I had a ritual when it came to most driving games; sit back, put some music on, and roll around the track for however long it took to win. Be it Forza, Gran Turismo, or the much missed Project Gotham my approach was one of relaxation and taking in the amazing graphics that racing games are so often the vanguard for. There was always the potential for challenge; to turn things up and test the limits of my modest skill, but the option to just take the easy road was often much too tempting. Dirt Rally doesn’t so much buck this trend as run it off the road over a cliff.
The announcement of the game’s appearance on Steam Early Access was something of a surprise, and some had suggested that this was due to potential experimentation with regards to some of the systems that Codemasters were working on. Well it must be admitted that it has paid dividends as the end result is arguably one of the best racing games ever developed. Beautiful, challenging and ever so satisfying, Dirt Rally really does make you respect those daring souls who charge around such treacherous terrain in real life, and at such terrifying speed.
When it comes to its audience Dirt Rally has no time for mollycoddling. There are no racing lines for you to follow, and while it does have options to include traction and stability control, these really don’t help as much as you might imagine. Here, skill is Queen and she only rewards her subjects who put in the effort to learn the courses and master the varied terrain. Regardless of how many assists you turn on, and the game reduces your rewards for it, the danger of crashing out is ever present, making every stage a tense test of concentration and holding your nerve.
The flip-side of this tough love approach is the excitement of a clean stage completed and the satisfaction of doing well. In terms of progression the game focuses on difficulty. It doesn’t matter whether you’re driving a cute 1960s Mini or a modern day rally monster, the level of reward and challenge is linked to your own performance, and crucially, your consistency of performance. The career mode has you take part in Championships where you choose the vehicle class, but where the AI difficulty is set by your performance in the previous Championship. Finish in the top 3 and you are promoted, place in the bottom 3 and you are relegated, and the potential rewards, which you use to unlock new cars, are far larger for those who manage to ascend through the Open, Clubman, Professional, Elite, and finally Masters difficulties. It is a fantastic system and rewards quality of performance over the quantity of playtime.
That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to playing a lot. As the potential for crashing looms large and where even a clean run can cause damage, you need to periodically repair your car, which is where the crew system comes in. When you start you get given a Crew Chief who will allow for your cars to be upgraded and repaired as you play, you will also unlock crew slots to hire engineers who can assist in making repairs faster and quickening upgrade development. Each engineer must be hired however and they work on a contract basis, where after a set number of completed stages they leave. You have to ensure that you have enough funds to keep them employed, and the better the engineer, the more they cost. The value in continued play is that the more miles you cover the more engineer slots and perk slots you gain access to. These slots can in turn be filled with purchasing perks to improve their abilities further.
It pays to make the most of this as you do not get the opportunity to repair after each stage, so a degree of care is required to ensure you don’t crash out and can maintain a car that's capable of being competitive. Car damage is modelled quite extensively, and even apparently minor driving errors can be mercilessly punished. All this creates a delicious tension as you balance the desire to go as fast as possible with the knowledge that if you push things too far, it won’t take much to put you out of the race entirely.
Dirt Rally also benefits a great deal from its visuals. The technological advances in graphics have allowed for some fantastic modelling of nuanced terrain, and the developers have gone to great lengths to have every crest, bump, and hairpin feel unique. This contributes a large proportion to the game's demand for actual skill and effort as your approach to each course must be suitably unique in return. The dips and turns all seem to have their own quirks to keep you on your toes and catch out the unwary. The road surfaces too are also incredibly varied and feel more realistic than ever. Snow crunches underneath your wheels making the car feel sluggish and slippery, gravel kicks up and rumbles as you pass over, while asphalt feels smooth, granting you the best traction. It’s really impressive to see such a great application of graphical technology beyond the merely cosmetic, whilst the different times of day and weather effects only add to the already top notch visuals.
There are also other modes beyond the basic rally events. With the World Rally Championship licence in another’s hands, Codemasters have got in with the FIA for some Rallycross action. It’s not as engaging as the standard point-to-point rallying but can be an entertaining change up in pace and tone where you take to the track to compete against other drivers directly. There is also a Hill Climb mode where you, as you might already expect, race through various stages up a hill. Both modes have much smaller car selections, and while they have equal prominence on the menu, it’s clear that neither was the main focus here. There are also a slew of other options to round things off; custom championships, online daily, weekly, monthly, and other pvp events. There are even online leagues you can setup for yourself and others to compete in.
All in all Dirt Rally is a glorious experience; combining great graphics, incredible handling, and a genuine sense of challenge. For someone with relatively little interest in motor racing generally it was a revelation to be so thoroughly gripped by its depiction here. Codemasters have made a loud, dirty, and visceral experience that makes perhaps the best case yet as to the thrilling pleasures of burning rubber.