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DiRT Rally review

Martin Bigg On May 12, 2016

Since DiRT’s debut on last-gen consoles, Codemasters' off-road racing series has strayed increasingly further from its Colin McRae Rally roots, becoming increasingly flamboyant and accessible in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.
 
To the dismay of some of its fanbase, traditional point-to-point rallying took a back seat to make room for more off-road disciplines, from extravagant rallycross events set in LA and, erm, Battersea Power Station with fancy firework finishes, to Trailblazer events that had you smashing through coloured targets. Then there were the polarising Ken Block-branded Gymkhana events wherein you performed stunts and chained combos to earn points much like the Tony Hawks Pro Skater games. Over time, DiRT essentially became an extreme sports series with cars.
 
The last entry in the series DiRT Showdown was a particular low-point in the series. Rallying was removed altogether and replaced with demolition derby events among others, and the handling was dumbed down to create an arcade spin-off that was seemingly rushed to capitalise on the brand’s popularity as a stop-gap before development shifted to current-gen consoles. Factor in some subpar Formula One releases, and Codemasters were starting to become a shadow of their former glory.  

DiRT Rally artwork VW Polo
 
And then something unexpected happened. Free of any pre-release marketing hype, DiRT Rally took everyone by surprise when it was simultaneously announced and released on Steam Early Access last year.
 
There were none of the aforementioned gimmicks in DiRT Rally: this was a stripped back, thoroughbred simulation with hardcore handling, unforgiving stages and a firm focus back on traditional rallying directly in response to community outcry. Its unprecedented success meant that a console release was inevitable, but it was still a risky move – particularly as hardcore racing games aren’t as established on console compared to the PC.
 
The gamble has paid off, however. DiRT Rally is one of the most focussed, hardcore and downright compulsive games from Codemasters in a very long time – even if it isn’t the follow-up to DiRT 3 many fans were expecting.
 

Back to its rally roots

DiRT Rally’s back to basics approach is immediately apparent in its minimalist presentation. Gone are the lavish 3D animated menus and pumping dance music from previous DiRT games, replaced with a dreary table menu and a sombre soundtrack that befits DiRT Rally’s more earnest tone.

DiRT Rally Subaru Impreza flying through Finland
 
DiRT Rally is still the same perpetually punishing experience on console as it was on PC. Be prepared for a steep learning curve, because safety nets you often take for granted in racing games are all but gone. Flashbacks, for example, have been a signature feature in every Codemasters game since DiRT 2, allowing you to correct your mistakes by rewinding time and continuing without incident. So it may come as a shock that they’re nowhere to be found in DiRT Rally. Codemasters even take this a stage further by punishing you for resetting your car – veer too off the track and you’ll incur a stiff time penalty up to 15 seconds. Even restarts are discouraged, since DiRT Rally cruelly takes away some of your hard-earned credits if you take the easy option.
 
These decision decisions may seem unnecessarily harsh at first. Indeed, wiping out close to the finish line during a hard-fought rally only to be punished with a 15 second penalty for being reset back onto the track can be utterly soul destroying and instantly ruin your rally if you’re trying to set a competitive time.
 
This has a profound effect on the entire tone of the game, however – and for the better. By removing these safety nets, DiRT Rally creates a prevailing sense of tension when you know you’re always on the edge of disaster. For the first time in a rally game in a very long time, navigating every stage actually feels dangerous.  
 
You have to live with your mistakes, and sometimes they will cost you dearly. DiRT Rally is just as much a survival game as it is a driving game where you have to constantly assess the risk versus reward when approaching the next corner – particularly as making repairs between stages will also penalise you. But this brilliantly encapsulates the spirit of rallying where bravery is duly rewarded. There are no second chances in rallying after all. Rally drivers are renowned for their resilience – if they have a crash and escape uninjured, there’s a good chance they’ll soldier on even if their wounded car is begging for mercy, and you start to feel that same determination in DiRT Rally.

