It's sort of odd how next gen has arrived without that launch staple, the flagship first-party driving game (though Dirt 5 does represent with its fun arcade excess) - though there's no shortage of decent driving games to play for Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 on day one. In fact, if you're up for something a bit more sim-minded, two of the best examples to grace a console aren't just there waiting for you - they're a damn sight better than they were last time around, with one of them showing off the amazing potential of the DualSense to boot.
WRC 9 and Assetto Corsa Competizione are available for both the new Xbox consoles and the PlayStation 5, with WRC 9 benefitting from bespoke next-gen versions that come as free upgrades for existing players, while Competizione simply benefits from the added power of the new machines. I'll be reserved in my praise for Assetto Corsa Competizione, because many of the problems that plagued the console version at launch - spotty wheel support in particular - are still an issue, but there's no such reserve when it comes to praising its fundamentals.
The extra performance on next gen is simply transformative, and at 60fps on Series X and PS5 (give or take a few frames on the Xbox) it's easy to appreciate handling that's as good as it gets, when it comes to GT cars at least. Coming off the back of a solid few months spent with my primary sim iRacing, it's something else - there's that bit more flex in the tire model, combining with an evolving track that also includes wet weather for best-in-class handling. To have access to that on a console is quite the thing.
WRC 9 similarly benefits from a boost to 60fps on PS5 and Series X, and again it's a transformative thing when it comes to handling dynamics. This is a fairly mild iteration on Kylotonn's brilliant WRC 8, though the iteration does come in all the right places - there's a visual and audio overhaul that's even more impressive on next gen, and new stages in New Zealand, Japan and Kenya (a free update also introduced a few new stages to the always entertaining, freakishly fast Finnish rally too). A lot like Assetto Corsa Competizione, dynamic weather combined with a mastery of translating the magic that happens when a tire interacts with various road surfaces is where WRC 9 really comes alive.
On PlayStation 5, WRC 9's got a helping hand with the DualSense, Sony's handsomely featured new controller, and it's a bit of a game-changer. Force feedback has often played a big part in driving games - my first experience of a DualShock, like many others I'm sure, came when rippling across the kerbs of the original Gran Turismo - so it's only right that the best DualSense workout I've experienced outside of Astro's Playroom comes here. There's a nuance and added fidelity here that, if explored a bit more fully, could be as transformative for driving games as the shift from 30fps to 60fps.
That's because so much of driving isn't just about how far you press the loud pedal and how quickly you spin the steering wheel - it's about feel, that seat of the pants sensation that can be such a struggle for traditional control methods to replicate. I'm not suggesting WRC 9 gets all the way there, or that it's an effective replacement for an expensive direct drive wheel and loadcell brake, but it makes some convincing moves in the right direction.
The build-up of tire resistance is a more tangible thing - on tarmac the breaking of traction feels suitably rubbery given the purity of the contact there, while on gravel you'll feel that looser surface sliding under your fingertips too - in a pretty convincing approximation of the feeling you'd typically get through your bottom in a real car. The adaptive triggers also play their part - snatch a brake and you'll feel the wheel locking under your finger, and there's that extra resistance on the left trigger than there is on the right in deference to the feel of a real brake and throttle pedal. There's not quite the amount of resistance I'd really like to see, but it's able to communicate a fair bit more than your standard controller about what the car's doing.
That brake pedal can also seize up after you've punished the car a bit too much, as can the throttle - if your car's shagged, you'll feel it in the rumbles and groans of your pad as you nurse it home - and before you reached that point there are some enjoyable subtle signs of mechanical strain pushed through the DualSense. There are those exhaust pops and turbo flutters, but what I love are the little recurring knocks that subtly suggest something could go wrong if pushed too much further. Great driving games are about enabling a dialogue between the player and the car, and with the DualSense I don't think the vocabulary has ever been so broad.
There is an inconsistency to WRC 9's use of the DualSense that's holding it back a little - I'd also warn you that I was unable to get it working with my Fanatec wheel on both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, despite other games supporting the set fine, and there being Fanatec ads plastered all over WRC 9 - and it feels like a work in progress rather than the finished article. What it doesn't feel like, though, is a gimmick - there's meaningful stuff being done here, and I'm super excited to see where other driving game devs take the DualSense technology in the future.
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