Let’s get dirty…
I can feel the loose gravel on the dirt track crunching beneath the wheels of my Subaru Impreza, the traction reduced as I wrestle with the steering to keep the car in the center of the road. I can hear my co-driver tell me there’s an upcoming right turn but, in my waning concentration, I miss whether it’s a 2 or a 3. I slam on the breaks and push the car into the turn realising too late that I’m going too fast; my rear end clips a rock and I hear a crash as something comes loose and falls off the back of my car. All I can think is; I hope that wasn’t important! Yeah, this is Dirt Rally, and it’s damn good.
Game: Dirt Rally
(Review code provided by publisher)
PC specs/set up: Windows 10, Intel Core i7-4770 @3.40GHz, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 660, 2TB HDD and Xbox 360 wired controller
For a very long time, one of my favourite Rally sims was Mobil 1 Rally Championship on PC. I still have it on CD and, while it’s looking a bit long in the tooth now (it was published over sixteen years ago!) it’s still an impressive game, its tracks based off actual Ordinance Survey data with aerial photography textures, its damage model convincing and punishing. It’s this game that I immediately thought of when playing Codemasters recently released sim, Dirt Rally.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played a rally sim this challenging and, make no mistake, Dirt is a super challenging game. Moving on from the arcade confines of their Dirt and Grid racing series, Codemasters have taken things back to the realm of the hardcore. Punishing, realistic weather conditions and damage are the name of the game here as well as real world tracks (albeit with slight modifications in places) lend the game a sense of authenticity. It’s likely I won’t be driving a car at high speeds though a Welsh forest in real life any time soon, but this game gives me an idea of what that might feel like. In a word, terrifying.
I can’t help but grit my teeth through the average run. When the weather conditions are, shall we say, inclement, I can almost feel my fingers digging into the plastic of my controller as my car slides across icy roads or ploughs headlong through darkness or fog. It’s a wonderful experience heightened by the games audio/visual presentation. While not as shiny as other current gen racing games such as DriveClub, Forza 6 or Project Cars, Dirt Rally has a gritty sense of realism that’s only reduced while sat at the start line looking at the frankly awfully rendered human characters. When driving, however, the experience is uncanny. The cars all feel “right” from the lightweight 1960’s Mini which judders and clanks as it’s subjected to high speeds, to the more modern cars which feel solid, smooth and disconcertingly fast. Damage is realistic with chassis buckling and parts falling off as you would expect; I once had to finish a race after losing a tyre which was a fun experience (not). It’s gruelling and the constant sense of imminent danger, when one wrong move can cost you precious seconds or even the entire race, keeps you focussed.
Structurally, Dirt Rally takes a somewhat simplistic approach to game modes. For single players, there’s a campaign mode which is probably the most challenging part of the game. Here you start by buying a cheap car from the lower end of the scale (I started with a mini) and build up your technical crew by hiring engineers dedicated to fixing specific bits on your car. Each leg of the season is made up of four races but beginners need to beware – any damage accrued in a race carries over to all races for the remainder of that season with the only opportunity to repair your car coming between tracks two and three. Here you can get your engineers to fix things up at the expense of a time delay on the next race. Obviously the more engineers you have and the more experienced they are, the quicker you’ll get your repairs. You get money for completing races which can be used to buy different vehicles and hire different crew, as well as upgrading your crew members with perks to help boost performance on your car by developing specific upgrades. It adds a unique dynamic that I’ve not experienced in past rally games and makes you think about how you’re going to approach a whole season, rather than just the piecemeal racing of individual tracks.
Outside of the campaign, you can set up one off races and even full seasons on a selection of tracks under different conditions. Here all vehicles are unlocked and ready for play, rather than being behind a (virtual) paywall, which means you can try out the higher end cars as soon as you boot the game. It’s great for practice and, as the stakes are lower than the campaign, I found myself angling more towards here just to race in different vehicles and look at the impressive weather simulations.
As well as standard the Rally mode there’s also the challenging Pikes Peak hill climb which can be taken over the full extent of the twelve mile track, or split into shorter stages. This is driven without the aid of a co-pilot and is even more terrifying than the standard rally as care and concentration needs to be taken on every turn. Rounding out the game modes is Rally Cross, a head to head track race in rally cars. This mode is challenging but scrappy fun as you throw your vehicle around slippery, windy tracks. As you’re playing for position, there’s always an urgency to take things a little bit more recklessly than in the standard Rally mode.
Online there are a number of weekly and daily challenges which place players on an asynchronous leaderboard. This is a great feature of modern games, where you can compete without having to directly interact online, something I enjoyed when I reviewed Guitar Hero Live earlier this year, but unfortunately Dirt Rally, for the most part, gates participation in this mode based on the cars you have bought in the campaign. While there are a number of challenges that open up to a stock selection of vehicles, for most of them, if you don’t have the car in your garage, you can’t compete. There is also online PvP in the form of the aforementioned Rally Cross.
I’ve already talked about the games visuals but it should also be mentioned that it runs very well. I’m running a PC set up which is over two years old, with a fairly budget graphics card. Off a fresh install I threw the settings up to Ultra and ran the benchmark which gave me playable, if inconsistent frame rate between 40 and 60FPS. For the first few races I set the visuals to high to give a more consistent frame rate before dipping into the GeForce control panel and letting that optimise the visuals which gave me great graphics and great performance with occasionally noticeable framerate drops. Nothing game breaking, though.
Dirt Rally is a superb return to racing sims for a company that has skewed far more towards the arcade end of the spectrum in recent years. The generous selection of courses and vehicles will provide a good deal of challenge, only enhanced by the realistic driving and damage mechanics and challenging career mode. If you like your racing games, Dirt Rally is a must own. Well, if you’re on PC that is. PS4 and Xbox One owners, for once, you have to wait until next year.