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Once upon a time, the Colin McRae Rally series was a celebration of the purity of rally driving. But over time, after adopting the Dirt monicker, it became increasingly flashier, fancier, and noisier. It developed an American accent and started chain-drinking cans of Monster. The rallying was still there, kind of, but was drowned out by rawk music, irksome announcers, and daft stunt driving.
But Dirt Rally, a PC exclusive that sneaked quietly onto Steam this week, redresses the balance. It’s the purest rally game since the earliest entries in the McRae series, and one of the most realistic simulators Codemasters Racing Studio has ever made. Their other driving games are great, but you can’t really call them sims. They’re entertaining approximations of motorsport, giving you the feel of driving a car, not the reality.
Dirt Rally, however, is as real as it gets. The developers have created a brand new engine designed to replicate the real-world physics of rally driving as closely as possible. Lead designer Paul Coleman drives rally cars himself, so he knows first-hand what it feels like. You realise just how realistic the game is when you tear away from the starting line in your first race and immediately skid into a ditch. Try to play it like a traditional racer, or a traditional Dirt game, and you’ll get nowhere.
Mirroring the knife-edge tension of real rally racing, you constantly feel on the verge of disaster when you play Dirt Rally. As you hurtle along its rugged, unpredictable courses, all it takes is the slightest mistake to send you spinning out. The cars are twitchy and heavy, giving you the feeling that you’re wrestling to keep them on the track. It’s all about balance: driving carefully and precisely, but also knowing when to push the limits, so you can shave precious seconds off your time.
The sound design is excellent, and really helps sell the weight and power of the cars. On gravel roads you hear stones ping against the metal. Your chassis creaks and groans as you trundle over bumpy terrain. They’re subtle details, but they give the game a remarkable feeling of physicality. You really do feel like you’re throwing a hefty, tangible machine around the tracks.
It’s perhaps not surprising given their racing pedigree, but Dirt Rally is impressively polished for an Early Access game. You’ll just have to decide whether the content on offer is worth £25—a price that will rise as the game approaches completion. Buying in now means you get access to all future updates, including a hill climb mode, new cars, new tracks, and PVP multiplayer.
There are 14 cars, all rendered with fine, hand-crafted detail, including rally classics like the Lancia Stratos, Subaru Impreza, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, and Mini Cooper. From the 1960s through to the modern day, the cars on offer have their own distinct personalities. Bombing around a gravel track in a rickety little Mini Cooper feels very different from doing it in a modern rally-tuned car.
There are 36 courses spread across three distinct environments. Powys, Wales is grey, wet and muddy, with nerve-racking forest sections. Monte Carlo, Monaco features tight ice-and-snow-covered tarmac roads. And Argolis, Greece is dry, dusty, and comprised mainly of gravel roads. They all look fantastic, especially the rain-soaked Welsh countryside, and they’re packed with trackside detail. I was so distracted the first time I saw a camera drone buzz over my car, I crashed.
Throw in a career mode with vehicle upgrades and team management and you’ve got a pretty decent package. Above all, though, the real joy here is the driving, and the 36 courses offer a good variety of terrain and weather to test your skills. It's a satisfyingly back-to-basics rally game that makes up for its lack of flair with a deep, robust driving model. This is shaping up to be one of Codemasters’ best driving games. With regular updates promised, Dirt Rally might be worth investing in early.
A welcome return to the series’ rally roots. A driving game for anyone who likes a stiff challenge, or who thinks the other Dirt games weren't realistic enough.