NEED TO KNOW
What is it: A stripped back and streamlined entry to the Dirt series.
Expect to pay: £30 / $50
Developer: Codemasters Racing
Reviewed on: GeForce GTX 970, i5 4690K, 16GB RAM, G27 Wheel, CSR Elite Pedals, Clubsport SQ Shifter
Link: Official site
The Dirt series fell into freefall after shedding the Colin McRae name, padding its content with "cool" dialog, x-game events, fireworks and pomp. It was time to reset. With no buildup, no fuss, Codemasters announced and released Dirt Rally into early access in May, calling it "a pure expression of rally".
For release the content has been added to significantly. 39 cars are available including icons such as a 1960's Mini Cooper, a 70's Stratos, a 80's Group B Quattro, modern Imprezas, Fiestas, Peugeot Hillclimbers and more. As so often is the case though, including such a breadth of content comes with its own problems.
The cars look different, sound different, but they feel incredibly similar and lacking any real, unique character. They have similar weight, similar grip, similar gear ratios. Swapping from a '70s rear-wheel-drive Stratos to a 2010 Fiesta will come with faster times and a more responsive, stable car, but it's not enough, and cars in the same groups are barely distinguishable.
This lack of fidelity extends into other areas, keeping Dirt Rally at arms length from any sort of Sim status. With all assists off, an invisible hand will still gently help keep the rear end of your car in check. The in-car wheel is locked to 180°. The gearbox modelling is laughable. Stamping on the brakes is perfectly acceptable. Mud, ice and gravel feel incredibly similar. The amount of traction control is ridiculous. None of this means that it's bad per se—the cars drive predictably and well—it just means we are firmly in "game" rather than "sim" territory.
Much like Codemasters F1 games, if you have an interest in the sport without necessarily having the desire to drop hundreds of pounds into equipment—this is the most comprehensive pure-rally offering there has been for years. The car and stage selection is broad, and while physics suffer, driving concepts like racing lines, throttle control and oversteer still apply without being overly punishing. Driving the cars is exciting, it's just a bit simple. Plus, Codemasters have done the best job of giving you a feeling of a race weekend.
Three event types are available—rally, hillclimb and RallyX. Racing directly against AI in RallyX is a fun distraction—the AI is aggressive but fair, while avoiding feeling too artificial. Hillclimb and normal rallying are really the focus though, with events taking you over Swedish snow and ice, Greek dirt, Welsh mud, long stretches of German farmland, through Monaco's frozen tunnels and up over America's Pikes Peak.
Each rally is built up with stages, each stage a roughly four to ten minute long point-to-point time trial. The fastest overall time when all the stages are complete wins. Car degradation from each stage is persistent, with you having to allocate time for repairs between stages. It means a trade off between going balls-to-the wall fast and easing off to get your car through in one piece, After all, deciding on whether to repair your engine or making sure you can see through your windscreen is a tough call.
The career mode stretches this concept out. As you complete events you accumulate cash to spend on cars and upgrades. That same money pot also goes towards repairs however, so each crash will put that new Lancia further and further away. All in all it's a fairly standard "career" mode with you unlocking newer and faster cars as you go. Fortunately this unlock system is completely separate from the rest of the game, so you're free to choose an era and a set of stages and go racing.
The stages look incredible. Dust plumes out from under your car as drones buzz through clear skies. Ice patches shimmer as you hammer past snow-laden trees, picking out the road through fog. Hot air balloons rest as you slide a 1970s escort around a hay bale. Mud flings into the air as you tumble a Lancia Delta down a cliff towards a pond. Watching replays are a joy and irresistible if you've had a decent run, made all the better by respectable engine noise and chattering pace notes.
DiRT Rally, then, has a bold title. It's a statement. It's explicitly a rally game. Not a Gymkhana game, not a trucks game, not a "hooning" game. A rally game where everyone takes it seriously, and in this it succeeds. Unfortunately, though, in physics and handling detail, it falls a little flat. The lack of any sort of precarious feel when flying over ice and mud is an absolute shame, and the amount of forced assistance is a disappointment. Anyone waiting for a new Richard Burns will need to carry on waiting. If you're after a successor to the old Colin McRae games or RalliSport Challenge though, DiRT Rally is a strong offering.