It’s been refined over twelve months and millions of miles in Steam’s early access programme, but finally DiRT Rally has drifted onto consoles, spraying gravel and dust over its contemporaries. Make no mistake, this is the best rally game to grace consoles in a long time, and now that Codemasters have shrugged the superfluous hoonigan antics, they’ve focussed on the core experience that the franchise exhibited on its first iteration in 2007. This is not for the faint of heart or the risk averse, this is high speed off road racing at its most intense.
Despite the intent of the game to be a pure rally experience and focus on the technical aspects of the discipline, it’s not at the expense of beginners to the genre. There’s an in-depth tutorial system that does more by simply explaining the concepts at play than most of the “drive this course quickly” models used in other games, though you’ll only reach this after having fun on a couple of rally stages whilst the game installs – a nice way to get you familiar with the overall look and feel of the latest outing. Minimalistic presentation, clean cut lines and simple to understand menus start the experience with a style that we know the developer for, as well as being treated to a distinct music presentation that amps up the menu audio whilst stages are loading to pump you up in just the right way before unleashing you on the course. Whilst we’re mentioning audio, the PS4 version even has your co-drivers instructions come from the Dualshock 4 speaker to add a little extra to the immersion.
Pretty and well laid out menus are nice, but racing is what we’re here for, and racing is what we get. 20 years of pedigree have tuned the physics and handling model since the development of the very first Colin McRae Rally, and input from all the PC gamers over the last year have tweaked and honed DiRT Rally to near perfection. Most surprisingly, weight transfer feels like a tangible entity… something that shouldn’t translate from a controller to your TV screen, but does. Dab the brakes, dip the nose of the car, find some grip in the loose gravel, wrench the wheel in the direction you want to go and revel as the beautiful scenery slides past, acknowledging your skills in the cockpit. Miss an apex, don’t brake enough, or just blindly spin the wheel and you’ll slide into that beautiful scenery, wrecking your momentum, car and time. Each run is not a one shot deal: if you career into the crowd or unexpectedly get a close up view of a tree, you’ll get reset to the track and incur a reasonable time penalty, still able to complete the event. If the car is in one piece, of course. Weather also plays a crucial part in how the stages play out, and there’s a noticeable effect on handling between dry, wet and icy surfaces, which should be a given, but isn’t always in these types of games.
Getting on to the track means buying a car, and having one last an entire rally event means needing an engineering crew behind you, and fortunately there’s cash in your account to start with and a chief mechanic who’s quick to dole out advice. Going beyond the standard repairs at service areas, now you build a team to keep things in tip top condition, and provide perks to help progress faster. Mileage equates to experience, and the further you drive the more your team improves, and the faster you can repair your car or upgrade its potential. It’s a neat addition to the genre that adds a layer of depth and provides a “lite” management mechanism for levelling up the vehicles and your ability to win. One thing the team don’t help with though is the car setup. Traditionally, tinkering with various settings in a racing game is likely to confuse and confound anyone who’s not a race engineer in real life. DiRT Rally doesn’t nail it, but does make it accessible enough so that you can happily change things knowing what it will do. There are two levels of adjustment, with advanced not being available until you’ve driven a certain amount of miles; both have clear instructions on what the settings do, and there’s a generous helping of shakedowns for testing your experiments. You don’t need to get into the detail, there’s a default setup for each track that will get you to the finish line, but if you want to dominate each event it’ll become a necessity.
Championship mode is the mainstay of DiRT Rally, most time will be spent conquering each country (six in total) and earning enough money to open up the cars you’ll need to win each championship – and there are quite a few to choose from, covering each rally period from the 60s to today, as well as being specifically designed for the multi-stage rally events, hillclimbs or rallycross (which features the current FIA championship). Venturing into online you’ll find numerous daily, weekly and monthly challenges where cash can be earned depending on your performance, and the longer the event timescale, the higher the reward. PvP makes an appearance with the rallycross events where racing is frantic, chaotic and rewarding, but the mode that offers the most scope is in the Leagues. Using dirtgame.com you can create and curate your own League, setting up a series of events with their own timescales and conditions, and share these with your friends or the wider community. Joining a League gives it a slot to access the events in the game menu, and it all runs pretty quickly and smoothly between console and the site. In fact, the only thing that holds the mode back is that fact Leagues aren’t cross-platform, which you’d have thought it might be possible to do to manage asynchronous races.
DiRT Rally is not an easy game, it’s equal parts exhilaration and frustration, all of which you level at yourself for either hitting or missing on the track. Through your early career stages you might fluke into a win, but it’s more likely you’ll be a decent chunk of time behind the competition which strangely doesn’t cause you to give up; it’s just an incentive to improve. With each run of every event you get better as you learn how the car handles, where you can open up the throttle, and where you have to be more cautious. It’s this progressive , consistent and measurable improvement that defines the quality on show here – there is no other rally game available now that can touch it, and I’ve a feeling it’ll be a long time before anything comes even close.
A review copy of DiRT Rally on Xbox One was provided by Deep Silver’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC. If you pick up the Legend edition you’ll get a car and performance boost to start off with, but more importantly, the film about the legend himself – Colin McRae.