Game review: Dirt Rally – the driving experience is everything

The latest in the off-road series really puts you in the driving seat, but give yourself time to pick up some skills before taking out that top-of-the-line car

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 11:00pm

Dirt Rally


4/5 stars

Joao Diniz-Sanchez

There have always been racing games that sell themselves on numbers. The dozens of circuits, the vast atlases of exotic locations, the garages crammed with authentically detailed vehicles. Other titles, meanwhile, push their glitzier production values; the lush menu systems, the licensed soundtracks, the trackside pizzazz.

The excellence of Dirt Rally (for PC, Xbox One and Playstation 4), though, lies not in breadth, but in depth.

The latest Codemasters racer can be traced back through a lineage that begins with 1998’s acclaimed Colin McRae Rally, and which diverted less successfully into the not-so-serious Dirt series. This latest generation represents a complete rebuild for the bloodline. First appearing as an early-access title on Steam 12 months ago, the game has subsequently evolved alongside input from players (the force feedback system has been fundamentally revamped, for instance) yet the development team’s brief to prioritise the driving experience hasn’t altered.

That determination to deliver the most convincing example of digital rallying sees Dirt Rally cut a totally fresh set of tyre tracks across the technological gravel. None of the game’s ancestors – or indeed contemporaries – can get close to its handling model. Rally veers into high-end simulation territory with the grace and exquisite assurance of a young Juha Kankkunen.

It is a similar confidence, underpinned by the desire to improve through considerable practice, that you’ll need to get the best out of Dirt. The soberness of the in-game menus, which highlight the rally, hillclimbing, and rallycross categories available for play, point to the challenge in store, and tempting as it might be to jump into a Peugeot 405 T16 and recreate Ari Vatanen’s famed 1988 Pikes Peak ascent (the Custom Events mode makes all content available from the outset), remember this: you are not Ari Vatanen.

Discipline is central to your development as a driver. Going into Career mode and purchasing a Group B brute such as the Metro 6R4 as soon as you can afford it may not be credits well spent. Even competent drivers with a successful first six-rally season under their seatbelts should be advised not to immediately max out the difficult level to boost bonus rewards. A wiser progression path would have you tackling the campaign in a comparatively sedate model or even stick with your initial 1960s classic purchase for more learning. The car classes include key entries from the sport’s past six decades, but you don’t have to drive them all in your first day.

The long education will pay off – literally. Big fast cars have big fast crashes, which means the repair bills come in just as big and just as fast. But the cost of damage is often more than financial and will see you having to repair a puncture, nurse an abused gearbox, or hesitantly push an overheating engine to get you to the stage finish with as few precious seconds lost as possible. Of course, you’ll soon be no stranger to terminal damage, too. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but write-off your beautiful Lancia Stratos.

Credits play a role other than obtaining shiny new cars to dent – you also spend them on recruiting mechanics. Put the miles in and your crew develops (automatically installed) vehicular upgrades as well as gradually unlocking individual perk slots that you can fill with abilities to help speed your progress. It’s a welcome dynamic that adds enough of a strategic, goal-oriented management layer without proving cumbersome or distracting.

There’s no way to fast-track your talent, though, and it’ll be many stages before you’re deliberately sliding the outside rear wheel along the edge of the perilous precipices of Greece’s coarse gravel-covered hillsides or powering through Finland’s country roads, expertly skimming the trackside fauna close enough to qualify as an arborist.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t extraordinary enjoyment to be had before then. Finishing a stage in a podium position having saved a huge moment and simply leaned on the odd Welsh pine to help you back onto the muddy track, or surviving Germany’s fast, open countryside all four wheels intact despite the endless concrete blocks lining the roads will feel like genuine mini-triumphs.

Dirt Rally is packed with these moments because it demands absolute engagement from its drivers. Whether you’re tackling 4,000 metres of narrow, sinuous Monte Carlo tarmac or 15km of night-time snow-covered Sweden, the comprehensive handling model details the nuances of changes in road surface, camber, elevation, and weather conditions in a quite exquisite manner. Subtle shifts in car balance or the specific characteristics of front-, rear- or four-wheel drive are conveyed in masterful fashion, giving you a sense of the dynamics constantly at play and requiring eyes on the road, ears on the co-driver, and full concentration at all times.

Meanwhile, a proficient online element takes the form of asynchronous competition welded to daily/weekly/monthly/special challenges, as well as the ability to set up league-based play (with friends or otherwise). For the former you’ll usually need to own a qualifying car (some will lend you the machinery required) but, in keeping with the authentic tone of the Dirt Rally experience, you only get one shot at the challenge. End up facing the wrong way after a messed up corner or wrap your Audi Quattro’s radiator around a tree trunk, and there are no restarts – your time (or retirement) will be slapped on the global leaderboard for all to see. Far from being intimidating, the pressure to perform actually proves compelling (and it’s a rewarding way to earn additional credits to spend in the Career mode).

The hillclimb and rallycross sections are less captivating, despite the latter’s inclusion of AI racers making a welcome change from the otherwise asynchronous competition. There are also odd frame-rate niggles, admittedly only affecting rallycross events. Above this, there is an impersonal, perfunctory feel to the presentation, which is likely to be a legacy of the game’s early-access beginnings – a little more polish would be welcome. It’s minor stuff, though, that potential updates and DLC may eventually buff out.

And if it doesn’t, it won’t matter too much. On console, the purity and power at the heart of this game hasn’t been experienced since the defining Richard Burns Rally back in 2004. Twelve years on it feels like Dirt Rally represents the natural succession of that accomplished simulation. Its core mode, despite initially appearing thin on substance, delivers an enthralling handling model; its single-minded focus on realism demands much from virtual rally drivers but also engages and rewards in a way that few games ever truly manage. In the constant game design battle between breadth and depth, the latter does not win out as often as it should. Here, it leaves everything else in its dust.