The 90’s was something of a heyday for the World Rally Championship (WRC). Its popularity was surging, the competition was fierce and the names that defined that era still endure today. So popular was the WRC that several computer games were released, some of which were tied to three of the big names of the time: Colin McRae Rally, Richard Burns’ Rally and the less remembered Tommi Mäkinen Rally. Of the three Richard Burns’ Rally is held in the highest regard among rally die-hards due to its no-compromise approach to the sport. To drive fast in Richard Burns’ Rally you needed to drive slow as flooring the gas and going for it often ended with a rather large crash.
Colin McRae Rally over time morphed into the DiRT series of games abandoning its simulation roots for the more exciting world of the X-Games; its association with the British rallying great removed after his untimely passing in 2007. However late last year Codemasters surprised everyone when they released DiRT Rally on Steam’s early access platform. Here was a game that now shunned the glitz and the glamour in favour of, well, dirt and lots of it. It was met with critical acclaim and has now arrived on consoles. The question is: can this uncompromising rally simulation win over console gamers?
Most console racing games, like Forza Motorsport, tout the simulation tag but have mechanics built in to aid those playing on a gamepad. If you delve into Forza’s menus for assists you’ll notice that you can change handling to simulation which, on a gamepad, is akin to turning off traction control in real life. To do so is to live, briefly. Moreover rallying is a world away from racing on a circuit; a world where the ability to balance the weight of the car is a key skill in navigating the twist and turns of a rally stage as quickly as possible. It’s in this area that DiRT Rally excels as its handling model gives and takes no quarter. On a gamepad this makes things difficult at first and requires at least some tweaking of controller dead zones and so on under advanced settings. This may be off-putting for more casual players but once you’ve found your own sweet spot the game suddenly becomes a little bit more friendly.
That being said there’s no hand-holding and the in-game tutorials, while useful, merely describe to the player how exactly you’re supposed to tame these monsters. In reality it takes practice and repetition in order to learn how to throw these cars in a way that not only looks majestic but carries the greatest amount of speed around a corner. Pulling off maneuvers such as the Scandinavian Flick isn’t easy in DiRT Rally but when you finally do so the feeling that overcomes you is so sweet it makes all the toil worthwhile. Yes, the handling model is brutal but it can be tamed, and it’s at that moment that DiRT Rally really starts to take a hold of you.
DiRT Rally is split into three main components, a player’s career, online leagues and PvP. The career mode is further separated into offline singleplayer and online challenges set by Codemasters. The career mode is split into rally, hillclimb and rallycross with a fourth an extension on the rallycross component. Each section is further divided into divisions which you have to work your way through to the top class by earning point finishes and by extension promotion. Doing so won’t be easy for as you progress the AI gets quicker and harder to beat but all's not lost. For every finish you earn in-game currency to spend on expanding your garage and hiring mechanics. The latter is important as depending on the perks and skill of your team you can speed up the upgrades, and reduce the time certain repairs take whilst out rallying.
Online leagues are created on DiRT Rally’s website and offer players the opportunity to create their own rallies and challenge all and sundry to set the fastest times. Unfortunately cross-platform play isn’t available here so a league created for the XBox cannot be joined by those playing on PC or PS4. Whilst leagues pit you against fellow drivers you don’t actually race their ghost or see them on track. Instead it’s you versus the course with split times telling you how you’re going against the top time. It’s very much like the real thing though should you end up going faster you won’t have to navigate past a slower car on the course. What this removes is the ability for the more nefarious of online racers from bumping you off or ruining your run. Removing this variable is crucial and makes playing in the leagues thoroughly enjoyable.
The only place where you end up racing fellow players is in the PvP arena more commonly known as Rallycross. Here up to six racers battle it out on a track for supremacy. A full lobby of twelve will see you split into two groups and the player with the most points at the end of that lobby’s run will be deemed the champion and in game currency the reward. What makes rallycross stand out for those unfamiliar with the sport is the joker lap. Each course has an extra component which must be run once in a race. Generally it’s a slightly more technical piece of track designed to keep the racing close. The trick is knowing when to take it and more importantly how to take it as messing it up can cost you win. It’s a wonderful little feature that really works well in online play even if you meet the inevitable punters and crashers that come as part of online racing.
Then there are the cars. Whilst DiRT Rally doesn’t have the official WRC license it has a couple of deals in place with the likes of Volkswagen allowing for some accurate liveries. However what it does have in the way of its car lineup more than makes up for this. Legendary cars spread across the history of the sport are all present and correct. From the giant-killing Mini to the fire-spitting Group B cars of the 80’s all the way to the technological wonders that make up the modern day WRC. There’s even a sentimental nod to Colin McRae for those who choose to drive his 90’s Subaru. They’re all beautifully rendered both visually and audibly and they all sound and look just as they should in glorious 1080p.
Rallying wouldn’t be rallying though without the stages and DiRT Rally has it covered here too. There’s the wintery minefield of Sweden, the gravel endurance of Greece, tarmac funtimes of Monte Carlo, the changeable Rally Wales, an autumnal Finland and the hinkelstein laden German rally. Each location is beautifully rendered and represents its setting well. Be careful not to stop and stare though as the moment you take your eyes off the road is the moment you’ll end up hitting that tree. Make no mistake DiRT Rally is a pretty game as well as a challenging one and it’s an intoxicating mix. To navigate each one safely you’ll need to listen carefully to your co-driver's pacenotes. Miss a step and you’ll likely end up in trouble. It can be disorientating to begin with having to listen at the same time as trying to drive fast but once you learn what each call means it all just blends together. DiRT Rally also includes the uncompromising Pikes Peak hill climb and specific rallycross arenas. These extra rally types really give enough depth and variation to keep things interesting and serve up extra challenges in online play.
What Codemasters has done here is fantastic and whilst there were occasional graphical oddities during play they were relatively rare. Console-based rally enthusiasts looked on with envy when DiRT Rally was launched on PC. Now that it’s finally arrived it’s lived up to all expectations and then some. Whilst its barebones look and feel coupled with a harsh learning curve will likely put off the casual racer, it rewards in spades those who stick with it and persevere. It’s been quite some time since rally fans have had a game that really captures the sport that they love. Whilst DiRT Rally doesn’t have the WRC seal of approval it has the hearts of its die-hard fans.