Codemasters actively stated that they wanted to bring a more simulation feel to their latest racer, Dirt Rally. The result is a sweaty-palm inducing, nerve wrecking test of concentration that’s possibly the most fun I’ve had with a racing game for quite some time.
Game: Dirt Rally
Publisher: Codemasters/Koch Media
(Review copy provided)
If, like me, you’re slightly ignorant to the more deeply rooted details of the sport then Dirt Rally won’t come naturally at first. It’s brutal and punishing to anyone who steps into it without any sense of caution, and at the early stages simply finishing a course will feel like an achievement in its own right. That’s essentially what makes Codemasters’ latest racer so outstanding; nothing comes easily and because of that small victories feel genuinely earned. Thankfully, the console version of the game now comes with a set of tutorials to help unwitting new players pick up the basics. Learning the finer points of feathering the throttle and scandinavian flicks aren’t just included as generic fluff designed to immerse you in the sport – they’re actually useful and most of the time, absolutely necessary, if you’re going to hit those winning times.
The techniques and general racing also feel authentic thanks to a brand new and well implemented physics engine that makes handbreaking around a gravel corner at speed exhilarating and on the other hand, makes even the thought of moving through the gears on an icy mountainside climb downright scary. Whilst all those variables such as track surface, weather and even time of day play massive roles in how you’d approach each course, so do the cars themselves. Each one has a learning curve of its own due to their variety and unique styles . Approaching a corner in a newly purchased Renault Alpine, for example, felt wildly different to the front wheel drive Classic Mini I was driving previously, much to the detriment of local wildlife and roadside onlookers.
There’s a whole bunch of those classic cars and iconic rally favourites to aspire to throughout your time in game. As you might expect, competing in events and races provide you with the currency to buy them, that in turn allow you to compete in other events. The rate of progression does feel a little slow, meaning you might have to grind out the same races several times to get the car you’re after. Although, it’s not a massive problem because unlike a lot of other racing titles, the real progression feels like it lies in the gameplay itself as you improve as a driver, rather than what’s in your garage.
Career mode lets you take part in the game’s greatest facet, the rally championships. Each event is made up of several lengthy time-trial courses ranging from scenic country tracks to steep, blizzard ridden mountain views. Dirt Rally might not quite have the visual oomph of its PC counterpart but the consoles certainly hold their own in that department with some great 60fps visuals – providing you manage to give yourself a spare split second to take it all in. Gameplay is then fleshed out with employable engineers who help fix damage and upgrade cars. It all costs your hard earned winnings, as does the forgiving ‘retry’ option that remains one of the few moments the game actually has some pity on you.
Codemasters seemed to have found a perfect balance of risk/reward with the currency system. I’d often find myself taking more risks and failing miserably, without feeling totally demoralised due to the incoming paycheck and the opportunity to improve without being set back too much. Because of that you’re afforded the freedom to drive on the edge, that in turn creates moments of intense concentration, heart-in-mouth corners that can lead to utter joy if you come out of them unscathed. It’s not just the finish line I’m referring to either; every twist, turn and crest you’re challenged with offers up the chance of success and failure, and it’s all kinds of fun when things start clicking.
Out of the rallying itself you’ll find some other events to compete in. Rallycross provides a more standard race-track setup against 3-5 other AI cars that can be just as unforgiving if you’re not firmly on your toes at all times. Hill climb is another additional mode that allows you take on the infamous Pike’s Peak but both modes seem to lack the immediate urgency that the rally championships produce. Unfortunately, the bulk of the tracks remain with the rallying side of the game, meaning there’s not a great deal of variety in the other modes. Infact, overall, the depth of gameplay itself manages to completely overshadow Dirt Rally’s general offering when it comes to features – it can get pretty thin on the ground and even the engineer and upgrading portions of the game don’t really feel as fleshed out as they probably could have been. There’s some online modes, too. Daily events and time trials are presented for gamers to scrap over, whilst some lightweight head-to-head racing finishes the line-up. Neither present anything but a boost to longevity and rarely produce the same excitement as the single player does.
No matter what you think of the game’s lack of content, it can’t be denied that Dirt Rally is one hell of a racing game. Whether it be from your co-driver barking instructions, or the game’s spectacular sound design, you’ll be completely engrossed at the wheel. You’ll be taking in every corner, measuring every gear change, often hoping for the best as you’re flying over a crest with nothing but sky in your windscreen. Fans that love any type of racing owe themselves to play Dirt Rally – it’s probably only a handful of features short of being the best racing sim I’ve ever played.