It’s taken a while for rally games to start appearing on current-gen consoles, but over the last 12 months the drought has finally broken with the release of both the WRC 5 game and Sebastien Leob Rally: Evo. Now, after a long early-access program on Steam, Codemaster’s baby Dirt Rally will finally come to the Xbox and PlayStation platforms.
The racing for Dirt is divided across three disciplines; rally, rallycross and hillclimb. Each has a it’s own set of challenges that will require time and patience to learn and subsequently master. While rally and hillclimbs are very much a solitary affair, rallycross sees cars thrown together on mixed surface circuits to battle it out in direct competition with each other.
Diving into championship mode will allow you to engage in all three forms of racing, though rally has the predominant focus. It should be noted that the difficulty of the AI is very unforgiving even in the first championship, so achieving a win will likely require some practice. The game also has a few light role-playing elements mixed in with the typical selection of racing events, as there is team management to consider, along with the purchasing of cars and earning upgrades.
You start off with just a crew chief, but as more engineers are hired from the selection available, your team can transcend its humble beginnings to become an efficient time-saving machine. The extra crew members you hire all have strengths and weaknesses, but most importantly can cut the amount of time required to repair damage mid-rally, which on occasion may be the difference between a victory or a retirement.
This team management feature seems to be enjoyable enough for the most part, but with engineer’s contracts constantly expiring and nothing more than a long list of numbers to scroll through when hiring new members, it can be a bit of a chore. Having the maximum number of engineers working on your car at all times is a must, so it pays to keep an eye on how many more stages they have left on contract before you start a new event.
Of course, just having a fast car and a squad of grease monkeys isn’t enough – you need somewhere to race too. Dirt Rally boasts more than 70 stages across six countries, with rallycross circuits and the Pikes Peak hillclimb topping it off. Whether plowing through the icy reaches of Sweden, showering spectators with gravel in Greece, or splashing through the damp Welsh moors, there is no shortage of diversity in the road composition. These are by far the hardest and most technically challenging rally stages I have driven, and even experienced hands will find these roads a handful.
Despite how praiseworthy the track selection is, it would have been nice to see a couple of extra countries over and above what is included (insert shameless plug for the New Zealand rally here). And while the number of stages for each country is certainly decent, many of these are simply reversed or shortened versions of the long tracks. Consequently there are fewer unique kilometres of road here than in other rally titles which is disappointing, though the case could be made that this is simply quality over quantity.
The car line-up is not bad either, though again perhaps slimmer than there might have been. Some manufacturers such as Toyota are noticeably absent, and unfortunately only a few of the vehicles have the liveries that were present on their real-life counterparts. The exceptions here are the rallycross cars, as Codemasters was able to acquire the full license for the official FIA World Rallycross cars and circuits.
Dirt Rally’s handling model is what really sets it apart from it’s competitors. Its focus on simulation is absolute, and will require you to apply the techniques used by real drivers just to keep the car on road, let alone be competitive. When coupled with the tortuous narrow stages the game features, it really is a panel-beater’s paradise, what with all the times your car ends up beached on a tree stump or upside down in a ditch. But oh boy, does it feel ever so grand when a perfect run through a stage comes together.
There is one omission that does sour this sublime handling model though. There is no option to set up or change tires, and in fact there is no simulated tire wear in the game altogether. This is highly unusual to say the least, and while the game does simulate punctures and the eventual loss of the tires, general tire degradation that would occur over the course of a race is non-existent. Why this was not included has had me scratching my head, as tire strategy is an integral part of this form of motorsport.
The audio is still the best I’ve heard in a driving game. When I previewed the PC version last year I was blown away by the work that had been done, and it’s only been improved since then. Pacenotes are fast, fluent and well detailed, though they are still too late in the Greek rally and need to be changed in the options when competing there. The incidental effects and engine sounds are superb, as are the sickening crunches every time you plow nose-first into a gate.
If competing against just the AI doesn’t cut the mustard and you’re after a tougher challenge, then there are a few online modes that may satiate your need for speed. Firstly, Codemasters run daily, weekly and monthly challenges, each being progressively longer and more difficult. There is also a PvP mode that allows you to take on other players more directly in rallycross, but sadly there is no ghost head-to-head mode for rally or hillclimb stages.
The last mode is player-run league system, that allows groups of friends or online communities to setup and run their own championships using the Racenet website. The number of stages, weather conditions, services areas and car restrictions can all be customised, from small single stage events to large championships that can span weeks or even months. This is a fantastic feature which I tested extensively last year on the PC version, and while I was not able to try it out for the console release due to issues with Racenet, I have no doubt it will prove to be just as popular.
The jump to video game consoles has been an uneventful one, as the game runs at a silky smooth frame rate while still remaining visually impressive. The load times for stages are perhaps a bit longer than one would like, and the graphical fidelity is not as impressive as the PC release, but these things are par for the course. The support for wheels and shifter modules is delightfully extensive, though players using a trusty DualShock will be pleased to know that the game is still buckets of fun with a gamepad.
Dirt Rally is a damn fine racing game, and certainly the best rally game in years. Its unforgiving nature makes you fight tooth and nail for every stage win, but this only serves to make those victories all the sweeter when they finally happen. The groundwork is in place for a successor that could top even the legendary Richard Burns Rally, but this title has fallen just short of such lofty heights.