the greater the angle of the car, the greater the loss of friction.

Instead, in WRC 9, friction seems to be an on/off switch, and you're either gripping the road or you're sliding, with nothing in the middle to fill the gap.

Asphalt is grippy gravel

In the real world, of course, asphalt (tarmac) is its own type of surface. It's what pretty much all tyres were designed to stick to. Not so, in WRC 9. I suspect there's just a "grippiness" slider behind the scenes, in the game's code, being turned down very low for ice and very high for asphalt.

In-game, asphalt behaves exactly like a really grippy sort of gravel. This is absolutely the laziest approach and the worst for players, because on asphalt, in the real world, tyres will noticeably scrub before they break traction, giving that vital warning that you're pushing the car too far. This is entirely missing from WRC 9 (again, something I criticised the original Dirt Rally for, and something massively improved for Dirt Rally 2.0).

So asphalt ends up behaving like "gravel with less warning", because speeds are higher, and often, as is the case with the Monte Carlo Rally, the stages are narrow with sheer rock and stone barriers.

You get what you pay for

It's tempting to call this next criticism "laziness" but it's more accurate to say it's trading time for quality.

In WRC 9, the road surface for an entire stage is almost always exactly the same width, except where the level designers "change the width" at which point, the next stretch of road maintains this new width.

Then, at the exact edge of this "road" part, there's always either a raised or lowered "edge", exactly where the left or right side of the road stops, and this is a great sign that short cuts were taken designing levels.

Think about it in the real world. Although hard "edges" to roads are common when you're out driving on asphalt, they're hardly ever seen on other road surfaces. The edge is often just where plants have grown to, or where the smaller rocks are collected, and it's almost never at a totally different height than the edge of the road.

Road surfaces in WRC 9 are always smooth, left to right. They can undulate up or down, but there's never ruts or grooves cut into the cross-section of the road. Sure, there's textures that seem to indicate ruts or potholes, but you'll drive over them as smooth as butter on a baby's face.

This is all done to save time when designing the kilometres and kilometres of stage needed to fill a game like this. Again, I'm speculating, but it seems to me like a designer has drawn a line to "create" the road surface, always at the same width, with no cross-sectional bumps, and then the level editing tool has done a lot of the work automatically.

Sure, trees, bushes, barriers and other street furniture have been manually placed along the stages, but the end result is a very inorganic, unrealistic feel to off-road driving.

One of the huge improvements in Dirt Rally 2.0 was the organic feel to the left and right road edges, which seamlessly transitioned into the surrounding environment, meaning that sometimes you could get away with sliding wide, or cutting where you saw an opportunity, or made a small mistake.

The end result for WRC 9 is that as soon as any part of the car leaves the road surface, you're going to crash, and you're probably going to roll the car over. This is because of that inorganic feel; there's always a rough height transition at the edge of the road. There doesn't need to be, as adequately proven by Dirt Rally 2.0, but to save time creating stages, it was just easier to do this in WRC 9, to the detriment of the experience for the player.

Co-driving me insane

Let's face it: if WRC 9's co-driver had joined a real rally team with me, I would have fired him after the first stage. I think Kylotonn have decided they wanted him to never shut up, and he's constantly blurting out overly complicated pace notes for absolutely no reason, just to have something to say.

Rather than tell you "five right long tightens to three", he will needlessly say something like "five right tightens braking to three right short opens" or something similar, which, quite frankly, no real-world co-driver would ever do.

Worse, there's crucial notes missing, such as missing a "slow" or "caution" before a jump that is immediately followed by a corner. He just doesn't take into account the speeds that different cars will be doing, so while this is fine early in your career in a slower car, the missing instruction is guaranteed to get you thrown out of the windscreen in the faster vehicles.

"Realistic" damage is as realistic as the physics

I was excited when I first saw the option to use "realistic" damage, as opposed to "high" or "low" or the other settings.

Now to me, and you might say I'm being aspirational or ridiculous here, but when I see the word realistic as an option, I expect that it is... wait for it... realistic.

realistic (adj.): representing things in a way that is accurate and true to life.

Cool, okay, so imagine my surprise when I accidentally slammed into a tree at 60 mph and the car got a minor scratch at the front.

This might be a simple case of naming the settings poorly, but don't put "realistic" if it's nothing of the sort. What's "realistic" in French? Does it mean "not at all realistic"? Je ne sais pas...

The damage model is totally whack overall, with very little noticeable effect on the car until you reach a certain level of damage, and then the car's performance drops off a cliff (even if your car itself hasn't).

The areas in which your car takes damage have absolutely no effect on the damage your car sustains, so it's just "generic damage". If you take heavy damage to the right rear of the car, you would expect (or at least, I would) that the right rear suspension plays up, or you get a puncture on that quarter.

