In our modern, connected world, rally games feel like something of an anachronism. 15 years ago, dodgy AI and limited graphics technology made a racing game with no other cars on the track an appealing concept. But now, with thousands of willing human opponents around the world and exponentially more polygons to work with, “real racing” is closer than ever. In that sense, much of the time, Dirt Rally feels like a game from 15 years ago, just wrapped up in modern graphics and physics, and in doing so it’s one of the best focussed racing games in years.
It’s a world away from the previous Dirt games, which featured off road racing of every variety. Much like the old Colin McRae Rally games which spawned the series, Dirt Rally is just rallying, with the only additions being hillclimb (essentially a time trial rally stage with no co-driver) and rallycross (short mixed surface races using very similar cars). Everything else, from dune buggies to Dakar rally trucks, is gone, and it’s not just cars and game modes that have felt the axe — another notable casualty of this new-found focus has been the rewind feature, a Codemasters staple which allowed mistakes to be undone with minimal consequence. It’s a subtraction that will frustrate some, but it appeases the fans of the old Colin McRae Rally games who are the game’s main audience. Odd as it may sound, Dirt Rally is much better for its apparent lack of features.
Part of this is because in their place are some very substantial rally stages. Each country has three or four long stages which are over 10 kilometres long, demanding absolute concentration for up to eight minutes at a time. If that sounds tame, remember that one lapse of attention in that time can easily result in a rally-ending trip into the trees or off a cliff — no pressure or anything. In the very best moments, you nudge 150 mph on gravel or snow, aim the car at the next corner, feel the back start to kick out, apply just the right amount of opposite lock and drift round, then do it all again 10 seconds later. If you really want to immerse yourself, you can turn the entire HUD off so you have to listen for the pace notes warning you of big jumps and hidden junctions ahead. If you want, there need be no safety nets. It’s intense stuff and getting it right will trill and frighten in equal measure; almost no video game gets the adrenaline pumping in quite the same way.
In rallycross, meanwhile, the thrills are more immediate. Against a handful of other cars, you just need to race well enough in short bursts to reach the final, where a good performance might just be rewarded with victory. It’s better online than against the AI, as is always the case, but though there are other cars buzzing around, the physics engine is still the real star of the show, viscerally letting you know that you’ve switched from tarmac to gravel and back again.
This focus on the raw basics is felt throughout the game. Sound and graphics, for example, won’t win any awards but are both pretty and functional, giving every environment its own aura, from the oppressive grey of the Welsh valleys to the bright colours of Finland’s birch-lined roads. The detail may have a tendency fall apart when examined closely, but then you’ll only get time to examine the environments if you end up crashing into them. As set dressing to be driven past at high speed, it does the job and then some.
For non-fans, this might all sound very intimidating. It’s one of those games: a frothingly realistic simulator with a near-vertical learning curve that appeals to a hardcore audience of masochists and no-one else. Well, maybe so, but that shouldn’t diminish what has been achieved nor should it discourage the wider audience from taking a second look. Dirt Rally is a punishing game, certainly, but Codemasters’ experience as developers make it one of the most accessible punishing games out there. The Dark Souls comparison has been made time and again, now the go-to comparison for any hard but fair game, and it fits remarkably well. Dirt Rally is supremely difficult but, 99 percent of the time, if you crash it’s your fault for not interpreting the pace notes properly, or for thinking you could carry an extra 10 mph through that corner, or for not anticipating how that muddy bank might affect the car.
We’ve come some way since Dirt Rally launched in Early Access. Last April, it was just a skeleton of a game, with limp force feedback and a promise of things to come. Less than a year on, it’s fleshed out, with seven demanding rallies, much improved feedback, new modes and cars, online multiplayer and league support, and a full 1.0 release last month. It’s in stark contrast to Assetto Corsa, which had been in early access longer and passed the 1.0 benchmark in a far, far less complete state, a state it retains even as the developers run headlong into a console release. The two will go head-to-head this April and on current form it’s easy to pick a winner. Codemasters’ experience as game developers shines through the entire game. More importantly, it’s Early Access done right, focussing on achievable goals and nailing the important things doing much to avoid the increasing disgruntlement with Assetto Corsa’s failings.
In 1998, Codemasters introduced the rally simulator to the world with Colin McRae Rally, following in the footsteps of Gran Turismo opening up racing sims to a wider audience. 18 years later, Codemasters might just have repeated the trick. In Project CARS, Assetto Corsa and Stock Car Extreme, racing sims have tapped into a whole new audience, spurred by affordable but well engineered PC hardware and force feedback racing wheels. If this new crowd wants to go rallying, Dirt Rally is the only game in town.
Platform: PC (PS4/XBO April 2016)