With a beautiful handling model, much-improved visuals and a savvy use of the official licence, WRC 8 is a triumph.
Forget 0-60 - if you want to go from sitting idly on your sofa to a state of pure focus as fast as a turbo-charged Toyota Yaris WRC goes from a standstill to breaking the national speed limit, then there's really no better fix than your common garden rally game. Nothing else asks so much of its players, busying them with a relentless succession of turns and ever-changing terrain. It's an improbable sport - I still can't quite believe people are allowed to thread weaponised hatchbacks around narrow country roads at such speed - that makes for almost impossibly challenging games, and I love both all the more for it.
With Codemasters hitting a purple patch with Dirt Rally and its sequel - for my money some of the very best takes on the sport I've had the pleasure of playing - it's a good time to pound some badly-maintained roads, and Kylotonn's joining the party with WRC 8. It's a significant year for the series, having taken a year away and returning from its break revitalised and refreshed. In fact, having personally only kept a watching brief on Kylotonn's tenure on the series since it signed up with WRC 5, it feels like a different series entirely.
Well, that's not quite true, as the new direction that WRC 8 pursues can't help but bring to mind Codemasters' own recent successes. Like Dirt Rally, this is a more serious-minded affair that leans more towards authenticity than accessibility. And, like Dirt Rally, it's all the better for the approach.
There's an awful lot to love about WRC 8's handling model, even if the hard edges ensure it's not a pursuit for the faint of heart. Firstly, it translates well to a gamepad, where the all-important feeling of weight and shifting levels of grip are translated neatly enough, even if the fidelity isn't quite there to save you in moments of real peril. A proper wheel is required to fully unlock WRC 8's potential - and to give your forearms a decent workout, too - and it's here you'll discover the real strengths of what Kylotonn has achieved.
The force feedback works well, from the rollcage-rattling clunk of an upshift, or how you can feel the resistance of any given road surface build up in its own distinct way as you slip sideways. This is a very communicative brand of driving, which is good as you're always engaged in conversation with the handling model - and, when careering towards a cliff-face at well over a tonne, quite often trying to talk your way out of trouble.
It feels, in short, fantastic, whether you're taming one of the limited number of vintage machines or getting the front end of a FWD R2 Fiesta to dig in to establish any semblance of grip. These things dance, and there's such pleasure in finding that elegant balance through steering via the throttle, cradling it this way and that to keep the rear wheels teetering inches away from the edge of oblivion.
A good handling model is nothing without some stages to pit it against, and on this front WRC 8 delivers. There's real variety in the mix, all inspired by the WRC's own calendar, and a neat sense of craft to the selection, going from takes on classics such as the sweeping El Condor to Harju's twisting makeshift run around the streets of a Finnish town. They're all enlivened by the addition of dynamic weather this time out, skies darkening over the course of a stage, perhaps, that then breaks into a late storm.
There's real beauty here too, found when sending your front wheels clipping through a patch of heather or seeing the late afternoon sun diffusing through dense forests before it splashes out across the wet tarmac. There's beauty, then, but not quite the performance as some of its peers, with it failing to hit 60fps as smoothly as Dirt Rally 2.0. That means an obvious knock-on effect with the feel of the thing - though it's not as if it ever feels bad.
If Dirt Rally informs a lot of what happens behind the wheel, elsewhere Codemasters' F1 series is a source of inspiration, with WRC 8's career mode borrowing heavily from F1. It's not without quirks of its own, the garage presented Sims-style as those you employ in your expanding empire pottering about the factory. Historic races feature - though bear in mind that the historic content is rather limited here, kept in balance by the generous amount of officially licensed cars and drivers that are also available.
It's also enjoyably brutal - or, rather, it is if you're a little short of talent when behind the wheel. My first short season, I managed to disappoint my employee Ford so greatly they gave me one stern warning then sent me packing. I failed, and had a wonderful time doing so.
Maybe that's because all that loving detail that brings WRC 8 to life. It's only small things - like how you wipe your screen clean after its muddied, a satisfying smear clearing a field of vision. Or how the story of your escapades are smeared all over the battered bodywork of your car as it sits in the service station and you deliberate how best to use the 45 minutes allotted to you for repairs, and where best to apply all that gaffer tape.
There's a lot to like about WRC 8, and after this Kylotonn should be seen as a serious contender for those who take their pretend racing seriously. There are shortcomings, of course - the presentation is lacking in some places, and the stages suffer from some inconsistency when it comes to production values, while there's also the concern of WRC 8 infringing on Dirt Rally's territory rather than going its own way. But this delivers a simulation with its own character, its own sensibilities, and you know what? Having two decent rally games on the market really isn't a bad problem to have.