Codemasters' rally sim exits Early Access and our racing expert has spent countless hours with it.
We're a bit conservative when it comes to rally. We remember the good old days when Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Marcus Grönholm offered aggressive, ferocious driving during the first few years of the century. More so than the latter Sebastien Loeb era, where the Frenchman dominated the sport with his brand of controlled and measured driving. A winning style to be sure, but we really enjoyed the skids, the extreme throttle and unpredictability and uncompromising attitude that drivers like Sainz and McRae provided.
We enjoy the risk taking, the sort of racing mentality Colin McRae lived for. We met the Scottish WRC champion one time prior to the release of Colin McRae Rally 2, and his words, spoken while we sampled a preview version of the game carrying his name, still ring as clear as if it was yesterday. He felt we hesitated too much. In his quiet and humble way he seemed a tiny bit annoyed that we weren't driving fast enough. "When in doubt, put the pedal down," he urged us all those years ago. Somewhat insane advice, but ever since we've tried to drive with that in mind every time we've played any one of the many rally games that have come and gone over the last fifteen years.
Ever since Codemasters released Toca 2 we have longed for a more streamlined racing simulation from the talented British studio, but we've waited in vain for years and years. Over the years Codemasters has instead been fairly open about the fact that they've wanted to appeal to a broader audience, positioning their games somewhere in the borderlands between full on simulation and pure arcade racing, this via games such as the Dirt series, Colin McRae, Grid and F1. It's a difficult balancing act. Trying to please the die-hards longing for a pure simulation, while also trying to appeal to players who have never come close to a real racing experience and want something that's a bit easier to steer.
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So when Codemasters announced that they had been working on a fully fledged rally simulator, we were very happy indeed. And we were equally delighted to hear they had hired a bunch of veteran simulation developers with experience from iRacing and Richard Burns Rally to program a brand new system for tyre physics. Dirt Rally was released soon thereafter on Steam Early Access and we immediately threw ourselves at the game when it dropped.
Something that is true of all of today's top simulations - Rfactor, iRacing and Assetto Corsa - is that the graphics they provide are fairly mediocre. Dirt Rally isn't ugly, far from it, but much like its more realistic brethren so much computing power has been put into the simulation of friction, momentum, and gravity that there simply isn't much left over to make it as pretty as its more arcadey counterparts. Dirt Rally looks old from a purely visual perspective, even if we appreciate the design and the colour scheme. The lighting also helps alleviate the fact that the models and almost all of the textures would look right at home on Xbox 360. It's okay at the end of the day, even if it does come across as a little bit outdated.
The upside of the relatively basic graphics is that Dirt Rally flows just fine even on a slightly older computer. We have tested it on both a laptop and on our beefed-up gaming rig, and it has performed virtually flawlessly at 60 frames per second, which is the main concern when it comes to racing simulations with really well-crafted car physics.
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Codemasters has really brought everything they've got to the table, there's been no holding back in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. It's quite the opposite. Dirt Rally is the most realistic rally game of all time (yes, that includes the old Richard Burns Rally) and the tyre physics are top class. During the Early Access phase the developers have been incredibly responsive and have listened closely to fans, making small adjustments along the way that have resulted in a brilliant driving experience.
As the Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae fans that we are, we prefer to drift wide, even when the stage itself (Finland, we're looking at you!) does not allow for it. We like to poke the front of our car toward the apex early, left-brake a little, touching the hand brake lightly if needed to roll out the back end and then guide the car through the middle of the corner with the help of the throttle. This is difficult in real life and even more difficult in Dirt Rally, we'd say to really excel at this game you'll have to put in the time. And that suits us just fine.
Failing quickly becomes the norm. You'll wreck your rally car more times than you'd care to count and although the difficulty is merciless and unforgiving Dirt Rally succeeds, much like iRacing and Assetto Corsa, by letting the player know that every little mishap comes down to our own inability.
Other things that impress are the menu system (even if it's not aesthetically pleasing), the short loading times, and the phenomenal audio. The cars sound exactly as they should, even if Codemasters plans on fleshing out the sound effects even more in the near future. On the other side of the coin there are too generous FOV setting and multiplayer is lacking. That said we know that Codemasters are committed to adding more content in the months to come, hopefully making Dirt Rally into something even better than it already is.
Codemasters' return to a full-on simulation (of motorsports in general, and rally in particular) has given us not only a brilliant racing game, but also an entertaining example of how with relatively simple means you can craft a game that proves highly addictive for the die-hards. Along with Project CARS, Dirt Rally is one of the most welcome racing titles of the year.
9 / 10
Brilliant car physics, Lots of realism, Wonderful atmosphere, Incredible sound, Great courses, Well calibrated difficulty.
Presentation could have been better, Fair share of bugs.