The nose of my Impreza dives forward under heavy braking, and for a moment I feel as if I’m going to fall out the front windshield. A quick tug on the emergency brake, and the rear end whips around with total precision. As I haven’t upgraded Subaru’s 2001 WRC entry to the maximum level yet, kamikaze corner entries are the only chance I have at maintaining my spot on the podium. For a moment, I’m able to glance up at a photographer atop a natural perch above the corner apex. I stare directly into his camera lens before re-focusing my eyes on the exit of the corner. My plastic steering wheel murmurs in my hands, mimicking early 2000’s power steering as I shift up through third, fourth, and eventually fifth gear. A German flag hangs above a group of spectators surrounding a camp fire, and my ride omits a harsh scraping sound while I whiz past them at triple the road’s legal speed limit.
Bottoming out at 170 km/h is something I’ve come to expect at least three times on this stage. And unlike Wales, where every spectator brought out their rain coats and massive winter jackets, Germany has given blessed the pack of virtual WRC fans with beautiful t-shirt weather.
Among the crowd, I can pick out lawn chairs, security marshalls, and even a drone flying above the track, possibly capturing footage for an upcoming Red Bull or Monster Energy advert. The next hairpin is equally intense, and I can make out the material of the caution tape the hay bales have been wrapped up in. Pushing even harder through the final sector, both the car and my steering wheel become light over crests, and I’m forced to pray there isn’t a blind corner over the next hill. The car simply wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Maximum attack. Only a second off the French guy in first place. In any other rally sim, I’d have a comfortable lead with this kind of pace. Not here. Codemasters wants me to earn this one.
The game stutters ever so slightly. Thank god I’m on a straight section of road where my inputs wouldn’t be affected. The co-driver, for whatever reason, is calling out turns far too early, despite stellar navigational calls on the previous stage. Human error, or something that should have been patched before version 1.0? No time to think about that, an extremely technical left/right section is my best chance of making up time. The first apex, I can count the individual blades of grass my car is about to flatten. The second, I can almost reach out and touch the stones preventing me from cutting the track. Back under power, it’s becoming increasingly clear I won’t pull off a victory in Germany, but the final few hairpins and rhythm sections are still just as satisfying to nail. Dancing over the hills and sucked to the ground when the suspension compresses in the lowest point of a valley, there is no guesswork needed to pilot a car in DiRT Rally.
Unifying next-generation graphics with a physics model completely re-built from the ground up, DiRT Rally allows you to comprehend how mere mortals can participate in sixteen World Rally Championship events each year. The stunning visuals tug your eyes in every direction, while your hands are able to make pin-point accurate wheel inputs thanks to fantastic force feedback effects once thought impossible for Codemasters to achieve. Shuddering under power, throttle control becomes instinctual thanks to a direct connection between what’s happening on your computer screen, and how your toy steering wheel is behaving while firmly in your grasp. The longer stages drag you into a trance; the fourth, fifth, and sixth minute of your assault on Sweet Lamb sucking you into a state of hyper-focus where braking points and E-Brake slides are executed with cold and calculated precision. Rarely does a racing simulator do this good of a job at conveying what it’s like to drive a world class race car from the comfort of your own home.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, DiRT Rally is fucking wild when it’s firing on all cylinders.
But sometimes, the engine is down on power. It doesn’t happen every time you boot up the game, but occasionally, you’re reminded that this was a Codemasters side project made on a fairly tight budget. DiRT Rally is pretty damn close to being one of the best racing simulators ever made, but this brush with perfection makes even the slightest annoyances become major grievances. With the raw racing being leaps and bounds ahead of, well… anything else on the market, you begin to wish that the rest of the game was polished to the same extent.
DiRT Rally can be amazing, punishing, and satisfying, all in the span of thirty minutes, but DiRT Rally could have also been so much better.
