Amomentary lapse in concentration is all it takes for our Stratos to end up facing the wrong way, rump buried in the shovelled snow at the side of the stage. It wasn’t a big impact, and certainly the most significant dent is to our pride, but for this to have happened in the fourth split is disastrous – there’s no rewind function to undo our mistake, only the choice of restarting the stage entirely or soldiering on in the hope that we can claw back the lost time during the next stage. Rally driving is a brutal sport, and Dirt
Rally goes out of its way to make sure you know it. After nearly eight months in Early Access, Codemasters’ latest Dirt entry has emerged as a snarling, untamed beast of a game – one with an unapologetic sim leaning that seems purpose-built to shake itself free from the baggage the series has amassed in recent years. The bluster, garish colours and histrionics of Dirt: Showdown have drained away to leave only desaturated mud, drizzle and the ferocious roar and pop of tuned engines putting down far more horsepower than is sensible under the circumstances.
In Dirt Rally you don’t so much race as go into battle. Where most racing games only ask for intermittent concentration from players, Dirt Rally replicates the minutiae of motorsport driving and requires constant inputs. You’ll need to wrestle with an argumentative wheel that keeps tugging in different directions; stay on top of shifting your car’s weight to shore up grip in corners; feel your way to the optimum power output by constantly modulating the throttle; and pay close attention to the road surface as it hurls loose gravel, ice patches and adverse cambers your way. Even completing a stage in the relatively tame classic Mini Cooper S will leave you feeling battered and fatigued, and once you graduate to the Lancia Stratos and then more modern vehicles, things get really hairy.
The sense of power these cars exude is bolstered by some outstanding audio work. Engines howl and spit in accompaniment to the constant mechanical chatter of straining gearboxes and depressed springs. Gravel peppers the underside of the car and the insides of the wheel arches, and your co-driver’s route notes become more harried during faster, more violent sections. It’s a cacophonous assault on the senses befitting of Rally’s pitiless handling model.
Your efforts to tame the game’s 39 iconic vehicles play out across several real-world locations, including Powys, Höljes and Pikes Peak (the game’s only excursion to the US). Each area has its own characteristics to deal with, whether it’s the tight, winding forest paths in Sweden, Greece’s precarious unfenced hillside roads, or a muddy drenching in England. They’re all beautifully recreated, too, combining austere minimalist colour palettes with sweeping views of the course snaking off into the distance. The game dispenses with the Ego engine’s characteristic vaseline smear, offering up a considerably sharper look and cooler hues that make it feel like the elements are soaking into your race suit. Dirt Rally spreads its events across rally, Rallycross and hill climbing. Rally makes up the bulk of the game and inarguably provides the most engaging driving, but Codemasters has secured an official FIA World Rallycross licence and three real-world tracks which, when combined with a bit of convincing UK drizzle, are genuinely thrilling. Rallycross also provides an opportunity for the studio to include some head-tohead online racing. The aforementioned Pikes Peak is the only hill climb on offer, but is presented in two flavours: one neutered all-tarmac version, and a tarmac/ gravel split. Alongside the championships and single events, there are also daily, weekly and monthly challenges, which pay out more handsomely if you can put in a strong enough performance.
Even with these additional payouts, however, Dirt Rally’s structure requires a little too much grinding right now. While the oldest cars can be bought with the proceeds of a couple of fourth-place finishes, prices quickly ramp up. And you won’t be able to take part in events for which you don’t own the right type of vehicle, which means your choice of activities is rather limited at the beginning. There’s little in the way of guidance or tutorials to break you in, and all of this, in concert with the game’s punishing difficulty, can make it feel a little overwhelming.
There are other niggling issues. You can recover your vehicle, and even magically inflate burst tyres, at the cost of a time penalty, but you’ll often be autorecovered in situations you could’ve extricated yourself from more quickly than the 15 seconds that get added to the clock. It can be frustrating to have your hard-won efforts compromised by a hairpin taken too tightly, but for the most part mistakes feel like your responsibility – if you ignored your co-driver’s warning about not cutting that deceptive left two over the crest, then you only have yourself to blame.
In its current form, lacking as it does a slick, easily readable interface and Codemasters’ usual refinement when it comes to structuring, Dirt Rally feels like it could’ve done with a month or two more in Early Access. But those rough edges feel like a price worth paying for the removal of all the clutter and nonsense that’s increasingly bloated a series apparently more interested in courting the mainstream US market than it was in its own heritage. What remains is a passionate, unyielding approximation of rally driving that not only evokes memories of the series’ purist beginnings, but also represents the most exhilarating driving game Codemasters has created in years.
Even completing a stage in the relatively tame classic Mini Cooper S will leave you feeling battered and fatigued