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Dirt Rally 2.0 review

A joy in every corner, Codemasters' latest edges ahead of its predecessor.

Our Verdict

Simply the best rally sim around, building on its predecessor’s already fine foundations.

NEED TO KNOW

What is it? A (sort of) licensed rally sim.
Expect to pay £45/$60 (Steam)
Developer Codemasters
Publisher In-house
Reviewed on i5 6500, GTX 1070, 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? Yes
Link Official site

Most people don’t know how it feels to flick the back end of a rally car out on the approach to a blind turn, rain pelting down on the mud before them while someone shouts coded directions at them. It’s just not the sort of thing you find yourself doing, is it? In a game like Dirt Rally 2.0, then, a greater level of abstract thought is required to assess its ‘simulation’ cred than in, say, Project Cars 2

You might not have sent a McLaren P1 up Eau Rouge in your motoring life, but you know how a road car feels on a road. What do the snarling Group B rally cars feel like on a loose surface? Very few people know, and they’re probably much too busy to tell you about it in any great detail. That’s why Dirt Rally 2.0 exists.

Since its earliest outings under the Colin McRae banner, Codemasters’ rally series has traded on ‘feeling’ just right. The way its cars squirm and shift through corners; the way you can keep them just about under control while they power through turns at strange, unnatural angles—it’s always felt instinctively right. Never has that been more true than in the Midlands studio’s latest offroad proposition—Dirt Rally 2.0 tells you how it feels to be a professional rally driver with such fearsome assertiveness that you simply believe it. No questions asked. 

How does it feel, exactly? A bit like the Normandy beach landings, but with pace notes. A rally stage is an assault on every sense (alright, perhaps not taste or smell if we’re being pedantic), rattling the cockpit camera violently while an audio onslaught of complicated but crucially important pacenotes hits you, whether you’re ready for them or not. Force feedback surges through your wheel, fizzing your brain as though you’ve licked a battery, and whether using a wheel (preferable) or pad, vehicles behave just as you want them to—barely tameable, occasionally balletic in their powerslides, always convincing. This was broadly true of its predecessor—but in truth, Dirt Rally never felt anything like as scary or as taxing.

The sequel ramps up the visual fidelity where it counts, using weather effects and time of day to create real drama. Standing water in between muddy tyre tracks glints under your headlights, dust kicks up around your scrabbling wheels, and each of the six rally locations—New Zealand, Argentina, Spain, Poland, Australia and the USA—asserts its visual identity instantly, such is the level of environmental detail. It’s an incredibly handsome game, and one that doesn’t tax a humble GTX 1070 at max settings. 

Back from the venerated spec sheets of Codemasters’ GRID series is a team management aspect which sees you hiring staff, purchasing vehicles and setting liveries as you decide which event to enter next—a rally or a rallycross stage. Beyond providing a sense of structure to the content that was lacking slightly in the last entry, this serves as a timely reminder of what a brilliant aspect this is in any driving game. Seriously—why didn’t more games rip off Race Driver: GRID?

I digress. This is, as if you didn’t know, the official game of the 2019 FIA World Rallycross Championship, which means eight licensed tracks spanning the globe and meticulous event recreation across several series. Rallycross featured in Dirt Rally 2.0’s predecessor too, so its inclusion here doesn’t represent a leap forwards but instead a quiet fleshing out of the 2015 game’s skeleton. 

As and when you do decide to dedicate some time to rallycross—several cars battling for the victory on the same mixed-surface track, for the uninitiated—a wholly different set of skills are called upon than you’ve been honing with your co-driver over in rally events. Rather than reactive, isolated bursts of perfection, rallycross has you honing lines and lap times. It’s iteration and confrontation—and more qualifying rounds than seems strictly necessary, in all honesty. But that’s not the game’s fault. 

What these two deceptively different disciplines have in common in Dirt Rally 2.0 is that for the first few hours, you’ll win them incredibly easily. That’s not intended as a humblebrag: the AI really is that forgiving. Stack it even twice or three times on a single stage, and you might still expect to be towards the top of the classification with 20 seconds of penalties. Take an extra Joker lap—a longer layout of the circuit—by accident, and victory is by no means ruled out. 

Speaking personally, that forgiving AI led to a sensation of ‘failing upwards’ as I took win after win without truly mastering either car or track. It’s probably intended as a means to make Dirt Rally 2.0 more accessible than its forefather, but I’m not sure it quite works. Perhaps a rally school, similar to the one prefacing the famously formidable Richard Burns Rally might have been a more effective solution. Stiffer competition awaits online of course via custom championships, and it’s here that Dirt Rally 2.0’s long-term appeal lies. A talented community of modders and racers crystallised around the previous game, and there’s every bit as much incentive for it to do so once more here.

Because although this isn’t a complete overhaul of the last Dirt Rally, it does feel like progress. Certainly progress in the visuals, which look more than just four years down the line in this game. Progress in the level of immersion, thanks to tiny touches like driving beyond the finish line to the steward after each stage. And certainly progress in a sense of overarching structure to singleplayer racing, thanks to the team management conceit.

The only area it feels lacking in beyond that tepid AI is licensing—that Rallycross deal’s great and everything, but never has a game more richly deserved the WRC license than this one. Modders will work their magic on car liveries in that regard, but with the recognisable cars and names this might have been the vehicle to bring new fans to rallying. 

The Verdict

Dirt Rally

Simply the best rally sim around, building on its predecessor’s already fine foundations.