by Tom Mackey
reviewed on PC
DIRT changes direction
The DIRT series of games has gone through many changes over the years. From semi-serious off-road racing simulation, to all-out farcical stunt driving in off-road cars. Through each and every one of those games, Codemasters have never really seemed to have a focus on exactly what it was they were trying to achieve. This almost always resulted in highly polished and good-looking racing games that served to give the player a small dose of arcade style racing with a professional trim. But when you tried to dig a little deeper and get something more out of them, they always fell a little short. With DIRT Rally, Codemasters seem to have done what a lot of developers are doing these days, and turned to the community for development support. So what we have now, is a Rally game that has, in essence, been developed hand-in-hand with a community of racing gamers, desperate to finally get a true simulation of the sport they love.
Stripped down, to the point
First things first, DIRT Rally wears this newfound, 'developed by the community' approach on its sleeve. The moment you boot up the game, it is all about the development story and how the early access period and feedback has shaped the game. So before you even reach the title screen, you are already expecting the purest Rally simulation you’ve ever experienced. To a certain extent that is what you get. DIRT Rally is stripped of almost every non-essential feature you will have come to expect from a modern day racing game. Gone are the now expected tropes, such as an elaborately presented career mode or lap saving rewind button. There is no soundtrack save a generic looped dance track that plays out over the main menu. Even the menu itself is stripped down and straightforward. In every sense, Codemasters have gone out of their way to get you straight into a car and onto a track. So anyone expecting a continuation of the DIRT franchise they know and love is going to be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, those players who long for a return to the kind of straight up, realistic Rally game that’s been missing for about a decade now, will be ecstatic. Games like Richard Burns Rally are a long distant memory for most of us, but for those people, that’s all they’ve had to cling onto until now.
Now I’m not saying that DIRT Rally is quite on the same level as something as popular as Richard Burns Rally, but it’s the first attempt to get there in a very long time. You certainly won’t be throwing your car up mountain passes and round hairpins at break neck speed when you first sit down to play. For those unused to the high level of concentration and judgement needed in a Rally simulation, there is quite a steep, perhaps even insurmountable learning curve. It would be hard to describe this as a ‘fun’ experience. Whereas all of the previous DIRT games have been all about shoving an element of the silly or the spectacular into this genre, DIRT Rally shoves it to the furthest corner of your mind. Tracks are based on real world tracks, and therefore offer very little when it comes to forgiving terrain. Rather than being mollycoddled with spacious open areas with very few obstacles you are thrown straight into the woods so to speak, with challenging tracks and obstacles galore. It’s really in that that the main difficulty lies. Having no idea what’s approaching you in a track, aside from your copilot’s instructions, creates that intense feeling of anticipation. Concentration, and at times caution, are really key to getting round a track in one piece. Lose control and spin into the trees, there is no rewind button. Your only solution is to reset to the track and suffer a significant time penalty. There is also damage simulation in the game, which can be bad enough to end your game straight away.
Visually it also does a reasonable job of letting you know your car is in pretty bad shape. Graphics are something Codemasters have always done well in their games, and here is no exception. Environments look fantastic with some great weather effects that really help with the immersion. Rain, as always, looks great and hitting a large puddle at an inopportune moment has the ability to completely ruin a lap. There were a fair few occasions when I got a little ‘overzealous’, shall we say, and hit a puddle, couldn't see a thing, and plunged straight into the side of the track.
Plenty of cars on few tracks
It certainly helps then that the large number of cars on offer do have different feels to them, obviously affected by the conditions. There were a few cars in the large roster that I ended up sticking to more than most. That in itself is an indication of the realism being developed here as rally driving is as much about learning and feeling the car as it is about following instructions. All cars are available to you from the beginning as there are no unlocks or anything of that sort in the game. Unfortunately, despite the large roster of cars, all the way from the 60s through to the 2010s, the number of tracks is a little on the low side. There are only 6 locations to choose from, with a variety of tracks, including reverse versions. But the small number of locations means you end up racing the same tracks over and over. This doesn’t just get a little dull visually, but actually means you end up memorising some tracks, losing that sense of not knowing what’s around the next corner. For some players, the idea of learning a track might have some appeal, but for me it removes the sense of excitement from a track, which is what rally is really all about. There are three modes present in the game, Rally, Hillclimb and Rallycross. So the game is primarily a single player experience with Rallycross being the only option for going toe to toe with other drivers. There’s no local multiplayer, and most of the player versus player action takes place in online events. These are timed events that reset daily, weekly and monthly. Taking part earns you cash and experience in each car you own, and in the career this helps you to buy new cars for your garage and upgrade your team of engineers. The career itself is not a flashy affair. You will never see your driver standing atop a podium being showered with confetti. The difficulty tends to level up with longer tracks and tougher conditions, boiling down to how long and hard can you focus for.
For those who love challenge
At the end of the day, this is what DIRT Rally is really about. If you go into it looking for a game that doesn't give you an easy go of it and expects you to concentrate and really invest in the challenge, then you will find a satisfying and genuinely exciting game here. If you go in expecting tons of flash and colourful presentation then you may be sorely disappointed. The lack of content track wise is the only major gripe I can aim at DIRT Rally and it would have been nice to see a few more locations. Codemasters do seem to be continuing to add to the game, though, with a recent Christmas update bringing in a little more winter-themed content, so this could improve with time. For now, the game is glimmer of hope for rally fans and gamers, that their beloved racing genre could be making a gradual comeback. It is challenging and realistic enough to whet the appetite for now, and for those serious about testing themselves, there is a genuinely fun game here. DIRT, for now, has gone back to basics, and it seems to be a pretty good thing they did.
Strong, realistic gameplay, fantastic graphics, good simulation
Lack of content and modes