By – John Williamson

DiRT Rally Review He

The DiRT franchise has progressively transcended from a traditional rally sim into more trick-laden drifting events. This is evidently shown by DiRT Showdown which featured an obnoxious announcer and unfulfilled racing relying heavily on unrealistic crashes. While this wasn’t intended to be a bonafide DIRT title, it still emphasizes Codemasters recent strategy to favour dramatic racing over authenticity. Even in DIRT 3, you had to complete Gymkhana tournaments and listen to the annoying ramblings of Ken Block. This became a massive chore as any experienced rally player had to reduce the difficulty to complete these sections. Thankfully, Codemasters has taken a long, analytical look at their recent business decisions and decided to return to the company’s core rallying roots. DIRT Rally is a PC-exclusive sim which incorporates a comprehensive mechanical damage system and completely re-worked handling model. The end result is simply staggering and the best rallying title since Richard Burns Rally.

Codemasters’ Lead Designer, Paul Coleman spearheaded the project brilliantly and has first-hand experience driving rally cars around treacherous course layouts. As a result, the physics model feels absolutely fantastic and perfectly recreates the nuances on various surfaces. In terms of overall grip, there’s enough traction to apply the throttle fairly quickly but being too forceful will limit a corner’s exit speed. Furthermore, you have to gauge the mechanical grip as it varies immensely on dirt, snow and other terrains. This means the opportune moment to hit the accelerator is critical and revolves around feel as you tackle each course. The most perilous aspect is nailing the braking point and being able to powerslide without veering too far offline. Unlike many rally games, the braking points are spot on and requires an early braking phase. If you overestimate the braking zone, your vehicle will either lose traction or incur a large penalty to rejoin the track.

The physics model also integrates dynamic oversteer and understeer which makes cornering feel extremely satisfying. On specific sections with a high incline, the car begins to twitch and requires subtle corrections. Therefore, you don’t feel planted to the racing line and carefully assess each corner’s approach in real-time. On another note, 3-6 rated corners pose a significant challenge and missing the braking point or running offline will yield disastrous results. The penalty for mistakes is very harsh and beautifully realistic. For example, if you crash into a ditch, the damage will be rather severe and a 15 second time penalty is usually applied. It’s quite difficult to summarize DIRT Rally’s remarkably immersive physics system, but I can only describe it as one of the best I’ve used in 20 years.

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Weather also impacts on the handling and makes each corner more difficult to predict. As water begins to drench a gravel or muddy surface, the braking point becomes much earlier and it’s difficult to apply the throttle without experiencing wheelspin. Codemasters has integrated a dynamic weather system which changes quite rapidly and features different rainfall on various sections of a course. Additionally, strong winds makes the car feel unstable and increases understeer.

Currently, the game is in Steam’s Early Access programme which means content is a little barren but there has been a consistent update schedule. So far, there are 28 cars spanned across various eras including iconic classics such as the Lancia Stratos and Ford Escort MK II. Furthermore, each vehicle contains a wide array of distinct liveries. Sadly, it’s not possible to create your own custom-designs but this could change in the near future.  The course selection incorporates a number of varied terrains including Hell, Holjes, Lydden Hill, Pikes Peak, Powys, Monte Carlo and Argolis. This is fairly impressive considering the game’s early development period, and each course is beautifully modelled. Hopefully, Codemasters can keep adding to the line-up and allow the player base to perfect more layouts as time progresses.

DIRT Rally revolves around three major formulas; Rally, Hillclimb and Rallycross. Traditional rally events are unbelievably tense as you attempt to top the timing sheets across multiple stages. It’s imperative to avoid mistakes and adopt a clean and consistent driving style. Hillclimb events such as Pikes Peak consist of a timed run with special vehicles and unique courses. Finally, Rallycross is a more typical racing format against 6 AI vehicles in a 2-2-2 formation as you attempt to cross the finish line first. Although, during the race, you have to complete a ‘Joker’ lap or face disqualification. This mandatory lap includes a slower, chicane section off the main route and adds a degree of strategy to each encounter. Do you take the joker early when the pack is bunched up or when you have track position?

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Throughout the Rallycross events, it’s fairly clear that the AI is ruthless and quite aggressive. As a result, you have to position your vehicle in an authoritative manner and be prepared to make contact with the AI. To succeed in this formula, you need to react and almost expect collisions with other vehicles. However, the AI doesn’t drive in a completely audacious manner and contact is kept to low impact collisions. This is sensible and maintains the game’s realistic tone.

