Dirt Rally Review: The Road Less Travelled

dirt-rally-headerOn a few occasions on this blog, I have discussed the ever-changing priorities of Codemasters. The British developer has long been recognized as one of the top racing game developers but often shifts their priorities between making arcade-style games and more simulation style games. In the past, I’ve taken to calling Codemasters games “pseudo-sims” because while they tend to be more realistic and difficult than arcadey racing games but not as intense as games like rFactor and iRacing.

I should say, that was the case until I got to Dirt Rally. While Dirt 3 was much closer to a sim than the likes of Dirt Showdown, Dirt Rally feels like it goes to another level beyond that. It might not be as detailed or difficult as the likes of iRacing but that doesn’t mean it’s pick up and play, either. Of course, that’s definitely not a bad thing.

As the name would indicate, Dirt Rally is a game about rally racing. For the most part, it’s just you, your co-driver and a narrow stretch of road. Rallying is often referred to as racing against the clock but you also have 15 other drivers trying to be the fastest over the same stretch of road.

There are three primary disciplines that you can participate in. There is the traditional Rally races where you speed through a number of stages to set the fastest cumulative time over the route. There is Hill Climb which takes place in high-powered cars on the Pikes Peak Hill Climb course. And there’s Rallycross which is the closest to your more standard motorsport fare on tracks that are a mix of dirt and tarmac.

dirt-rally-screenshot-01For the most part, you’ll be spending your time in Career mode. In order to progress, you enter championships in one of the three disciplines. At the start of your career, you’ll only have enough money to buy a 1960s rally car and enter that championship. From there, you’ll need to pocket some serious money to afford a car for another championship. I think it took me into my second season to buy a Rallycross car but those are on the more expensive end of the car catalog.

As you complete the championships, you progress in difficulty from Open through to Professional in a promotion and relegation system. The top three in each championship get promoted to the next difficulty level and bottom three go down. Difficulty is tracked separately for each discipline (but not for each class in rally) which can get tedious if you’re very good at this game or be perfectly paced for those of us who are floating between the 2nd and 3rd difficulty levels.

There’s more than just the championships to do in Career mode. The other big time sink will be Online Events. There are daily, weekly and monthly events in which you compete against everyone else who participates with your reward based on how well you do against the field. While most of the online events require you to own a specific car or class, one event a day will give you the car to race in.

There is also team management required to be successful. You hired your team of mechanics who each have a specialty. The more you race, the more engineer slots you unlock and the faster you can repair your car at service. The longer you keep your engineer, the more quickly advances setup options are unlocked on a car. However, as time goes on, you have more money to pay better engineers but they start their perk clocks from scratch. There’s a delicate balance between quality engineers and car knowledge.

Quite obviously, this isn’t the same as the last few Dirt or Codemasters offerings. As I mentioned, this isn’t an arcade racing game by any stretch and I feel it goes beyond the pseudo-sim nature of the likes of the F1 games and Grid Autosport. This goes beyond just the team management and championship progression but into the driving as well.

dirt-rally-screenshot-04Dirt Rally is not an easy game to be at the wheel of. I played using a controller and I’m fairly certain that this game absolutely needs a wheel to be played at the highest level. Granted, that’s the case with most racing games but it seems even more important here. The front-wheel drive cars were fairly easy to drive with a controller. The 4WD cars could get very, very hard to drive as you got to higher/faster classes of cars. The rear-wheel drive cars were basically impossible to drive without driver aids.

There are driver aids to use. Racing lines and rewinds aren’t included in the game at all but there is a sort of rescue button. If you get off-track too far or too long or you get stuck in a ditch or snow bank, you can push the recovery button which will reset you on the track in exchange for a time penalty of up to 15 seconds. It also acts as the puncture repair / tyre change button which was a welcome addition for a rally sim. These guys really do carry spare tyres on board but usually wait until after a stage to do so. Yes, you can get tyre changes without penalty between special stages. As a habitual WRC viewer in the glory days of Speedvision (and early Speed Channel), it’s these little nuances of rally that I love when they make it into a game.

The game does include traction control and stability control that you can set from 0 (off) to 5 (full on). Obviously, the lower you get those assists, the more speed you can get from your car. I mentioned the rear-wheel drive control issues I had earlier. I tried running one with full assists but the trade-off was all the control but a car that felt slow and understeered like a pig. I settled at about 3/3 from my assists which still left the car a bit hard to handle if I got too twitchy on the gamepad but it still felt slow.

Anecdotally, gamers have suggested for years that Codemasters’ F1 series is designed in a way that provides an advantage to controller users over wheel users. I don’t know if this is a sign of things to come but Dirt Rally certainly feels the opposite way. If you do use a controller rather than a wheel, you feel like you’re at a disadvantage. Using assists slow you down but the gamepad doesn’t really give you subtle enough controls to keep a good handle on your car’s behaviour at all times.

dirt-rally-screenshot-02Not surprisingly for a Codemasters game, the graphics were pretty good. They’ve always been pretty good at graphics in racing games. The crowds don’t look particularly good but you’re seldom going slowly enough to pay them much attention. The environments have a lot of variety. Dirt hung in the air on rallycross stages which might have been a bit extreme but a fun touch. The damage model is pretty good. I was surprised by how good the game looked in low light. It seemed so real having the headlights be too bright and making everything else outside of the light be near black but still just visible enough to play when you inevitably broke your headlights.

There are unusual shadows with some of the foliage that jumped out at me. Rather than looking like deciduous trees, those trees looked closer to those sun blockers for your car windows that don’t let the light through but let you see out. It was an odd effect that I’m not sure was down to my settings. I had everything on medium or high which let me keep a steady 60+ FPS on rally stages but closer to 40 FPS when doing rallycross due to the cars on-screen and the particle effects from all the dirt flying through and hanging in the air.

The sound isn’t particularly spectacular. I seldom find rally games get the whine of the turbo and the chirp of the wastegate right while still making the car sound like a race car. Again, maybe it’s from watching WRC on TV but I have that knowledge and expectation of what a rally car sounds like and Dirt Rally misses the mark. The pace notes were the most authentic sounding pace notes I’ve heard in a rally game. I just wish that they were more authoritative at low-speed and that they would keep up with you as you drive through complex sections.

I don’t know where to wedge this in but I feel obligated to mention that Dirt Rally came to us through the power of Early Access. It was released in December but spent about seven-and-a-half months in Early Access on Steam. While it’s unusual for a big publisher to use this model, at least people are happy with how Codies used it. They brought out new updates monthly with new cars, tracks, game modes, bug fixes and performance improvements over the course of the Early Access period. The benefit to that is that they haven’t needed to issue extensive patches post-launch because getting it into the public’s hands allowed them to fix the game pre-launch.

Conclusion

dirt-rally-screenshot-03Dirt Rally feels like a return to form for Codemasters. I know that I said that in my Grid Autosport review but considering the disastrous reception for F1 2015 with many fans deriding it for being a buggy mess, it bears saying again. If you’re interested in the single-player offline racing experience, then Codies gets it right again with Dirt Rally.

Now, can we talk about F1 2016?

Rating: 9.0/10

Dirt Rally was played on Windows PC but is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The review code for this game was provided by Codemasters. Your impressions of the game may change depending on platform played on, PC specs, controller used and whether you are capable of not blinking as you speed along a narrow forest road.

Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Tumblr, Steam and RSS.

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