Network Q Rally on PC, that was the game. For the longest time I could not remember what it was that first got me interested in rally games. I don’t watch the thing, never have and don’t have any real compulsion to but I remember an old game that had Colin McRae’s classic Subaru screaming around a forest. It wasn’t the first driving game I ever played, but it was one which had a lasting impact and it was Dirt Rally that rekindled that passion for this particular brand of automotive action.
One of the main reasons for why I had such a fondness for Net Rally was that you didn’t race, but rather went on something of an adventure. No circuits, no laps, just point A to point B through the sorts of terrain you’d more likely find in a fantasy MMO. It was different, and Dirt Rally was very much that game but with prettier trees and a whole load of ‘oh shit’ from the inevitable clash of car versus cliff, a battle for which there is only ever one winner.
So when the marketing guff says that any little mistake can cost you it is not joking; a bit of understeer can send you careering off a mountain or into a tree, a touch of oversteer can clip on a rock and spin or roll you with the damage from either potentially ending any realistic chance you had of a successful stage. Which isn’t to say that a clean run will guarantee victory either; having made one step out of the initial difficulty in my rally career I found myself struggling to get anywhere near the scoring positions despite minimal contact with anything not identifying as a road. Having made it quite swiftly to the Masters difficulty in the first Dirt Rally this early collision with the learning curve came with something of a shock. While I would not be surprised if my skills had atrophied over the last few years I struggled to imagine that this is the same level of challenge as last time, and suspect that either it’s a bug or that Codemasters ‘listening to the community’ was restricted to the most
psychotic committed. Not that it’s awful; the challenge is core to the appeal, but being stuck so early on is a touch disheartening. Note: turns out it was a bug but nonetheless there is something ‘off’ about the AI times… at times.
That being said the level of nuance in the core driving is unprecedented. The road surfaces are full of unique quirks and details where they almost cease to be roads at all and instead feel more like levels in a precision platformer such is the way in which they are hand crafted. What Dirt Rally 2.0 does, as did its predecessor, is to introduce a tension rarely experienced within the driving genre. Speed, as ever, is what you want but never has it come at greater risk. With a now limited number of restarts per event it’s become even more vital to reign in those instincts that you’re so used to relying on in the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo. Even with all the assists the game has to offer there’s no escaping the threat of an imminent, potentially terminal crash.
Success demands a number of considerations; tyre compound, when to break and by how much, when to turn, when to accelerate, taking account of the weather, surface degradation, road camber, road elevation, not to mention your car’s own handling quirks and any damage you may currently be managing. Cars can be tuned and upgraded but unless you have an active interest and understanding in how the tuning affects performance (or otherwise look up a guide) it can feel confusing as to what, if anything, would help in your particular circumstance. In other words, it’s a game for obsessives, fans of detail and kinds of people who don’t even consider not playing the game without a steering wheel, pedals and their own favourite brand of racing chair. For everyone else though there are aspects of the game that will likely forever remain opaque.
But while some aspects are a little too involved, some are just strange or outright daft. For a sequel Dirt Rally 2.0 is rather light in content. With only 6 locations and no snow based tracks it can feel a little samey at times relative to the first game and beyond some livery selection there is very little customisation to enjoy. Career mode is now tied to the developer’s Race Net online service and so quite apart from putting the game on death row puts your single player experience at the mercy of a central server. It makes sense for the various community events and challenges, but tying the basic career mode to an online service leaves a rather nasty smell where there appears to be no noticeable benefit.
One very noticeable change is the improvement in the visuals. Dirt Rally was far from an ugly game but the compromises needed to accommodate the long stretches of roadside landscape were telling. 2.0 has a much greater fidelity across the board; car models are sharp and get believably dirtied up, standing water glistens in the mud when the sun shines and the lighting is especially gorgeous, typified when breaking through the flanking tree lines. Similarly when the weather turns nasty the atmosphere is agreeably gloomy, carrying a thick, almost claustrophobic air as your tyres spin against the sodden muck. The audio is also top notch, with every roar and screech lovingly rendered so that you get the best (and worst) sounds the sport can offer.
That Codemasters lack the WRC licence is unfortunate, however if the licence demands had been for annual releases then it is perhaps for the best that they do not. As it is the career mode is shorn of personality somewhat and can feel sterile and overly
British sober at times. Winning a stage, event, or even an entire championship is met with very little fanfare and is strangely at odds with just how satisfying it can be to nail a challenging course. I’ll be hands aloft in triumph, fist pumping and letting out suppressed grunts of joy while my co-driver will inform me of the victory as if he’s telling me about his variable rate mortgage.
Aside from the obvious glory, success yields credits which you will need for repairs, upgrades and purchasing new vehicles. There is a pretty decent variety in cars and rally classes but you’ll likely find yourself investing mostly in your engineering team who can make those much needed repairs all the quicker and more efficient. With many long stages and damage pretty much an inevitability it becomes and essential investment to keep competitive.
Outside of the main career mode and community challenges there is the FIA Rallycross championship, custom events, time trials and some period-themed standalone championships, however they cover the same tracks as the career so can feel a little redundant beyond testing out cars and courses without fear of penalty. There is also something of a missed opportunity with the historical rallies as each is presented with a little background as to the period but is frustratingly brief where it could have done more to immerse you in the sport and its rich heritage.
At its core Dirt Rally 2.0 is an exceptional game, subtly building upon the already superb foundations of its predecessor. What disappoints this time around is the feeling that it could have had more; more tracks and location variety, more cars, better presentation beyond the graphics etc. The always online component doesn’t help so it’s hard to give it an unqualified recommendation despite its quality. It is however, a lot of fun, and offers a considerable challenge for those who feel untested in the realm of motorsport.