Instead, in WRC 9, this is just as likely to cause "transmission damage" for some reason, which just means "it takes ages to change gear".

After a few serious knocks, your car is just reduced to a snail, and the entire stage becomes boring. This is immensely unrealistic, and just shows that short cuts have been taken in development. Instead, I'd expect the car's handling to be affected, or other aspects of its driving physics. Again, to lean on Dirt Rally 2.0, your car might end up having a hard time with right turns in that game, owing to certain damage, for example.

Magic AI drivers

So imagine my surprise, when I'm having a very close super special stage (SSS) race against the AI car, and we cross the line almost at the same time, and I get taken to the results screen.

Who won the stage? Did I clinch it by a tenth? Maybe the AI took it by a hundredth?

No, you're wrong, don't be silly, that would make too much sense. I won the stage by fourteen seconds. The AI driver on screen bears absolutely no relation to what the game decides the results will be.

AI drivers never DNF and although there's a setting for "broken down cars appear", I've yet to see a single other competitor in any stage.

The AI is not artificial intelligence; it's just someone has programmed the computer to come up with random numbers. It's super lazy, bears no resemblance to reality, and is really disappointing when your on-screen competitor doesn't actually exist when it comes to the results screen.

AI drivers are atrociously inconsistent as well, sometimes gapping you by ten seconds on a stage you thought you aced, and sometimes falling more than 30 seconds behind despite your multiple crashes and rollovers.

I suspect it was just too much effort for Kylotonn to simulate, or even partially simulate, any given driver's form, historical performance, or ability on different road surfaces, and someone said "fuck it, use RNG, nobody will notice".

Subjectivity in all things

I do admit, driving in video games is highly subjective. I see iRacing as the gold standard, the closest thing to the real world, but that's because I've done a lot of driving, fast and slow, in a lot of cars, on a lot of surfaces.

Who's to say what "right" is here though? Maybe it's good enough to develop a game that feels as though it's what real driving might feel like to the average person?

Apple famously made the random function on the iPod less random in response to customer feedback that it didn't feel random enough. People's own interpretation of how random should feel was wrong, but Apple told them ignorance is bliss and let them get on with it.

The point is that to me, WRC 9 is a hugely arcadey-feeling rally game, but that doesn't mean everyone will hate it. Some people might turn it on, believe this is actually how real cars respond to real road surfaces, enjoy the game, and never know differently.

I'm not saying those people are "wrong". (I mean, they are literally, factually, completely wrong.) If this is what pleases the masses, who are we sim racers to tell them otherwise?

Quality and price

A lot of people were quick to criticise Codemasters' business model with Dirt Rally 2.0. It came with 6 rally locations, and pretty much all of the others were provided as paid DLC.

Instead, WRC 9 provides a huge number of locations and cars, out of the box, ready to go. On paper it seems like we have a clear winner, but hold your horses there buddy, let's take a closer look.

I'd argue that the paid DLC locations in Dirt Rally 2.0 are the result of the time and effort that goes into developing a realistic(ish) rally location, and you're paying for the quality. You get many more locations in WRC 9 for the base asking price, but they're all rushed and nowhere near the same quality.

I can see it both ways: I don't want to pay up for a "full game" and then buy drips of DLC adding up to several hundred quid, but I still want the best possible experience for my £40-50.

This is where it comes down to sim versus simcade. WRC 9 is sim enough for the average gamer, and good enough quality that the wheels don't fall off. It's also basically one single, full-price game, no need to pay more.

Dirt Rally 2.0 is much more towards the sim end of the spectrum, when words like "simcade" and "average gamer" aren't enough. Yes, you pay much more because you need to buy all those extra locations and cars, but you get a much more true-to-life experience in many ways.

The cost of doing business?

It's a shame then, having discussed all of the above, that WRC 9 is such a cynical product. It's gone and done a FIFA. It's WRC 8 with a few little tweaks. It's hugely disappointing, from a consumer perspective.

There's no need for it, in my opinion. Either release an upgraded version of WRC 8 as paid DLC, or release a full game. Don't dress up your minor upgrade as a new full price game and wax lyrical about doing deals with Fanatec like you're a big shot.

The reason I think it's such a shame is that I think Kylotonn knew they could sit back and release a minor update, spending their development time on Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown instead. If they'd put the effort in, tidied up the autogenerated stages a bit, introduced proper tyre-based physics and handling, or, you know, even changed the career mode slightly instead of copy/pasting from last year, this game would be up there.

Instead, it's a meh from me, and a really big meh if you want to play on a controller, the kind that won't leave you alone at night, pestering your dreams about that £50 you'll never get back.

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