When it was first announced that French developer Kylotonn Games was taking over the WRC series from Milestone, rally game fans weren’t exactly rejoicing. At the time, the Paris-based developer, which has since been rebranded as Kylotonn Racing to reflect the studio becoming a specialist racing game developer, was best known for the critically panned Motorcycle Club, which is considered as one of the worst racing games released this generation.
Fortunately, those fears were unfounded because the WRC license is now in the very capable hands of a team that's clearly passionate about the world of rally. Released in 2015, WRC 5 was a commendable first effort considering the team was under enormous pressure to develop everything from scratch, but the short 18-month development time meant that some aspects suffered. Stages were unrealistically wide, the visuals were subpar, and the handling was approachable for casual players but left simulation fans disappointed.
Released just a year later, WRC 6 improved on WRC 5’s shortcomings with vastly improved stage designs, graphics and car handling, but there was still room for improvement. With WRC 7, Kylotonn is now starting to hit its stride. Released during an extremely competitive time in the racing genre, this year's WRC 7 was one of the best surprises of the year that built on its predecessors, providing a fan-pleasingly authentic rallying experience that not only made it the best game in the series yet but one of the best rally games released in years. One of the key factors that make WRC 7 so fun to play is its sheer intensity, thanks to Kylotonn's focus on ramping up the realism. “Enhancing the rally experience by pushing the game as close as possible to the real rally experience was our main focus on WRC 7,” Game Director Alain Jarniou explains.
“It’s a complex alchemy involving car physics, level design and visuals. The development time was quite short but WRC 7 is the third game in the series to be developed by Kylotonn studios. This is a precious experience for the studio and the opportunity to use the feedback of the community about the previous versions. Combining all the information and our will to improve the game in the most significant way, we decided to mainly focus on the core gameplay to enhance the rally experience.” To achieve this, Kylotonn focused on improving three key aspects of the game: the cars, level designs, and visuals. “By focusing on those main aspects of the game and enhancing tools used by an experienced team, we built a WRC game with the objective to renew the rally experience. We wanted the game to feel very different from the previous entry: more realistic, more challenging, and more representative of rallying.”
For the past few years, the cars that competed in the WRC weren’t the most exciting the sport has ever seen. This year was different, however. For the 2017 season, new regulations meant that the current cars are the most powerful they've ever been in nearly 30 years, harking back to the notorious Group B era. Volkswagen also unexpectedly pulled out of the championship last year, making this year the most exciting era of WRC in a long time. As a result, the cars featured in WRC 7 are much more exhilarating to drive, presenting new challenges for seasoned players. “These new cars are more aggressive by design, more powerful and agiler,” Jarniou explains. “Their handling provides a new driving experience. WRC 2017 cars are amazing: they add a new dimension for gameplay in rally games. With more power (380-hp instead of the previous 300-hp) and more agility, the new cars feel different. Braking points and steering is different, but the overall techniques are still the same, with more sensations."
"This year we introduced the possibility to set up the car on the start line of a stage. The setup system has also been re-balanced, so it provides a wider range of settings. Every player has the possibility to easily change the setup of the car to fit their preferences, like a real driver. That’s something we experimented with actual WRC drivers, and it really allows us to finetune the cars. It’s a very powerful tool.”
New car specifications meant that Kylotonn had to revise the physics engine from past games in WRC 7. “We needed to enhance the physics engine and rethink our physics design,” says Jarniou. “Even doing so, when we tested the first setups we made with WRC drivers and engineers they told us ‘it must brake harder, push more, and turn more!’ We then had to push the physics engine further, keeping in mind that there was a risk that it could feel more arcadey. But finally, with a good knowledge of the new generation of cars and a solid physics engine, we came up with a realistic handling model. It might feel easier, but mixed with the new level design it’s deeper than what we ever made for the WRC series: it's ‘easy to learn but hard to master.’”
These physics enhancements have made WRC 7 steer closer to the simulation side of the spectrum: cars feel noticeably heavier and are more challenging to drive at the limit. This poses a risk of alienating casual rally fans, since officially licensed games are usually designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. “We also provide driving aids, depending on the level of difficulty the player chooses after the driving test. They will help casual gamers drive a rally car, but I’m certain they will quickly change the settings for a more realistic experience and enjoy it.”
As fun as this year’s powerful cars are to tame, WRC 7 still doesn’t feature any historic rally cars – unlike some of its competitors like DiRT 4 and Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo which feature both classic and contemporary rally cars. Unfortunately, this is an obvious constraint of developing an annual licensed game, but past WRC games have included iconic vintage rally cars like the Lancia Stratos, Subaru Impreza and Audi Quattro S1. Codemasters also found success reintroducing historic racecars in F1 2017, so covering multiple eras of the WRC seems like a logical direction for Kylotonn to explore in future titles.
“That’s something we’re often asked about,” Jarniou admits. “Keep in mind that the WRC series games are mainly focused on the current season of the championship. It is a very important point for the rally fans, especially this year with the exclusivity of the new 2017 WRC cars. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to experience their new sensations – some say it’s the return of Group B cars, but with the safety that modern cars can provide. Even if WRC7 is not about historical cars, we added the possibility to drive 2016 WRC cars so the player can compare them with the new ones. That’s another step forward for the introduction of historical cars in the game. Nevertheless, we hear this demand.”
