The Dirt series fell into freefall after shedding the Colin McRae name, padding its content with “cool” dialog, x-game events, fireworks and pomp. It was time to reset. With no buildup, no fuss, Codemasters announced and released Dirt Rally into early access in May, calling it “a pure expression of rally”.For release the content has been added to significantly. 39 cars are available including icons such as a 1960’s Mini Cooper, a 70’s Stratos, a 80’s Group B Quattro, modern Imprezas, Fiestas, Peugeot Hillclimbers and more. As so often is the case though, including such a breadth of content comes with its own problems.The cars look different, sound different, but they feel incredibly similar and lacking any real, unique character. They have similar weight, similar grip, similar gear ratios. Swapping from a ’70s rear-wheel-drive Stratos to a 2010 Fiesta will come with faster times and a more responsive, stable car, but it’s not enough, and cars in the same groups are barely distinguishable.This lack of fidelity extends into other areas, keeping Dirt Rally at arms length from any sort of Sim status. With all assists off, an invisible hand will still gently help keep the rear end of your car in check. The in-car wheel is locked to 180°. The gearbox modelling is laughable. Stamping on the brakes is perfectly acceptable. Mud, ice and gravel feel incredibly similar. The amount of traction control is ridiculous. None of this means that it’s bad per se—the cars drive predictably and well—it just means we are firmly in “game” rather than “sim” territory.Dirt Rally is more than just the best Codemasters rally game to date; it’s arguably the best racing game Codemasters has produced in at least a decade. Perhaps ever. It’s certainly the best crack at a hard-core rally game since 2004’s heavily-worshiped Richard Burns Rally from Warthog Games. It’s brilliant.Dirt Rally sheds the showmanship of past instalments and shifts the series back to pure, unforgiving rallying. There’s no rewind ability and no quarter given by the game’s opponents. Dirt Rally doesn’t care if you’re too slow. It’s not going to give you a pat on the bum and a free ride to first place if you can’t keep up. To rule Dirt Rally you need to be fast, you need to be focused, and you need to be fearless.Dirt Rally’s wheel controls are very satisfying and the force feedback feels drastically better than it did when it debuted in Steam Early Access. I’m playing on a Thrustmaster TX (using the optional TH8A shifter in analogue mode as a handbrake) and the constant wrestle is a huge amount of fun. That said, Codemasters hasn’t ignored gamers who aren’t in a position to splurge on a racing wheel;I also played it using an Xbox One controller and found it more than capable of taming Dirt Rally’s demanding racing. The joypad controls feel refined and responsive and can be further massaged to suit individual preferences by honing the controller sensitivity and linearity settings (on PS4 I found myself knocking the sensitivity down and the linearity up from their default settings). In any case, the handling is fantastic and the feel of balancing a car on the very limit of adhesion (and, in many cases, well beyond it) is tremendously translated.
It’s a great looking game too. The vehicles themselves are far more detailed than those in Codemasters’ Grid Autosport (complete with authentic cabins) and the stage design is excellent (with intimate, tree-lined sections opening up into vast vistas). I love the small details too, from the way new mud is plastered over dried mud, to the occasions you’ll spot camera drones darting from behind shrubs to capture a great angle of you shredding up a corner. And the water splash effects? Magnificent.The stages look incredible. Dust plumes out from under your car as drones buzz through clear skies. Ice patches shimmer as you hammer past snow-laden trees, picking out the road through fog. Hot air balloons rest as you slide a 1970s escort around a hay bale. Mud flings into the air as you tumble a Lancia Delta down a cliff towards a pond. Watching replays are a joy and irresistible if you’ve had a decent run, made all the better by respectable engine noise and chattering pace notes.DiRT Rally, then, has a bold title. It’s a statement. It’s explicitly a rally game. Not a Gymkhana game, not a trucks game, not a “hooning” game. A rally game where everyone takes it seriously, and in this it succeeds. Unfortunately, though, in physics and handling detail, it falls a little flat. The lack of any sort of precarious feel when flying over ice and mud is an absolute shame, and the amount of forced assistance is a disappointment. Anyone waiting for a new Richard Burns will need to carry on waiting. If you’re after a successor to the old Colin McRae games or RalliSport Challenge though, DiRT Rally is a strong offering.