Platforms PC (Console to be released 2016)
Reviewed On: PC
Review code provided free of charge by Codemasters.
The DiRT series has had its ups and downs since its inception. Spawning from the legendary Colin McRae Rally series the DiRT franchise began with innocent intentions of being the new evolution of rallying, but with DiRT 2 it took on a more bombastic approach, introducing a vibrant color palette and a tone that most would refer to as “Americanised.” or just plain, “annoying.” Then DiRT 3 came along and with it the sense that true rally had died, becoming just one small part in a package that now included gymkhana events and truck racing. DiRT Showdown was even more of a change, heading into destruction derby territory. None of these games were bad, to be fair, and in fact I still genuinely love DiRT 2 – they just weren’t really what people were looking for.
Hence the love-hate relationship that a lot of people, myself included, have with Codemasters. They consistently put out games that cover a variety of motorsports and were once one of the most cherished studios, but they also consistently don’t manage to deliver what we’re looking for. Their F1 series began strong but has slowly died, with recent entries failing to impress fans through their lack of innovation and loss of content. Now it seems Codemasters want to head back to their roots with DiRT Rally, the most serious game in the franchise since the first one, putting the emphasis on unforgiving handling and a sense of realism. Indeed, this is arguably Codemaster’s first true racing sim, the company always usually tending to opt for the more arcadey style. I’ve never driven a car at over 100mph in loose gravel and thus can’t truly comment on the game’s authenticity, but it certainly succeeds in making me feel like I’m screaming along narrow roads, even through the very limited feedback available on an Xb0x 360 controller. If you don’t know how to correctly shift the weight of your high-performance ride to perform a Scandinavian Flick then you’re going to have a bad time. It demands that you understand how weight transfer works, how difference surfaces affect handling and that you also have incredible reflexes to constantly micromanage the car as the steering bucks left and right like it’s possessed. During Early Access the game earned itself something of a reputation for being harsh to newcomers, and of essentially being the Dark Souls of racing games. It’s not quite that bad; approach the tracks with some caution and you’ll be fine. To get the best times and chase victories, though, you have to push hard, and at that point DiRT Rally will destroy those unwilling to master the nuanced handling model.
The myriad of cars available to the player convey sense of weight and power, their tyres digging into the various track surfaces that radically alter the handling, much more so than we often tend to see. Hammering around narrow asphalt roads is insanely different to feathering a screaming machine round snow-covered roads and patches of ice that suddenly send your car sliding into the scenery. Of course many games alter the handling of their vehicles as the surface type changes, but in many cases the differences feel far more subtle than they should, whereas in DiRT Rally each surface type forces you to adjust your driving style entirely to match. The higher class machines boast absurd speeds that make the thin tracks feel less like they’re drivable and more like they can only be completed by a maniac with a need for speed and at least five different nervous ticks. it’s exhilarating, tense stuff, arguably the most that I’ve ever felt in a digital representation of racing. With such tight tracks, loose surfaces and powerful cars you constantly feel like you’re on the very edge of control, fighting the conditions and the car itself for every inch of the track and every tenth of a second, with even the slight screw-up resulting in a devastating crash that makes full use of the impressive damage modelling. It only takes the back wheel tapping something sharp at the edge of the road for a puncture to occur, which can then result in the tyre blowing and one player trying to limp the car home as fast as possible. Constantly tiny tweaks to the steering are needed as these wonderfully designed tracks feature contours, jumps, awkward angles, bumps, hairpins and snow banks that try to suck the wheels into their icy embrace. Even on a straight you simply cannot relax. It’s…..it’s brilliant.
Damage heavily affects car performance, and it doesn’t take much to leave you trying to handle a wounded car around dangerous tracks that seem determined to leave you crippled for life, which is where most of the game’s intensity stems from. Just a fraction of concentration lost can result in the rear hitting a tree and real problems to deal with. Toss the car off the stage, which is likely given the game’s penchant for massive drops, and you’re given the option to recover it, but with a relatively hefty time penalty that will likely leave you lagging behind the leaders. Even restarting the entire stage results in a penalty as you lose some of your special “no restart” cash. Run out of this bonus and there’s no other penalties applied, but it’s enough to encourage you to restart as a little as possible. Retire from a stage and you’ll be disqualified from the entire event, which does seem just a little too harsh. Meanwhile the rewind system, the very feature that Codemasters popularised within racing, is nowhere to be found, removing a huge safety name that has become an integral part of most racing franchises on the market today. This is a racing game that wants you to deal with your mistakes rather than hide from them, although it is overly prone to destroying your tyres at the slightest provocation which can lead to a lot of frustration. The physics system does some weird things on the biggest jumps, too, sending the car too high and too far, but apart from that there’s never any doubt that a crash or a simple lack of speed is anything but your own fault.
