visually impressive but too light on content
This review is for the PC, playing with both a wheel and a controller.
First off, here's what I like about the game:
Codemasters have always made games that are very pretty to look at, and in this respect Dirt Rally is hard to beat, even as Dirt 4 has been released. So if visual immersion is your priority, look no further, this game offers a luxurious experience for you.
Playing the game with my GTX 960 card I had no technical issues with the game, no game crashes or noticeable framedrops. I'm also glad they developed a game that works really well with hardware that is not the very latest, unlike most AAA games. This is praiseworthy.
The driving physics is challenging, it fully reminds me of Richard Burns Rally. If you have never played a sim racing game before you will be in for a challenge. If you have played other sim games, you will have a good idea of what Dirt Rally demands from you. You will never do well on your first attempts, as you need to learn how the car behaves and more or less memorize every stage. This learning process is what makes sim racing a great deal of fun. It can be very rewarding. We haven't seen a rally game this technically demanding since Richard Burns Rally, apart from some early rFactor stuff and a few 'Richard Burn' mods.
The stage rallies are the best part of Dirt Rally for me. It's what I bought the game for. Dirt Rally offers lengthy rally stages to traverse, and there is some variety in the locations you get to see and experience, complete with snow, rain, mud and so on. It's not much, but what's there is good. Combined with top-notch graphics and excellent sound design, you get a very immersive experience. That's the big pull of this game, what Codemasters are exceptionally good at.
The Career mode is arcade-like but that's a good thing in my opinion, it's similar to the old McRae games. Being arcade-like, it provides you with goals to aim for, to keep you racing and improving. A regular PC sim would never offer something like this.
Playing Dirt Rally with a controller is not easy but it's definitely playable. I often play sim games with a controller though, so keep that in mind. Still, as with any technically demanding game (NHL, FIFA, NBA, Dark Souls ...), with enough practise and patience you should be fine playing Dirt Rally with a controller.
Here's what I don't like though:
Rallycross. I've never been a fan of Rallycross, especially in games that try to make it as "realistic" as possible, as in Dirt Rally and Sebastian Loeb Rally. I simply don't think it's particularily fun. While I enjoy watching stage rally on TV, I have little interest in watching RallyCross. That's probably the root of my issue. What this unfortunately means though, is that 40-50% of Dirt Rally is not fun for me to play, I won't touch it unless I have to. In the previous Dirt games the Rallycross was a much smaller component and was more arcade, so it was OK to do once in a while.
The lack of content. Compared to the other Dirt games and Sebastian Loab Rally, Dirt Rally offers only a small amount of content. For one thing you only get 6 countries to drive around in, and the game simply repeats the same stages during the Championship. You have the before-mentioned Rallycross, and a negligible amount of Hillclimb. So for the asking price - and comparison to other recent rally games - you don't get that much content.
Very grindy, with not enough variety. The process of learning the car and memorizing the tracks/stages can become tedious and boring in a sim game, perhaps more so if you have never played one before. You need variety to alleviate or prevent a sense of tediousness from creeping in. Unfortunately, Codemasters did not design enough rally stages and rally locations to balance or tame this sense of grinding: 'Oh, here's Finland again, .. and this stage once again'. This was OK in 2005 perhaps, but not in 2016. Especially since Codemasters did not have to follow a strict location-limit, as Kylotonn have to do with their WRC games or Milestone with their MotoGP games. Codemasters had the complete freedom to create as many diverse locations as possible. No modern rally game should offer just 6 countries to race around in.
The game supposedly offers plenty of assists for people who are not looking for a die-hard experience. However, even with all the assists turned on, you will not be able to play this as you would Dirt 1-3 or a WRC game. This is a shame, since all other sim games - from rFactor 2, Automobilista and RaceRoomExperience - offer settings for people who are looking for a more arcade experience. I feel Codemasters missed out on a big opportunity here. A large number of people have bought into Dirt Rally, but how many have actually stuck to it for more than a month or so?!
A mish-mash of content. Dirt Rally started out as an experiement, that somehow got really popular. Codemasters therefore decided to sell the game at full-price, which meant they were forced to add more content than just the existing stage rallies. The game does not feel cohesive to me as a result, in the same way the other Dirt games did, and other recent rally games do. It feels as if the Rallycross and Hillclimb is "tacked on" simply for the sake of adding more content.
It's also not what the fans were craving for, they wanted more locations, more countries to do stage rallies in. They also wanted a more extensive multiplayer mode, and DLC content. Codemasters had other plans though. As a product then, Dirt Rally feels like a prototype for Dirt 4 to me. Had Codemasters focused solely on adding more stage rallies, it would have been more successful and cohesive as a game.
In summary, Dirt Rally offers an exceptionally immersive experience in terms of visuals, physics and sound. However, for me there is not enough of content to justify the pricetag. It's also a game that feels too short, incomplete and abandoned. Even after being released, it still feels like the one-off experiement it started out as.