A quick disclaimer before we get started, because DiRT Rally is currently in an early release alpha, this obviously will not be a traditional review with a score attached. Consider this more of an ongoing “review-in-progress,” with this first installment being my opinions on the current iteration of DiRT Rally that I have in my hands (I’ll be referring to the game simply as “Rally” from here on out).
Ever since DiRT Rally revealed itself to the gaming world via a surprise release on Steam, people have been comparing it to Colin McRae Rally, a game that’s widely considered to be the king of rally racers. For those who haven’t played through the evolution of Colin McRae to DiRT, it goes a little something like this: Colin McRae Rally eventually became the DiRT series, and starting with DiRT 2, the series adopted much more of an X Games feel to everything, from a punk rawk soundtrack to Rockstar and Monster sponsorships plastered everywhere (and by “punk rock,” I mean this modern, pop-rock BS, not awesome classic groups like Bad Religion, Op Ivy, or Minor Threat). DiRT 3 took the EXTREEEEEEEME!!!!! up a notch by adding Gymkhana to the mix, which admittedly was a boatload of fun. Then the DiRT series completely abandoned its rally roots with DiRT Showdown, which focused on demolition derby and Gymkhana.
I have played every single Colin McRae and DiRT game in existence, and while I never stopped having fun with it, the series clearly was becoming more arcadey and targeting more of a Tony Hawk/Mountain Dew crowd. That’s all fine and dandy, but those of us who started out back in the day with the original Colin McRae thought to ourselves “Dude…what happened to rally?” After DiRT 3 launched, we turned our sights to the inevitable DiRT 4, which I’m sure we all hoped would return the series back to its rally roots.
Imagine my surprise when I was notified last week that a new DiRT game had released and it was not DiRT 4. First of all…hello? Why is this the first time I’m hearing about a new DiRT game? I guess I was too distracted looking at the pretty images of F1 2015 from Codemasters to notice any news. Second of all…DiRT Rally? Why not DiRT 4? Is there still going to be a DiRT 4? Has Codemasters decided to split up the DiRT series into rally and non-rally games, with DiRT Rally representing the rally side of things? Does that mean DiRT 4 (if it’s in existence) will be more of a Gymkhana/demo derby-fest? SO MANY QUESTIONS!!
After I had collected myself, I realized how awesome it was to wake up one morning with no expectations of any new DiRT news, to being presented with a brand spanking new DiRT game that focuses ONLY on rally. Add in the fact that the handling model is the most “sim” thing Codemasters has done in decades, and I started to squeal (internally). Dammit, I was and still am super excited. Let’s rally!
For starters, like I mentioned earlier, Rally is still in an early release alpha form, albeit an extremely polished and surprisingly bug-free one. The current version of Rally comes with 17 cars, 36 stages set across three locations (Monte Carlo; Argolis, Greece, and Hafren, Wales), a Career Mode, team management, upgrades and tuning, asynchronous multiplayer, custom single player events, and an incredibly detailed damage/repair system. Hill climbs will also be joining Rally, though that’s coming at a later date. I assume we’ll see more tracks and cars added as Codemasters continues to add to the game. Unless they plan on branching out, I assume we’ve seen all there is to see as far as racing styles go. After all, the game is called DiRT “RALLY;” I doubt we’ll see Gymkhana or demo derby here. During the few weeks it has been out, Codemasters has already added co-driver pace notes, and released information on upcoming Daily, Weekly, and Monthly events.
Before diving into the career mode or anything else, I implore you to jump into a random stage just to try the game out. Codemasters has never been known as developing hardcore sim titles, as their games generally have a great deal of forgiveness (think GRID and any of the F1 titles). I wouldn’t blame you if you jumped into a modern Ford Focus on one of the Monte Carlo stages and peeled off the starting line like you would in DiRT 3. Hell, that’s exactly what I did….and promptly ended up throwing myself over the rail off the cliffside. It’s almost like Codemasters heard all the criticism about their games not being “sim” enough, and thought to themselves “You want sim? Be careful what you wish for; let’s see how you handle a real rally sim!”
You can’t drive in Rally like you would any previous DiRT title. Realism is now at the forefront of the experience, and you’ll now not only need to drive more carefully than before, but also take into account the surface you’re on, the weather conditions, and the damage you’ve accrued, all while listening to your co-driver’s pace notes. It’s a lot to take in and makes for an incredibly intense experience especially the first few times you’re playing when all the stages are still unfamiliar. If you truly want to experience the insane physics model, please try out one of the icy Monte Carlo stages with the snow modifier turned on in a RWD Lancia Stratos. It’s been good knowing ya. After you’ve finished crashing 2340457820345782 times, jump into a 4WD Group A Impreza and note how different the stage feels in a different car. There’s an actual weight to each car, and you don’t just skid around like in DiRT 3.
The attention to realism does not stop there. Once you’re in the career mode, you’re going to notice that after each stage, you have the option to repair the damage done to your vehicle (there WILL be damage). That’s right, the damage you incur will carry over to the next stage, making precision driving even more imperative. It’s one thing to have a bit of scuffing on your bodywork, but what happens if you destroy a tire in the first stage? What if you mess up your steering column?
Luckily, you can order repairs in between stages, but you only have a finite amount of time you can devote to repairs. Once you’ve used up your allotted time, you’re stuck with whatever you have. I mean seriously, let’s think about that for a second; a racing game where damage carries over from one stage to the next. That completely changes the way I played the game, and chances are, it will change the way you play the game as well. There are now actual consequences to your actions, ones that will carry beyond the current race.
Visually, Rally is very impressive. The cars have a tremendous amount of detail, and each stage has a beautiful, distinct look. Dirt, mud, and ice will splatter about and accumulate on your car as you progress, and you’ll know when you’ve damaged your car. Nothing says “oops” quite like a bumper flying off and headlight glass shattering as you take a hairpin too quickly and slam into a tree.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this preview, DiRT Rally is not yet a finished game, but it shows an incredible amount of polish for such an early release. I’m excited to play through the hillclimb stages once they go live, and I’m excited to see what additional cars and tracks come to the game.
If DiRT Rally remains a rally-only sim, then I must commend Codemasters for going this route. DiRT 3 and DiRT Showdown were casual enough to hit a larger, more mainstream audience. DiRT Rally, if they continue down this path that they’ve started, will target a small, niche audience. The casual Mario Kart fan will not even be able to get off the starting line correctly, much less complete a full stage. Rally is for the sim fan, and for the sim fan only. Codemasters may make wide sellers like GRID, but they still have a soft spot for their hardcore fans. They like us, they really do!
Keep your eyes open as DiRT Rally continues to add more to the game. We’ll be circling back here as the game grows.
PS – Many users have experience some wheel and force feedback issues with DiRT Rally. In the most recent Codemasters Blog, they announced that they are aware of the issues, and that a fix in incoming.