While 2004’s Richard Burns Rally was crowned as the almighty king of rally simulators almost immediately after launch, many WRC fans believed the larger budget Codemasters had been graced with would allow them to churn out an even better title. Migrating to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2007, the team slowly distanced itself from the Colin McRae namesake and instead launched an all encompassing off-road racing franchise by the name of DiRT. As the modding community surrounding Richard Burns Rally continued to expand and extend the game’s lifespan among hardcore WRC enthusiasts, Codemasters released three iterations of the DiRT series, with point-to-point rally racing taking a back seat to one of many different off road racing disciplines. Fans begged for a return to the roots of the Colin McRae Playstation 2 games, putting up with the extreme sports-laden entries in the meantime, but instead Codemasters released a demolition derby spin-off named DiRT Showdown.
Budget cuts, downsizing, and a few consecutive years of poor Formula One titles made racing game fans lose hope in the direction Codemasters had been taking with the studio itself.
Yet in the spring of 2015, DiRT Rally was released on Steam’s Early Access program. There was no announcement, no marketing hype, and no foreshadowing aside from a strange ATI Catalyst Control Center profile uploaded in the weeks prior, which most dismissed as an alternative configuration for the upcoming DiRT 3 Complete Edition. We literally woke up one day and found out Codemasters built a hardcore rally simulation for us, and we could buy it right now.
60 hours of driving and eight months of updates later, the game has finally graduated from the Early Access program into Version 1.0. Looking into my crystal ball, this will be a game many people buy for themselves as a Christmas present, and I assure you that you’re making a good decision, and you’re going to have a lot of fun with the game. But as I said above, it’s so close to perfection, the little things start to bother you just a little bit more than they normally would in any other racing sim.
Ignore the build notes, ignore the marketing hype, and ignore what users are saying on the various sim racing message boards: DiRT Rally’s track selection is criminally weak. Featuring six environments, with only two stages in each, a complete run-through of every full point-to-point rally stage available in DiRT Rally can be accomplished in a mere 75 minutes.
To inflate the track count to ridiculous numbers that in no way represent the variety you’re actually receiving, the two main stages in each environment are chopped up into segments, and the count is multiplied yet again by the use of both forward and reverse layouts. Talented sim racers will make a beeline straight for the longest version of each stage, and as they become comfortable with their preferred car of choice, it’s entirely possible for an experienced driver to complete every stage available in a combined total of less than an hour. As Career Mode, as well as the online events make very liberal use of the fragmented tracks, it’s not uncommon to race the exact same stage section upwards of four times over the course of a single sitting.
However, on a more positive note, the stages themselves are meticulously modeled after real-world WRC stops instead of liberal interpretations of pre-existing locations, with the highlights being the actual Col de Turini and Sweet Lamb layouts. Out of boredom a few weeks ago I had been watching a 2005 WRC Year in Review video on YouTube, and during on-board footage from the opening round at Monte Carlo, I was able to recognize entire sections of the infamous mountain descent, as the stage in DiRT Rally was a near 1:1 recreation. This attention to detail explains why the actual track count is such a small number, as Codemasters essentially had to build a track the length of the Nordschleife twelve times over, but even the most precise recreation of a stage can’t hide the fact that you can see everything the game has to offer in an hour.
While not as empty as the track selection, DiRT Rally’s car roster also suffers from some very noticeable gaps. As the relevant history of the World Rally Championship dates back only to the 1970’s, the list of iconic cars who have participated in the prestigious championship is extremely short compared to the likes of Touring Car racing or Formula One. While Grand Prix teams roll out an entirely new car model at the beginning of each season, some WRC teams continue to use the same exact car model for multiple seasons in a row, and as a WRC fan it’s much easier to develop a loyalty to a specific manufacturer when a certain car has seen action for five or six years at a time before moving onto a new evolution.
Every 1980’s Group B monster is available to drive, but Tommi Mäkinen’s various dominant Mitsubishi Lancers of the late 1990’s are nowhere to be found, save for one amateur-level Lancer Evo X. The 2011 Ford Fiesta and 2011 Mini Countryman were among the first cars to be included in the initial Early Access launch of DiRT Rally, but Sebastien Loeb’s World Championship 2011 Citroen DS3 is notably absent.The Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Colin McRae’s 1995 Subaru Impreza, and the Ford Escort Cosworth combine to form the 1990’s Group A class, but the Toyota Celica adorning the cover of 90’s arcade racer Sega Rally is also absent. In a rather strange move, as if Codemasters themselves are aware that there are notable gaps in the car selection the 2001 Subaru Impreza and 1999 Ford Focus are awkwardly shoe-horned into a class alongside the 2007 Citroen C4.