The mechanical damage system is marvelous and not for the feint-hearted. Each knock or bump contributes to component wear and huge incidents results in major failures. For instance, if you smash into a concrete block, it’s possible to virtually obliterate the gearbox and struggle throughout the stage with uneven transmission. Furthermore, your team of engineers has a limited time to conduct repairs. This means, only minor fixes can be done and any remaining damage carries onto the next stage. When rally events surpass 5 stages, this becomes a monumental issue and heightens the tension on every corner. To reiterate, finishing first requires a great deal of memorization and finding the opportune moments to ease off the throttle. While the co-driver’s instructions help somewhat, it doesn’t prepare you for the characteristics of each course.

DIRT Rally includes a detailed car tuning menu to hone various setups to improve the balance on certain courses. This ranges from differential changes to altering the brake bias. However, the progression meter is very obtuse and it’s difficult to differentiate what effect the sliders have. There needs to be specific numbers so it’s easy to find and share user-setups. Nevertheless, I’m sure this will be fixed in a future patch.

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As you complete events, your team acclimatizes to the car’s behaviour and researches performance upgrades. This allows you to remain competitive and enhance the overall handling. It’s also possible to hire up to four engineering staff and set wage demands. Furthermore, you can determine each member’s contract length and mould the team to bring the fastest possible upgrades. This exemplifies the team spirit in rally and adds a management dimension to the gameplay.

In terms of modes, there is a Career, Multiplayer, Custom Events and Online Events. The Career consists of various championships with a number of events. To enter each event, you need to purchase a suitable car and money is quite difficult to attain. Therefore, it’s imperative to perform well and increase the team’s bank balance. One intriguing feature is, restarting the stage results in a very hefty fine. This might annoy novice players, but offers a mesmerizing rallying-sim experience for the hardcore demographic. Custom Events are quite simple in nature and revolve around Rally, Hillclimb or Rallycross.

The Multiplayer component is still in its infancy and limited to 3 Rallycross circuits. I managed to find a game without any problems and thoroughly enjoyed my time online with a friend. For some bizarre reason, a private lobby couldn’t be established and other players kept joining and quitting on a regular basis. This is only a small teething issue though and easily fixed. The other multiplayer option is based on specific leaderboard challenges. Here, you have to set a time and eke out every millisecond of pace to rise through the leaderboards.

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From a technical standpoint, DIRT Rally is simply sublime and looks absolutely stupendous. The graphical fidelity across a wide range of terrain and weather conditions is rather striking and features superb texture quality. Also, the vehicles are modeled quite well, and thrive in the TV-style replay cameras. The game’s audio assets are magical and emulate the punchy tones you would expect from a high-powered rally car. DIRT Rally is optimized extremely well and reached an average of 69 frames-per-second at 3440×1440 on maximum settings using an Intel i7 4770K, 16GB and GTX 980 Ti. However, please ensure Advanced Filtering is turned off as it has a major impact on performance without exhibiting any visual benefits.

The comprehensive options menu contains settings for Antialiasing, Anisotropic Filtering, Texture Detail, Smoke Shadows, Objects, Water, Vehicle Reflections, Trees and more! There is also support for 16:9, 16:10, 21:9 resolutions and features an integrated benchmark in the menu. You can play the game via Windowed Mode by selecting an appropriate resolution or hitting Alt+Enter. The controls are fully rebindable and natively supports major racing wheels like the Logitech G27.

It’s pretty easy to alter the deadzones and sensitivity to find the a wheel setup which suits your driving style. Overall, the game desperately needs a steering wheel to fully appreciate the physics model. While it’s perfectly playable with a controller, it doesn’t provide the same tactile feedback and enthralling, adrenaline-fueled gameplay. Surprisingly, I even managed to use the keyboard for short periods without making any errors but it did become uncomfortable after a while.

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Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?

Despite being in such an early stage of development, DiRT Rally is the best Codemasters game in over a decade and truly shows what the studio is capable of. The physics model is marvelous and creates a wonderful sense of speed. This combines with the detailed courses and constantly evolving weather system. While there could be more content, it’s still well worth the asking price given the exceptional simulator experience and gorgeous graphics. This is the Codemasters of old producing some of the most enriching and innovative titles ever devised. Well done Codemasters; DIRT Rally is a masterpiece which beautifully honors the memory of Colin McRae.

Dirt Rally Technical Summary:

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  • Time Played – 29 Hours
  • Widescreen Support – Yes
  • Windowed Mode – Yes
  • Resolution Played – 3440×1440
  • 4K Support – Yes
  • Frame Rate – Unlocked
  • Bugs/Crashes Encountered – None
  • DRM – Steamworks
  • System Specs – i7 4770K, 16GB RAM, 6GB GTX 980 Ti
  • Control Scheme – Thrustmaster TX458 and GPX Lightback, Keyboard
  • Save Game Location – \userdata\\310560
  • Acquisition Method – Review Copy
  • Availability – Steam
  • Demo – No
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