DiRT Rally 131 Abarth
 
DiRT Rally is perhaps too unaccomodating to novice players, however. There are a variety of driving assists and difficulty settings you can apply along with informative videos that do a decent job of explaining some of the advanced driving techniques real rally drivers use that can be applied in DiRT Rally, but the lack of interactive tutorials is a serious oversight in a game as dauntingly difficult as DiRT Rally, particularly when rivals such as WRC 5 and even games in past generations such as Richard Burns Rally and the original Colin McRae Rally have featured interactive rally schools.
 
Consequently, the steep learning curve is likely to turn some players away. Indeed, it takes a lot of persistence to even reach the top three times as DiRT Rally practically requires perfect driving with no margin for error if you want to finish at the top. At first, simply surviving a stage in one piece feels like a monumental achievement. The upshot, of course, is that DiRT Rally is highly rewarding to play as you learn from your mistakes and experience similar emotions to real rally drivers. Your driving skill naturally improves and develops a rhythm when you start to memorise the stages and push harder, giving you a satisfying sense of progression when you finally finish a stage in record time.
 

Don’t cut

As with real rallying, to successfully navigate the complex courses in DiRT Rally you need to pay close attention to your co-driver. Thankfully, the co-driver who guides you in DiRT Rally is very reliable, with consistently excellent vocal work provided by Chief Designer Paul Coleman who has real life experience of co-driving. Ignoring his advice on when not to cut a corner doesn’t usually end well.
 
His pace notes are clear, concise and detailed, using numbers to indicate the severity of the corner that replicates real pace notes. They flow so naturally that you can tell they were recorded specifically for each stage because they reference specific hazards and landmarks. He even encourages you to “be brave” if you’re off pace. This all adds to DiRT Rally’s visceral immersion and is a refreshing contrast to the robotic cut and paste commands in other rally games. It’s certainly a significant improvement DiRT’s previous co-drivers, too - “I’m Mr. Smooth and you’re Mr. Steady,” anyone?


 
Unlike Assetto Corsa which was released with some glaring screen tearing and frame rate issues in its transition to console, DiRT Rally is a near perfect port of the PC original on consoles. Having said that, it still can’t compare to a high-spec PC: textures could be sharper in places and shadows could do with some aliasing.
 
More damningly, DiRT Rally doesn’t benefit from the shiny new EGO engine that powers the current-gen F1 games. Codemasters usually set the standard when it comes to cutting edge graphics in racing games, so it’s disappointing to find DiRT Rally running on outdated tech - it suggests that Codemasters didn’t have the confidence to give it a bigger budget like previous DiRT games.
 
That’s not to say DiRT Rally is a bad looking game. Far from it, in fact. The stunning scenic views in Greece reveal some impressive draw distances, the lighting has that signature Codemasters quality and there are some nice flourishes, from dirt accumulating on the car, to the way the windscreen cracks convincingly during impacts. Codemasters also went the extra mile and modelled the scenery properly rather than use flat textures – snow banks, for example. have physical properties when you collide into them which is a nice touch.  
 
DiRT Rally is also in the exclusive club of console racers that run at a solid 60fps, which probably explains some of the compromises. It just lacks that extra level of fidelity you expect in a current-gen game.  

DiRT Rally VW Polo snow
 
DiRT Rally’s audio design is outstanding, however. The attention to detail is simply staggering: exhaust notes sound authentically aggressive, and you can hear the brakes squeal in protest as well as well as stones smacking into your wheel arches as you tear through the terrain. Drive with an interior view, and there’s just enough distortion in the engine audio to make you believe you’re cacooned inside. Racing games often struggle when it comes to satisfying audio, but DiRT Rally leaves its competitors in the dust.
 
As for the cars, DiRT Rally includes 46 accurately modelled cars representing several eras of rallying from the 1960s to the present day. It’s a fairly comprehensive collection, even if there aren’t many surprises. Browse the 1960’s category and you’ll find the Mini Cooper S Paddy Hopkirk famously drove to victory in the 1964 Monte Carlo rally. The notorious Group B era is represented in its own class with savage machines such as the Ford RS200 and Audi Quattro, while current WRC cars including the Volkswagen Polo R and Hyundai i20 make up the modern era. Codemasters’ heritage with Colin McRae isn’t forgotten either, with the 1995 Subaru Impreza sporting the same iconic blue and yellow livery that graced the cover of the original Colin McRae Rally. If only there was a photo mode to capture them in action.
 