Yet, what is available in DiRT Rally is modeled with such precision, and each car behaves so drastically different from the one before it, that it’s entirely possible to fall in love with one car and only one car for the complete duration of your time with DiRT Rally. There very well may be people who own this game and never drive anything other than the 1980’s BMW M3 E30, and I can’t blame them. The subtle nuances of each car are recreated so well, you’ll quickly find one that becomes yours, and it will be a challenge to let it go.
It’s just a shame that, with such a convincing physics model conveying what makes each iconic rally car featured in DiRT Rally so special and unique, not every piece of WRC history has received the DiRT Rally treatment.
And no better is this ominous shortcoming displayed in the game’s two off-shoot modes, Hillclimb and Rallycross. As a nod to the Pikes Peak Hill Climb featured in the original DiRT title released in 2007, Codemasters have re-built the legendary Colorado point-to-point event in DiRT Rally, though the mode’s inclusion is a complete afterthought. Featuring just three cars from the late 1980’s and one track, with no functionality to allow the other 35+ cars onto the prestigious Rocky Mountain time trial, after a few runs up the mountain, there is no incentive to ever return.
Rallycross has not fared much better. Codemasters have gone out of their way to include the Monster Energy World RallyCross series in DiRT Rally, but one can see all the discipline has to offer in roughly ten minutes of driving. Though the team have managed to acquire almost the entire grid of WorldRX drivers spread among six different car models, by default the game only includes three circuits located in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Norway. Like the point-to-point stages in the main bulk of the game, the RallyCross track count is padded by Amateur and Clubman variants, some of which are so utterly pointless you wonder why Codemasters included them in the first place.
Offline, Codemasters have attempted to tie the entire game together with a comprehensive Career Mode, but in execution the monotony of driving the same twelve stages over and over again with slightly harder opponents turns the game into a tedious grind. Starting you off in a 1960’s front wheel drive land yacht, Codemasters have allowed you to freely progress throughout the various classes of cars granted you’ve acquired the funding to purchase them. As you win a championship on each difficulty, the length of the season increases, as does the level of opponents, until you’re receiving enormous payouts against Master Class AI drivers regardless of your finishing position.
Rewarding players who stick with the same car over multiple championships through engine, turbo, weight reduction, and braking upgrades, players also have the option of spending a portion of their winnings on hiring various team members to remain competitive during the more difficult championships. The meta-game of maintaining a full roster of crew members to ensure your car can be adequately repaired in-between each stage is a welcomed extra layer of depth to an otherwise routine championship campaign, but talented drivers will soon earn more than enough funds to offset any expenses that come with looking after their crew.
Two separate Career Modes are also available for both Hill Climb and RallyCross events, though the comically small track selection offered for both disciplines makes it damn near impossible to recommend for anyone to spend time grinding through the same three tracks over and over again, just for a slight increase in difficulty.
The eventual reward for completing a long, arduous season on the highest difficulty in Career Mode pales in comparison to what rally games of a previous generation have offered. Gone are the days of admiring your car in the paddock, being worked on by a team of engineers prior to your assault on the next stage, and the podium celebration after you’ve successfully completed an event is also a thing of the past. Instead, the fruits of your labor are now represented by a floating silver overall standings box. It’s a tough pill to swallow for the amount of blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put in.
Those wanting human competition will be pleased to know that DiRT Rally offers a fairly comprehensive Online Leagues option using in-game functionality. Throughout Early Access, we here at PRC.net were easily able to set up a a number of various online events through the RaceNet DiRT Rally league creator, and users could participate in each event whenever they had a few minutes to spare. Every single event went off without a hitch while adhering to the scheduled start time, and there wasn’t a single server error that crippled the event for everyone. Those with tight-knit online communities looking for a competitive racing sim, but can’t get everyone on the same page for a league night? This is exactly what you’re looking for, and it works as smoothly as its been advertised.
Yet, despite these comprehensive online league options, the act of physically racing against other cars on the track has been restricted to online RallyCross events. Whereas DiRT 2 and DiRT 3 allowed up to eight drivers to all participate on the same rally stage, launching in five second intervals, DiRT Rally does not let you compete against other drivers on the same stage. I miss the challenge of being on a killer run, only to have to discover a way to get around the car in front of me, and that doesn’t exist in DiRT Rally.
