Dirt Rally

I’ve been a fan of the Codemasters racing games on a fairly consistent basis over the years. Between the Grid series of games and the Dirt series, I find that I even favor the rally games more. Notice however that this iteration doesn’t have a number next to it and that’s because this seems to be the start of a new series, one that is also about rallying but aims to weigh more heavily on the simulation than the videogame side of the scales. I have no experience in playing the truly hardcore racing sims so I have no idea how realistic this game is. But I can say that this is by far the hardest racing game I’ve ever played.

This title includes three events: rally, rally cross and hill climbing but I’m so hopeless at the latter two that I pretty much spent all of my time on rallying. There’s a lot less fluff here compared to the usual Dirt games and the user interface is straightforward and no nonsense. You’re expected in seasons, with each season consisting of six distinct events. Each event is based in a country and there are up to ten races in each event. Finish in the top three at the end of each season and you get promoted to the next level, which effectively acts as the game difficulty level. You’ll also earn money which you spend on new cars, hiring engineers and repairing damage. You never get to pick locales or even the difficulty level in career mode but you do get to pick which class of cars you want to drive, provided you have enough money to buy a car in that class.

I’m no expert on the physics of racing games but it’s obvious that the mechanics here are very unforgiving. This game teaches you to be constantly aware of your speed and direction of movement, how the weight on your car is distributed, what kind of surface on tires are on and so much more. Even successfully completing a given track in one piece can be a challenge, never mind setting a good time. Adjusting your ride to the correct settings for each track is extremely important and it’s amazing how differently each car handles. The driving feeling that this game gives me simply blows away any prior experience I’ve ever had. In fact, before this I’ve never longed to own a driving wheel as I’ve never been so conscious of the shortcomings of a gamepad. Steering your car through a long curve for example is incredibly difficult without a wheel. This game even taught me to play with most assists off as driving with things like stability assist just feels wrong with how it makes the game stick to the road like glue.

Then there are the tracks. I don’t know what to say about them other than that they are pure evil. There are so many switchbacks, impossibly acute turns, turns hidden by the shadows of trees, the crest of the road, tall grass or made dangerous by rocks by the side, roads made tricky to navigate by swells that run through the middle of the road or bad cambering, seemingly endless series of crests and dips. I was so convinced that real life rallying could not possibly subject human drivers to such dangerous tracks that I had to go on YouTube to look for the videos proving that indeed the tracks here are faithful to the real thing to an astonishing degree. I have never before this felt so keenly how much personality a track could have or how they could have specific themes just due to their topology. Add varying conditions like different times of day which changes the direction the sun shines on the road, how much ice and snow there is, or driving at night and suddenly everything is different again.

One thing I’m not happy about is that all of the rally stages take place in Europe. The variety of tracks is fine but it would have been nice for some races to take place in jungles or deserts for the sake of visual variety. I have fond memories of the Malaysia stages in Dirt 2. I also dislike how the AI times are handled. I hardly ever get the top spot under any difficulty level but it’s quite possible to advance all the way from Open to at least Elite if you consistently come in third or fourth or even fifth because some AI drivers excel in some countries but are awful at other countries so you can beat them overall if your performance is consistent. Perhaps this is a realistic depiction of rally events but it feels random and unearned to me as you can never predict which AI driver will do well in which country. The AI drivers also behave very unfairly in the Rally Cross as they easily send you spinning but you can never knock them off their seemingly preset course. That’s one of the reason why I gave up playing those events.

Despite the limited number of tracks I think that this game has tremendous staying power for those who really love racing. There are so many classes of cars and so many differences between them that it’ll take you ages to play through them all. In fact, I suggest that players pick the class that you want as soon as possible. Early on you have no money so you pretty much have to start with the 1960s cars but you earn enough money quickly enough that it’s not necessary to progress chronologically through each of the classes. For my part, I spent a long time getting the hang of the 1970s RWD cars, which are probably the hardest cars to drive I think. But then I moved to the Group B 4WD cars and was amazed by how powerful and yet how easy they were to handle. It was like switching to easy mode.

Perhaps the best praise I can give is that Dirt Rally opened my eyes about the richness of racing. In previous game, I was all about gunning the accelerator as much as possible, steering correctly and judiciously using the brakes when necessary. This game taught me that you can often be faster by going at the correct, slower speed with minimal use of brakes and not going full out, that the use of the handbrake is absolutely critical to pulling off hairpin turns, even about the importance of keeping the car’s nose up or down while airborne. If anything, the experience of playing this is so intense that I find myself unable to play it for too long. I literally needed to glue my eyes on the screen and was afraid to blink in order to keep up. The level of concentration required is insane. I came away with the belief that driving games require the most concentration and best reflexes of any videogame except perhaps fighting games.

Anyway I could spend hundreds of hours in this game and not come close to mastering it but I’m not the kind of person who is dedicated enough to do it. This is easily the best driving game I’ve ever played. I normally delete a game from my hard drive once I’m done with this but I think I’ll keep this one around to fire it up every once in a while.

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