It’s by no means a dream car list for rally enthusiasts, however. There are some glaring omissions here – a rally game that doesn’t include ‘90s icons such as the Toyota Celica GT-Four and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI is a travesty.
 
While it may not be an exhaustive car list, every car is unique in its appearance, sound and driving characteristics – you'll instantly able to tell the differeence between drivetrains when you get behind the wheel of a RWD car like the BMW M3 E30 which is a handful to tame, but also a delight to drive. The simulation of weight transfer is sublime when you throw the car into a corner, as is the sensation of grip as the tyres dig into the different surfaces. 

DiRT Rally Alpine
 
DiRT Rally is best experienced with a wheel setup, where every bump is registered in the fantastic force feedback which has been greatly improved since its initial Early Access release. In a neat touch, setting the steering to “soft lock” even mimics the actual steering lock of each car. DiRT Rally is still surprisingly playable on a controller however, thanks to its customisable controls that let you adjust everything from the steering linearity.
 
And if you were worried that DiRT Rally would follow in the vein of Grid 2 and not include a cockpit camera, Codemasters has compensated by adding two cockpit camera options including a traditional behind the wheel view and a closer dashboard camera.
 
There are only six locations in DiRT Rally (Finland, Greece, Monte Carlo, Sweden, Germany and Wales), with each rally split into twelve special stages. It’s somewhat misleading however, because in reality there are only two main special stages split into short sections lasting five minutes on average, with reverse varients bringing the total up to twelve. It’s disappointing, but there’s still enough variety in the locations ranging from tarmac, gravel and snow which all present unique challenges.
 
However, as with the car list, Codemasters has clearly focused on quality rather than quantity when designing the stages which have been modelled with ample care and attention to detail, accurately simulating the camber and surface properties of each stage in contrast to the flat stages in other rally games. Every stage is consistently challenging, fun and visually stunning. The only drawback is that some areas are too sparse when they should be swarmed with spectators.
 
DiRT Rally’s stages are just as treacherous as they are in real life, where every imperfection in the road is a potential hazard. Stray too close to the edge of the track in Finland at speed and you’ll unsettle the car as your wheels dip into the bank in the road. Do the same in the snow stages set in Sweden, and you’ll get stuck in a snow bank. Or, in the case of the gravel stages in Greece, plunge off a cliff and cause terminal damage to your car.
 


DiRT Rally’s career mode is challenging and extensive, if a bit too barebones and monotonous. Rallies are divided into heats consisting of six events set in each location. Achieve a top three position at the end of all six rallies, and you’ll progress to the next championship with increasingly more difficult opponents to face, but the fact you’re essentially repeating the same six rallies over and over again means that only dedicated players will see it through to the end.
 
If you do put the hours in, victories can sometimes feel bittersweet thanks to the clinical presentation that does little to honour your achievements. DiRT Rally isn’t generous with its payouts when rewarding your hard work, either. Consequently, there’s a lot of grinding required before you can afford some of the higher spec cars required in later events. DiRT Rally does at least acknowledge your allegiance with specific cars by letting you hire researchers who can improve your performance over time. Every car is also already unlocked in custom events if you want to access the more powerful cars quickly.
 
By far the easiest way to reap cash rewards is by participating in one of DiRT Rally’s many online events available in several different flavours, from daily, weekly and monthly challenges that provide you a car to comprehensive online leagues that will keep dedicated players coming back. PVP events, however, are restricted to Rallycross events. DiRT 2 and 3 let you participate in time trial rallies with other human players, so it's surprising to find no option available in DiRT Rally when point-to-point rallying is the main focus of the game. 
 
Funds can also be spent on hiring team members to keep the car competitive which adds a welcome layer of depth to the campaign, but it isn’t too overbearing, thankfully (I don’t miss the obnoxious voiceovers of American sports personalities constantly interrupting me, personally).
 