A few technical hiccups do plague DiRT Rally from time to time, sometimes drastically affecting the gameplay. The game’s co-driver is downright brilliant when he’s calling out pacenotes in sync with your driving, but his accuracy varies between each individual stage. Running two Finland stages back to back, my co-driver performed phenomenally during a short sprint stage, yet he was ridiculously ahead of schedule on the 12 kilometer behemoth, to the point where some of the turns he called out didn’t appear for a good ten or twelve seconds. At speeds eclipsing 190 km/h, you can’t have this, and it’s frustrating that the quality of the co-driver varies on every single stage in the game.
DiRT Rally also ships with some of the most brutal cockpit cameras I’ve ever seen in a modern racing sim. Allowing users to select from both a traditional cockpit view, and a Daytona USA-like dash view, the two cameras are woefully inadequate, and the rFactor-like seat adjustments do absolutely nothing to rectify the fact that some cameras literally have you staring at your car’s hood. Tweaking the cockpit cameras to your liking is a painful process involving the conversion of XML files and fiddling with numbers by hand, forcing some of the hardcore guys to stick with one or two primary cars in an effort to avoid the painful process of configuring a custom camera.
Framerate issues have also crept up on my machine. I’m able to lock the game at a constant 60 FPS and have a buttery smooth experience for 45 seconds at a time, though occasionally the game dips to a framerate in the high 40’s for two or three seconds. At some points it feels tied into the game’s physics engine, as the dip in framerate directly begins to affect my controller inputs and force feedback effects. It rarely happens, but when it does, you wish it would stop for good.
To round out the list of my personal grievances, the lack of a modern rock/electronic soundtrack is a bit disappointing. For three DiRT titles in a row, Codemasters had an impeccable knack for compiling a fantastic list of 40+ alternative rock & electronica tracks that immediately found a home on my portable music player. I didn’t think I’d miss the angst-ridden lyrics of Rise Against or Templeton Pek until they were replaced by upbeat elevator music. The lack of a photo mode is also slightly frustrating. If you haven’t been able to tell by some of the beautiful stills circulating around the internet, DiRT Rally is one hell of a good looking game, and currently there isn’t a way to properly capture some of the game’s finer moments.
I think my opinion of DiRT Rally would be drastically different had I not bought the game the day it was released on Steam’s Early Access program. Shipping with only six stages and seventeen cars, many of us early adopters were so thrilled at the prospect of a modern replacement for Richard Burns Rally, we exhausted the initial list of content available in DiRT Rally only a few weeks after launch. Codemasters did a fantastic job of continuously providing new content on a monthly basis to hold up their end of the Early Access bargain, but hardcore guys like myself would immediately rush home from work to try the new set of stages and features that had been added in at the beginning of each month, only to put down the game after a few days and wait patiently for the next update – an update that sometimes wouldn’t come for a month or two.
Now that Version 1.0 has arrived, it’s hard to continue to be excited about DiRT Rally. Some of us have memorized every track, driven every car, finished Career Mode, and competed in numerous online leagues long before the official launch of the game earlier today. It’s important to note that Codemasters have taken everyone to school on how to release and support an Early Access title on Steam without pissing anyone off, but a large majority of those who have owned the game since the spring are already bored of it. If there was any downfall to Codemasters using the Early Access program for DiRT Rally, it’s that the hardcore guys have already played the shit out of it and moved on.
While I can easily point out things that could have been done better, features that should have been expanded upon, or cars that should have been included, the version of DiRT Rally that exists on the Steam store, warts and all, is easily worth the asking price. The sim obviously isn’t for everyone, and may be a bit too punishing for the inexperienced drivers among us, but those with the balls to give it a shot will probably come to enjoy their time spent with DiRT Rally. Shortcomings and incoherent ramblings over minor grievances aside, DiRT Rally is not only the best racing game of 2015, Codemasters have shown the entire gaming industry that it’s indeed possible to release a title in Early Access format and still please a large majority of their fanbase by simply holding up their end of the bargain with a solid finished product.