It can be a little unforgiving for less experienced players, then, especially those who struggle to grasp that rallying is just as much about endurance as it is outright speed. Events are composed of multiple stages with the option to repair only appearing after every two, and thus a good finishing position often comes down to being smart enough to back off a little and bring the car home rather than push to make up that ten or twenty seconds. Hell, sometimes just making it to the end of one of the stages feels like you’ve been through a harrowing war, the twists, turns, contours, drop-offs, walls, jumps crests and narrow roads combining with the intense sensation of speed to create what is easily the most terrifying game I’ve played this year. A good horror film or game can give me some tingles, but DiRT has me sweating and cringing as I narrowly avoid flipping the car, or clipping a rock or falling down a cliff. I’d make the argument for a tutorial that at least helps newcomers get to grips with how a rally car should be driven as opposed to a more traditional machine on closed circuits, and to help them understand the barrage of instructions coming from the co-driver which can quickly become overwhelming. Without this a new player is going to likely end up feeling a bit annoyed, but the good news is that with a little perseverance they’ll become reasonably adept at piloting these deathtraps. There are some driver aids that can also be tweaked to make the handling model a touch more forgiving as well, but really it’s at its best when everything is turned off. Actually, scratch that, it’s at its best with all the aids off, the volume turned up and a full wheel setup.
All of this adds up to a very satisfying game to play, the slow and steady gain of skill driving you forward through each new championship. You don’t leap in and expect to claim victory in every stage, rather just capturing a podium feels like a genuine achievement. Speed comes with skill, and skill comes with time. The sense of raw speed and the on-the-edge nature of the handling have served to focus not only the game itself but the player, too.
Championship mode has a number multi-event rally championships to take part in across a variety of stages, starting with older, classic cars that help ease you into the action before earning enough cash to purchase machines that will shortly strip what little innocence you have left from your ragged corpse. Every two stages you’re given the chance to repair your car as well as adjust the setup using a detailed menu where everything from brake bias to can be changed in order to maximise performance. There’s also the more manic Rallycross to attempt as well as the supremely fast hillclimb events, although once again you first need to win some cash to be able to afford vehicles in either championship. Hillclimb is a blast, featuring insanely fast machines on the infamous Pikes Peak and its easier tarmac variant. This method of locking away different modes feels a little hollow, but I can at least understand the reasoning behind it; to keep players from immediately jumping into cars that will throw them into trees on the very first bend, and to force them to spend time with their selected machines, to become attuned to their handling characteristics before moving on to something else.
There are some problems with the game that need talking about, though. Multiplayer is purely limited to Rallycross at the moment. There’s weekly and monthly events where you can compete for times and leaderboards, but DiRT Rally is entirely missing the ability to have numerous players compete on the same track using ghost cars that was seen in the series previously. Hopefully this will be added in at a later date. For now if you want multiplayer you’ll need to be content with trying to better your own times to advance on the leaderboards.
There’s also a crew mechanic where you can hire new mechanics, each skilled in fixing up different parts of the car so that you can focus efforts on whatever area of the vehicle you tend to damage the most, which for me was always the wheels and the radiator. These crew members are hired on a contract basis, so it’s possible for them to vanish mid-event, and can even have perks assigned to them that increase their performance. New upgrades for your cars will also be developed provided you spend time actually driving it. Both are solid concepts but neither has been properly developed, indicating an idea that Codemasters had been never saw through. Hiring a better crew and keeping them around makes a big difference in terms of how much you can repair between stages, but it’s such a shallow, basic system. Likewise upgrades are entirely arbitrary – you have no input over what upgrades are focused on first. I’d love to have seen a proper crew management system implemented.
The time in Early Access seems to have resulted in serious optimisation. On my rig the game was running pretty smoothly with only the occasional stutter getting in the way of the action, while glitches were practically non-existent except for the driver maintaining his crash position for a few seconds upon a restart and a strange graphical hiccup on the main menu. It’s a good-looking game, too, with plenty of detail to be admired, assuming you can ever get a split-second to tear your eyes from the track, which is doubtful. Crowds resemble a gaggle of horribly deformed beings,but all in all DiRT Rally does look pretty damn fine. It doesn’t take your breath away and its clear that the budget was spent on the core gameplay, as it should be, but it’s no slouch either.However, distance trees look very pixellated and tend to phase into existence as you drive along. This problem can be fixed by turning on the advanced blending, but that also affects performance quite a bit. The audio is also impressive with the rich engine sounds mixing with the cacophony of gravel being kicked up and battered around the car. Also, and this is a bit of a nitpick, what’s up with the lack of anti-lag noise? Rally cars should sound like spitting beasts of pure fury, dammit!
Is DiRT Rally the best rally game ever? Well, fans of Richard Burns Rally might put up a hell of an argument, but the blunt answer is that this is a far more detailed and impressive simulation. It’s absolutely amazing, and is hands-down my favorite racing game in years, delivering on its promise of on-the-edge racing. Every moment is downright thrilling, and it incredibly frustrating because I clearly don’t have a natural talent for playing it, nearly rage quitting at every mistake which left my car nearly destroyed or that left me twenty seconds down. Is this latecomer one of the best games of the year? Yeah, I reckon so. Get ready to find it on my list of favorite games from 2015. Codemasters have finally returned to form after a long hiatus from the top. I could debate the merits of big companies using Early Access like this when they arguably don’t need it, but a review isn’t the place for such a discussion and if it helps produce more polished games, then that at least is a positive. Now Codies just have to keep it up.