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Dirt Rally / 7th of April 2016

I’d just to start off by saying that Dirt Rally is good, damn good. There can surely be no doubting that it’s the best rally game since the inaugural effort in this series, but in all honesty, it’s more than likely the best that I’ve seen since Rallisport Challenge 2 on the original Xbox. Stripped back of the guff used to fluff out its two predecessors, with no more focus on showboating or corporate sponsorships, Codemasters have instead crafted a much more focused, tightly honed rally experience to delight racing fans everywhere. It’s a real return to form for both the developer and interactive representations of the sport in general, why you ask? Well, read on to find out…

First thing’s first though, Dirt Rally is hard, very hard. Gone are the arcade racing sensibilities, and in their stead, a new approach to complex physics can be found, one where the differences between each and every car, or the surfaces that they race on are all-too apparent. Where competing on light gravel sees the earth shift beneath the tyre making it more difficult to gain any degree of traction, or where its heavy variation sees the opposite reaction occur, the tyres can find grip, but sink so far into the surface that manoeuvrability becomes noticeably lessened. Driving game aficionados will likely take the opportunity to tinker with the game’s numerous vehicle set-up options, tailoring each drive around the conditions of the race, much like they would in the likes of Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo.

Speaking of Forza though, Dirt Rally also employs a similar risk vs reward system as its Microsoft brethren, seeing players tailor their level of assists in order to earn superior pay outs, though unlike Forza, the cash boosts feel rather pitifully small, seeing the removal of the in-race HUD or assists such as stability management only reward players with an additional 1% on the earnings. Still, it’s a great system, so it’s nice to see it implemented here as well, it’s just a pity that they don’t really make it worthwhile.

Those familiar with the earlier entries in the Dirt series might be pleased to see that this latest iteration employs a vaguely similar style of presentation, it’s just done with a more stripped back and subtle approach. There are no more forays into the despotic celebrity culture that saw the last two games stray from the beaten path to emphasise the importance of being seen in public with the likes of Ken Block, Tanner Foust and Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who – along with their fictional counterparts – would interrupt the core foundation of the game, the racing, to bend your ear with some grossly unnecessary attempts at banter. Thankfully, it’s all gone; the celebrities, the fictional characters, the chatter, the cumbersome hub world and essentially, every trace of the evil of vile corporate sponsorship.

What we have behind the streamlined presentation is an equally honed racing package that provides players with a range of cars spread out across numerous racing disciplines from hill climb to rally cross, vehicles from as far back as the 1960’s to the present day. Each can be taken out and raced in one of several game modes, from online leagues with friends, to standard PVP and the real meat of this delicious meal, single player. Codies seem to be intent on providing regular content in the form of both daily and monthly challenges, the latter set to reward substantial cash pay-outs to those who perform well enough. The standard mode of play though, Championship, sees players embark upon a European tour, taking on six events which are each comprised of four stages. Initially, I thought that was all that it had to offer, especially given how poorly I performed on my first attempt, but I quickly realised that this was in fact just the bottom rung of the championship ladder, seeing the difficulty rise across a further four available championships, each offering trickier courses and an increased number of stages.

What will undoubtedly seem to be disappointing is what the content looks like on paper, with just seven rallies and somewhere over forty cars, Dirt Rally doesn’t seem to have an abundance of content to keep players engaged with it. Yet the real strength of the game that ultimately shines through is the fact that each car is its own beast, each presents unique challenges to the player, and each takes a fairly substantial amount of time to master. Sure, you might very well be traversing the same limited set of environments time and time again, but this doesn’t really become too much of an issue because what is ultimately the greatest strength of the game is its tight focus of pure rallying. Yes, it can obviously be frustrating when something goes wrong, but ultimately, it simply becomes a learning experience, there are no more flashbacks to get players out of jail, they simply have to dust themselves down and either carry on, and try again. When everything goes well, when the car is swinging round acute u-turns and handling every terrain change with aplomb, there are few more satisfying experiences to be found, not simply within the realm of driving games, but of the entire industry’s offerings in general. This is as pure as a rally game can get, and Codemasters quite rightly deserve all of the acclaim that they have thus far received for it.

As a side note, I should point out that the game has its players hire engineers and effectively form a racing team (devoid of the emphasis on securing sponsorships), where the quality and experience of the team leader and his underlings alters the amount of work that can be carried out between races. Also, it’s worth noting that each vehicle in the game has a number of upgrades available to them, but unlike traditional driving simulators where after-market parts are purchased with career earnings, here, they are researched and automatically equipped by the team to help make both the car and the player more competitive. Engineers can even earn perk slots where up to three abilities can be equipped, these are typically all of the same type however, allowing them the research vehicle upgrades at an enhanced rate, but still, it’s a pretty novel feature nonetheless.

Dirt Rally has been praised quite heavily for the quality of its visuals, and having made the transition from PC to consoles, they do still hold up rather well on the whole, with some areas - Wales in particular - looking gritty, grubby and downright fantastic. Likewise, car models are suitably well detailed (not to Forza Motorsport 6 standards though) and some of the damage modelling, particularly the shattered glass effects on both the windscreen and wing mirrors look outstanding. However, not all is especially rosy, for whilst it is undoubtedly an attractive game, there are shortcomings. The framerate is typically rock solid at 60fps, yet it can and will drop, though only fleetingly it still remains all-too noticeable (I have also encountered V-sync issues, though only on one or two occasions), whilst elsewhere there are some terrible models utilised for crowd and crew members, some dire textures and horrendously low-resolution shadows. In terms of audio the game comes up trumps though, with some fitting soundtrack work and superbly recorded, throaty engine noises for each of the game’s usable vehicles.

Now, whilst I may have already defended the overall lack of content, it would undoubtedly be nice to see a greater variety of locations being used to spice things up a bit, of course, there’s certainly no reason why Codemasters couldn’t up their game with some DLC at some point in the near future. Likewise, the earnings that one makes from competitions is generally rather poor, which makes it a bit of a slog to raise the necessary funds to purchase new vehicles, especially more modern rides, but with some post-release tweaks, this could also be sorted out, making Dirt Rally for want of a better word, perfect.

I’m pretty sure that I can say with some degree of certainty that I am not the only one that has been waiting years for a decent rally game to arrive on consoles, well, now I am pleased to declare that the wait is finally over. Dirt Rally takes the series back to what it did best, off-road, point to point racing, and stripped of its predecessor’s emphasis on style over substance, it’s not only the best driving game that Codemasters has released thus far, but quite possibly the finest example of a rally game that I have ever seen.

James Paton
 
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