There are quite a few developers you can rely on to produce a quality game nowadays. Ubisoft have pretty much nailed the open world genre for example, Naughty Dog are long standing masters of the story-driven action-adventure game, and if you want to experience some intense, high quality racing you turn to Codemasters. Since the days of the original TOCA and Colin McRae games Codemasters have been releasing quality racer after quality racer, and while the DiRT series hasn’t followed the path of realism that the Colin McRae games started to carve out in the 90s, they’ve still been incredibly fun and fast-paced.
But despite the enjoyable nature of the games, true rallying fans like myself have been left looking for something a little less arcadey. Yes we’ve had the WRC and Seb Loeb games, but they didn’t quite scratch the itch in terms of a truly satisfying, tightly controlled rallying game. But Codemasters are no strangers to listening to fans, and in the same way that GRiD 2’s mixed response was fixed by the awesome GRiD Autosport, we now have DiRT Rally: one of the best rallying games you’ll see.
The problem with authentic racing games tends to be the challenge they produce, instantly irritating those who expected to be able to jump into the most powerful car in the game and instantly start winning. Anyone making those same assumptions about DiRT Rally need to do one of two things: either dramatically change their expectations, or forget about the game all together. There’s a reason your career mode starts with just enough funds to buy a 60s car and an engineer, and that reason hits you the first time you try to get round a corner a bit quick and end up plummeting down the side of a mountain, or wrapping your passenger door neatly around a tree. There’s no mini-map, no racing line, no braking points magically floating above the ground and no rewind feature. The help you get comes from a small number of driving aids (which penalise your potential earnings for each one you switch on) and a co-driver who barks his pace notes at you at a concentration-demanding speed, often several corners ahead of where you’re actually driving. It’s a true-to-life series of circumstances which drill home the enormous challenges that a rally provides, and also the bewildering talent of those behind the wheel, and you’ll frequently find out just what can happen when the talent isn’t quite so prominent – damaged radiators throw steam into your vision, brakes start to sound distinctly unhappy by the end of a rough stage, and knackered gearboxes struggle to click into place after a battering. Sure you can fix the car every couple of stages, but that costs time and money and in a race where every second lost can make the difference between finishing 1st or 5th, you want to be looking after your car as much as possible. There’s also the possibility of breaking your lights during a night stage, not ideal when it’s snowing heavily and you’ve got several hundred BHP under your right finger.
But despite the slower, more sensible start to the career mode, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy ride. Even the 1960s cars can bite if you get cocky, and catching a rock on the side of the road can either damage the wheels or send you for a short trip into the woods lining the track. But if you really want to feel the buzz of a modern beast of a rally car then you can do – the custom event option lets you try anything out from the very start. Any combination of country, course, car and weather conditions are on offer. Want to take a Mini round Monaco in beautiful sunshine? You can. Want to jump into a 90s Subaru and tackle the Welsh forests in the pouring rain at night? Good luck to you, don’t expect that one to end well for a while. It’s a refreshing change to those games which insist that you spend hours playing just to unlock a certain car you want to try out just the once, and while you still have that progression through your career it’s great to be able to pick and choose your own combinations as and when you want.
But while the main meat of the game is in the timed point to point stages, that’s not where it all ends. For those wanting a bit more interaction with other cars, the Rallycross events will keep you busy for quite some time. Again, a healthy roster of cars are on offer with various powers and characteristics, and with the Rallycross races being a very different beast to the “proper” rallying events, there’s a whole new skill set to learn. These races consist of a small number of laps, typically 4 or 6, and a handful of cars (again, usually between 4 and 6) and aim for tight, close racing. At least one of your laps needs to be a “joker” lap, taking a slightly different – and usually slower – route through one or two corners once per race. It’s an interesting idea, one which reflects the real world of Rallycross very accurately, and certainly adds an element of strategy into your racing. These events are tough, but with a bit of practice and a couple of upgrades to your car and you’ll be climbing the ladder to higher class racing before you know it. Hill climbing makes an appearance too, with two runs being completed to find your quickest time. It’s closer to the point to point timed events elsewhere in the game, but with some truly epic cars on offer to complete the event in there’s a good few minutes without blinking ahead when you choose to give it a go.
Codemaster’s Racenet system is up and running too, offering daily, weekly and monthly events to compete in against other players. As with most other recent Codemasters racers the events are time-based asynchronous challenges where your time gets uploaded and compared to those of other players. Final results are split into brackets, with the higher ranked players earning a decent lump of credits to use in the main career mode. The nice thing about most of these events is the fact that you’ve got one shot at it – mess it up, or totally write off your car mid-stage and your failure is up for all to see. Adding this human element into things is a great touch, and sits alongside the other online options which let you join leagues with other players to have regular events, all building towards a final championship. Finally, the matchmaking-based multiplayer Rallycross modes pits you in single races or short championships with other players in a live, more “normal” online race against others. There’s plenty to do, no doubt.
So DiRT Rally feels great, it looks very good and there’s a lot to do. And yet it’s the audio which steals the show, with some fantastic sounds bringing you as close to the action as you could hope for while not actually risking your neck in some mud at 100mph. Grab some decent headphones and every last stone that chips your paintwork, every squeal of the brakes, every crunch of your suspension when you land a jump slightly wrong, it all sounds spot on.
Those of you, then, who have been looking forward to Codemasters going back to their Colin McRae Rally roots can breathe a sigh of relief. DiRT Rally is a brilliant racer, which punishes lapses of concentration every bit as much as it celebrates those who take a slight chance and shave half a second off a 5 mile stage. If you’ve been looking on at PC gamers recently with some envy that they’ve had the early access version of DiRT Rally then worry no more, consoles gamers have finally got it in the shops, and it’s absolutely spot on.
Oh, and when the co-driver says “don’t cut”, he’s not joking. If anyone finds some bodywork from a Citroen C4 sitting in a hedge in Germany somewhere, let me know…
Reviewed on PS4