Career modes don’t necessarily need a narrative to keep you engrossed – DiRT Rally’s simplified structure is actually quite refreshing. But after playing Sebastien Loeb Rally EVO’s comprehensive career which took you on a personal journey through the rally legend’s career with contextual photos, videos and tidbits, DiRT Rally’s career isn’t as compelling in comparison.
 
There’s a distinct lack of atmosphere in the career. You never feel like you’re participating in a real life rally – seeing other competitors drive off ahead of you in staggered starts, or showing some cut scenes with your driver, co-driver and service park mechanics would have made you feel more connected to the experience. It’s a far cry from Codemasters’ F1 games which, for all their flaws, do capture the atmosphere of the sport in their presentation.

Thin on the ground

While point-to-point rallying is the primary focus in DiRT Rally, there are a handful of other off-road disciplines available, although the selection is nowhere near as broad as previous DiRT games. Rallycross returns, albeit without the excessive spectacle - don’t expect grandiose arenas with huge crowds and checkpoints dazzling you with pyrotechnics.

DiRT Rally rallycross
 
Instead, Rallycross content is officially licensed by the FIA and follows the rules and regulations of the actual sport, with compulsory qualifying rounds before a semi-final and final race. Competing against AI opponents is a welcome diversion to the tiring trial-based rallies, with some aggressive AI opponents providing some genuinely hard-fought races. There’s a tactical element too, as you have decide when to use your joker lap which sends you on a route for one lap to get the best advantage. The lack of content lets the Rallycross mode down, however - there are only three forgettable circuits and a handful of cars which is a very small representation of the FIA Rallycross championship.
 
Hillclimb events suffer the same problem. There’s only one circuit (five if you include the different layouts) – but what a circuit it is. Appearing in a DiRT game for the first time since the original in 2007, the legendary Pikes Peak mountain course makes a triumphant return in both its tarmac and gravel guise, providing a tough endurance test for anyone willing to tackle its full terrifying 19 mile stretch of high altitude roads, hairpin turns and sheer cliff drops.
 
Some of the fastest cars specifically tuned for Pikes Peak can be driven in Hillclimb events: taming the monstrous 850bhp Audi Quattro on the slippery surface is as thrilling as it is terrifying, which makes it all the more disappointing that these cars can’t be driven outside of Hillclimb events. With only four Hillclimb cars available, you’re unlikely to enter Hillclimb events very often. Traditional rallying was always going to be the focus in DiRT Rally, but the Hillclimb and Rallycross modes feel half-baked. These modes can also be played in separate careers, but there’s little incentive when there’s so little content.
 
The content cutbacks ultimately harm DiRT Rally’s longevity – especially when you compare it to its competitors. With only six locations, it can’t match the variety of environments in the official WRC games which have over double the amount of locations, and its car roster is missing some of the iconic Citroens and vintage rally cars in Sebastien Loeb Rally EVO.

DiRT Rally Audi Quattro
 
With no word on DLC plans other than a few tantalising teases, it’s unclear how Codemasters is planning to support DiRT Rally in the future. I wouldn’t normally encourage developers to charge a premium for content that arguably should have been in a game in the first place, but right now DiRT Rally simply doesn’t have enough content to sustain your interest for a very long time. It’s frustrating, because if Codemasters had the courage to give DiRT Rally the budget it deserved then these issues probably wouldn’t exist.  
 
Alas, DiRT Rally isn’t the most comprehensive rally game ever made. But what DiRT Rally lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. With its best in class visuals, sound and physics, DiRT Rally sets the standard for rally game simulations, capturing the visceral intensity of rallying better than any game currently available. As a pure adrenaline rush, no other rally game can touch it when it’s firing on all cylinders.
 
The demanding difficulty should limit DiRT Rally’s appeal, but the challenge makes it compellingly compulsive and rewarding. By going against the convention, DiRT Rally successfully reinvigorates the rally game genre. After a few missteps, Codemasters is back on top form with their most seminal racing game in years. 

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