Hurtling down a muddy forest track in the heart of Wales, my Subaru Impreza’s engine sputters into overdrive with a ferocious howl as I climb perilously close to top speed. The dense walls of trees on either side blur into a desaturated mess of browns and greens. I feel the sweat release into my palms with every rising number on the speedometer. My co-driver warns of a fast-approaching bump in the road and, just as the words leave him, I soar into the air. Control is ripped from my grasp, but only for this glorious, nerve-wracking moment. The wheels come tumbling back down again, depressing the suspension springs with a worrying thud.
I yank the wheel to avoid ploughing into the nearest tree, and then I’m off again; hastily angling the car for an upcoming hairpin turn before vigorously pulling on the handbrake at just the right moment to whip the backend out and round the tricky bend. The back wheels of my Impreza throw up a deluge of mud and leaves that rain down on a gathering of ecstatic rally fans as though it were nature’s own confetti. The gearbox gets back to work. I hit the gas again, accelerating into another straight, shifting up with a mechanical clank of discordant machinery as I blast through a clearing in the trees. Only this time I overshoot the next bend and, in soggy ditch somewhere along this strip of Welsh countryside, I stop dead.
During its eight months on Steam Early Access, Dirt Rally earned itself quite the reputation of moments like this. The Dark Souls of driving games is a term I’ve seen in certain corners of the internet, and the comparison couldn’t be more apt. Like with From Software’s seminal RPG, Codemasters’ latest is uncompromisingly difficult while also rewarding those who are willing to master its intricate mechanics and, perhaps most importantly, show a little dare.
If you hadn’t already guessed, this isn’t like previous Dirt games where racing disciplines were plentiful, and where the focus was on X Games pomp along with accessible, almost arcade-style racing. No, Dirt Rally shifts the spotlight away from the bombast of its lineage, strips everything back to basics, and presents a merciless simulation of rally that celebrates the unbridled purity of this brutal motorsport.
If you can’t tell a Scandinavian flick from an opposite lock, your first few hours with Dirt Rally are going to be rough–make no bones about it. When I first started playing it was an accomplishment just to finish a stage in one piece, let alone setting a competitive time. With no tutorials to speak of–a disappointment considering training akin to Richard Burns Rally’s driving school would have been ideal–you’re dropped in at the deep end and left to your own devices, which may be frustrating and alienating for those who find themselves pulverised against a rock for the third attempt in a row. Even the safety net of the rewind button–a feature once popularised by Codemasters’ own Grid–is absent here, ensuring even the slightest of mistakes are punished. It’s certainly unforgiving in its pursuit of authenticity, and the steep learning curve may turn some away. Stick with it, however, and this striking difficulty only makes it all the more rewarding once you do finally get to grips with everything Dirt Rally has to offer.
With a phenomenal new physics engine, everything from your chosen vehicle (be it four-wheel, front-wheel or rear-wheel drive) to the type of driving surface, weather, time of day, and altitude all play a crucial role in how you approach each stage. You might excel on the gravel surfaces of Greece’s sun-swept wilderness, but you also might find yourself in a clump when negotiating Monaco’s icy tarmac roads. It’s just as likely you’ll hone your skills with the relatively meagre Mini Cooper S, before upgrading to a Audi Sport Quattro Rally that will knock your socks off with its weight and power.
Taming these frightful four-wheeled beasts is perhaps Dirt Rally’s greatest challenge, and its most thrilling. Each of the 39 cars available are tight, responsive, and weighty in their own way; the fleet-footed antiques of the 1960s force you to maintain speed and momentum through modest corners, whereas the same approach in a potent modern car would send you careening down the nearest hillside. There’s a perpetual feeling that you’re barely in control, balanced on a knife’s edge as you struggle just to keep these unstable rockets on the road. It demands your constant input, forcing you to wrestle with an antagonistic wheel, constantly adjust the throttle, and pay close attention to the hazardous road ahead.
All of this leads to a tangible sense of progression when you do finally master your chosen vehicle. When your apprehension and timidness is replaced by confidence and aggression, as corners you used to take slowly and steadily are now blitzed through with little afterthought. You start braking later, and turning in harder as you learn to shift the weight of your vehicle in anticipation of troublesome corners; hitting straights with more power than you ever would have before, and adapting to the ever-changing surface of the road with the verve of a seasoned vet. It’s a fantastic feeling.
Though that’s not to say you’re ever really safe in Dirt Rally. Even if you’ve honed the intricacies of your Ford Focus RS WRC, there are still dangers lurking. Trepidation comes with every new corner, and with not knowing what’s ahead of you beyond your co-driver’s (excellent) guidance. Sure, this dissipates somewhat the more you play and begin to learn the stages, but Dirt Rally does a good job of varying the familiar with changes to weather and time of day, both of which affect how stages handle from one run to the next. When a blizzard rolls through Sweden, your task becomes exceedingly more difficult as you contend with the extremely limited visibility conjured by a flurry of snowfall. Just as smashing your headlights on a night stage presents you with the daunting prospect of navigating a stage you can barely see.
In the career mode you’ll run the full gamut of counties and stages as you spend the majority of your time engaged in rally championships. These are lengthy multi-stage events, where damage is a persistent threat that must be managed with a crew of engineers, and a single wreck can end an entire championship even if you’re six stages deep. It’s here where the “retry” prompt becomes Dirt Rally’s safety net; a crutch I used in my first few hours with the game to erase my mistakes and right my many wrongs. If I crashed, it was no big deal. I’d gladly take the negligible monetary loss from my in-game winnings and start the stage over again.
The more I played, however, the more I realised how detrimental this approach is to the whole experience. Without the fear of failure gnawing at my back, I was too careless because the consequences were marginal. I wasn’t becoming a better driver simply because I could afford to be sloppy. So I made the decision to commit to playing without restarting. Stubbornly forging ahead to the next championship even if I failed to finish the last.
With catastrophe lurking behind every quiver of the wheel, this forced me to be focused and unwavering in my concentration. With zero margin for error, those moments when I was skirting the edge of disaster were terrifying. One wrong move in the latter stages of a finely balanced championship could send an hour’s worth of progress plummeting down the side of a mountain along with my precious ride. It was absolutely riveting, and the closest Dirt Rally comes to capturing the essence of its chosen motorsport, revelling in that mixture of terror, breakneck excitement, and the eventual jubilation when you emerge out the other side. That’s what Dirt Rally is all about.
There are problems with the career mode’s structure, and how you have to do a little too much grinding in order to earn enough cash to buy new cars and subsequently enter more championships–which is all rather limiting. A progression system similar to Project CARS’ driver-for-hire approach would have been a better fit. And the other two modes–Hill Climb and Rallycross–also feel half-baked. Completing Colorado’s famous Pike’s Peak hill climb is a fantastic challenge, and Rallycross offers a lively aside, whether you’re competing against the aggressive AI or jumping online to smash chassis with other players (in what is Dirt Rally’s only offering of head-to-head multiplayer). But with five courses split between the two modes (two of which being different variations on Pike’s Peak), there’s not a whole lot here to sink your teeth into.
Yet when you’re scampering through the lush greenery of a German field, skirting between the devious placement of two hay bales on what would otherwise be a simple straight, all of these issues fall to the back of your mind. Dirt Rally’s mechanics are so robust, and so accomplished in their execution, that it’s difficult to care about a lack of polish in its presentation, or a couple of skimpy game modes. This is as authentic a portrayal of rally as you’re likely to find, and proves to be not just a return to form for Codemasters, but its best game to date. Just don’t expect it to treat you with any courtesy.