At the time of writing, Codemasters’ Dirt Rally is only available on the PC as an Early Access via Steam, but let’s hope it comes to consoles too, because it’s one of the best driving games released in a long time. There are a few niggles still to be worked out, and features to be implemented, but the majority of the Single Player game is complete and it's already at the point that it's so worth forking out the money. Essential even. If you want Multi Player, you'll have to wait though. EDIT: MP is out in the form of Rallycross events, so sideways constantly around tight twisty courses on a mix of road and off road. Corner cutting is risky and might earn you a time penalty. Consistency is needed because they normally take place over the course of a few heats. Most of the driving I've experienced has been civil with only a few bumps and no deliberate harpooning.
It breaks away from the previous games in the Dirt series, stripping itself right back to the core element of long stage rallying, as well as Rallycross and Hillclimbing. When I say long, I mean it. There are cut-off times of 15 minutes on some stages - you’ll get round in less with most stages lasting between 5 and 8 minutes. It also dispenses with all the razzmatazz presentation of the previous games and puts everything in front of you in simple text menus so that you can begin driving as soon as possible.
If you like the sound of that, you’ll probably like the next bit too. There is no rewind. There is a massively detailed damage model. There is only limited time between stages to repair your car without incurring a time penalty. If you are doing a 24(!!) stage championship, you need to look after your car. Messing up one single corner after 23 stages, with over-enthusiastic risky driving could end it all, because: cliff. If you decide half way through a stage that you want to restart it, you can and quickly which is great, but with stages this long, you really want to get it right first time, and you’ll sacrifice some “no restart” credit bonus. This is proper gaming.
There are daily, weekly and monthly challenges online via RaceNet. For these, restarts are not allowed at all! Get it right or be prepared to shout “Nooooooooo!!” These also use identical tuning setups, so you know you are not racing against people with better cars. The day after a challenge finishes, the results are presented and credit reward given. The results group you into top, middle or bottom tiers along with the other competitors. The first time I came within a pixel of breaking from the middle tier into the top tier, I was so happy. It felt like I had actually achieved something. All that hard work and I got excited about being just above average. Placing half way up the Top Tier on Pike's Peak (full climb) felt like I had finally got to grips with the possibilities. Credit from the online and local gameplay is used to unlock new cars, with a wide but not overpowering array from the 1960s onwards. As long as these are available, you cannot run out of gameplay. Superb.
Once you get on course, you’ll notice that all the cars feel different. This is a brilliant achievement, with a lot of driving games having cars that all end up feeling similar. Some of them are easy to drive and some of them just exist to try and kill. They can be tamed by tweaking the settings though. For example, a car with wild oversteer can be made easier to manage with a weaker rear anti-rollbar, at the expense of corner entry speed. Or mucking about with (sorry: “changing in a structured way, because you know what you are doing”) the tyre pressures, dampers, springs and all sorts. However, if you aren't into this aspect you can still have a lot of fun with the standard setups. Overall, the handling model is spot on and matches the challenging ethos of the game. Careful throttle, steering and braking movement is needed rather than just keeping it nailed and smashing the brakes on, although the latter method will work if you don't allow the speed to get out of control and don't want to set the fastest times.
The stages are recreations of real rally locations. You have to admire the dedication of the Codemasters team – looking at comparison videos shows that they have nailed it, with countless miles of terrain looking just right. Currently there’s a hillclimb up Pikes Peak, muddy tracks through a forest in Wales, Baumholder in Germany providing tarmac / cobblestone thrills, snow and ice up in the hills of Monte Carlo and dusty dirt tracks in Greece. Various combinations of rain or snow and day or night thrown into the mix make the same tracks very different, needing to be learned all over again. It’s worth mentioning that the visuals all work coherently to make the experience more thrilling, from the 3D trees whizzing past, to the rain hammering on the windscreen. Some of it is actually astonishing, with mist in the treetops or the incredible views across valleys on the way up to Pikes Peak. When you crash, which happens a lot to start with, you’ll wince a little from the impact, both from the realism of the impact and the realisation that something probably broke a little. Maybe the just the bodywork? Please just be bodywork. Please don’t be the radiator because power will suffer. Oh drats… Puncture! Car handling is stuffed. Watching the flat tyre on the replay of one of my runs was so amazing, as it regained shape as the car left the ground over bumps and then squished again on landing. And then it tore off completely and I was driving along on the rim, with sparks flying behind me.
To help with the repairs, you have a crew, with crew chief and engineer slots. You can hire engineers using your earned credits and apply perks to their skills that help speed up the repair work in between stages. None of this is essential, but will help get you to the end of a championship with everything still working, especially if you like to take risks into blind corners.
As you'd expect in a rally game, there's a lot of scrabbling for grip, drifting sideways, powersliding around hairpin bends and cars with so much acceleration you'd think they would affect the spin of the Earth. There's also a lot of precise braking.
There is an upgrade path for each car, but it’s done via time on the trails rather than from credits. Once you have put in the time, your crew will upgrade bits, like bigger turbos or lighter weight, thus needing adaptation. Just as you have learnt how to handle a car, it gets a little bit different. Rather than feeling like a grind, the game evolves in a natural progression of skills and difficulty. I played with an Xbox One pad plugged into the PC – there are various levels of sensitivity in different categories which are worth investigating to find the right sweet point for your style.
Multi Player racing is in the pipeline to be added later on in the Early Access period. (See EDIT above). League racing via DIRTgame and RaceNet is implemented already though, if you want to get involved like that.
Will it be for you though? I’d suggest that any racing game fan should get Dirt Rally as soon as it is available on your system, but if you rely on rewind in other games, be prepared for a big change to the way you approach learning to play. If you revel in that seat of the pants feel of bouncing along a track at the very limit of adhesion, reminding yourself to breathe every now and then, this will thrill you to the core. I haven’t had this much fun in a driving game in many years.