As well as the physics, one of the most improved aspects of WRC 7 is the exceptional stage designs. DiRT 4 released this year may boast an unlimited number of procedurally generated stages, but they were often flat, uninspiring and repetitive. WRC 7’s stages, on the other hand, are bumpy, brutally unforgiving and often incredibly narrow, forcing you to navigate through tricky sections barely wider than your car. It helps evoke a sense of danger and unpredictability that’s sometimes lacking in other rally games – these tight and technical stages often make DiRT Rally, a game that’s renowned as one of the most hardcore rally simulations on the market, look tame. “Those new cars deserve adapted and more realistic level design. All the stages have been redefined for a more intense driving experience. Roads are bumpier, and borders are closer and more dangerous. Level design was redone for every gameplay aspect,“ Jarniou explains.
While the stages in WRC 5 and 6 were often too short, WRC 7 introduces new Epic Stages that can take up to 20 minutes to conquer. These endurance stages test your driving skills like few racing games released this year, providing some of the most intense and challenging stages of any rally game. “We designed every country with three fundamental ideas in mind: make it realistic, make it unique and tell a story," Jarniou explains. "Following those three rules, level designers and level builders worked closely together. They share a huge database of references on every aspect of the actual countries, from official sources and online. If we want to immerse the player, our team needs to be immersed while creating the game. How did we know if we succeeded? When rally drivers and WRC engineers we worked with told us they really felt like they were in the actual country.”
As with previous games in the series, Kylotonn consulted with real rally drivers to make WRC 7’s driving physics and stage designs as authentic as possible. “We worked closely with professional drivers like Sébastien Chardonnet, who help us on every step of the game's production,” says Jarniou. “Many WRC drivers had the opportunity to give us feedback on the game. They sometimes came to our studio or spent time playing the game in the service park of actual rallies. It was particularly important for us to have their feedback this year with the new 2017 WRC competition cars."
"We also had the chance to work with a professional WRC engineer, who is also a racing games fan. He knows everything about WRC cars from a technical point of view and is also an enthusiastic gamer and driver. He worked closely with our designers. I can tell they speak the same language and work with the same parameters – I was impressed by the efficiency of the work we made together.”
The game visuals and performance were the other main aspects that Kylotonn focused on improving in WRC 7, both of which were criticised for being underwhelming in WRC 5 and 6. “At Kylotonn, we use our in-house game engine. We’re evolving it all the time for every game. Since we exclusively make racing games, this is an extraordinary advantage compared to third-party engines. We can develop the features that are important for that particular genre such as cars, roads, landscapes and vegetation.”
Being the third game in the series developed by Kylotonn, the team has now gained vital experience to optimise the engine. WRC 5 and 6 suffered from variable frame rates on consoles, but this has now been rectified in WRC 7 resulting in a more refined experience. “The WRC 7 team was a good mix of people that have been working on the series for years and people coming from other games like FlatOut 4: Total Insanity. They know about the game engine, the tools and racing games,” says Jarniou.
“We focused on what is very important for a rally game: physics, roads and borders shapes, landscapes and lighting. “Finally, by combining a better game engine, a very good knowledge of the technology and a lot of time optimizing, we were able to guaranty a consistent frame-rate for WRC7, even in split-screen modes and on epic stages.”
WRC 7’s audio design has also received similar improvements. While still not class-leading, cars in WRC 7 sound more realistic than before. “The sounds of the cars have been changed (this was, of course, mandatory for the new generation of cars this year) and the mix of all the sound sources that make a car engine sound has been corrected so it feels more aggressive and realistic. It doesn’t only involve engine sounds, but environment sounds (depending on the surface) have also been enhanced.” Subtle environmental effects such as stones pelting against the bodywork of your car add to the immersion and intensity.
Sadly, the robotic co-driver audio has not been changed in WRC 7. Crucially, however, the pace notes are more accurate than previous WRC games. “All the pace notes on every special stage have been redone to give you more accurate information. We’ve enhanced our tools and our designers did all that work with the help of a professional driver on their side.”
Codemasters released the acclaimed DiRT Rally VR update this year, but the WRC series has yet to enter the dimension of virtual reality. For an annual series like WRC, implementing VR simply requires too many resources for a platform with a limited audience. That said, Kylotonn did experiment with VR in WRC 6, but an update hasn't been publically released – at least not yet. “The VR that we tested with WRC 6 is still an option we keep in mind, but we have no plan for WRC 7,” Jarniou confirms. “We are taking into account the fact that it drastically increases the development time (especially to get the right balance between visual quality and a very high frame rate), and also that it is very difficult for most players to stay focused for a long time in VR.”
The surprise success of the hybrid Nintendo Switch console has also allowed developers to provide console-quality gameplay experiences on-the-go – something the ill-fated PlayStation Vita promised but ultimately failed to deliver due to a lack of support from Sony, which caused third-party developers to abandon the system. WRC has a history with handheld releases: Milestone’s WRC 3 and 4 were ported to the PlayStation Vita, as was Kylotonn’s WRC 5. WRC 6 wasn’t released on the portable console, but the increasing popularity of the Switch has led to racing game developers porting some of this year’s releases to the system. Milestone, for example, will soon be releasing a Nintendo Switch version of MXGP 3, while indie developer VooFoo Studios will be porting its top-down racer Mantis Burn Racing. Could future WRC games also have a future on Nintendo Switch? It would certainly help fill the void of serious racing games on the platform right now, but the limited power of the hardware may mean that the visual fidelity would have to be severely compromised. We’ve seen this with recent third-party releases like Doom, which still manages to be a technical showcase despite the graphical downgrade.
“Nintendo, as it always does, has provided us with a new way of playing – this is very interesting,” says an intrigued Jarniou. “We are looking into this platform to see how it can fit our games in general. We’re still investigating the Switch platform. First, we must find good matches with the game experience. Technically, the device is quite different to other platforms on the market. It is exciting to see what’s behind it and the possibilities it provides. In terms of usage, it is also something quite new – gameplay will surely need some adaptation, but it's a good opportunity to rethink the driving experience.”