It’s hard to believe that nearly 3 months have already passed since Codemasters surprised us all by releasing Dirt Rally for early access. In all honesty, like many rally purists, I had become a bit disillusioned with the direction Codemasters was taking the Dirt franchise over the past years. The Ken Block Gymkhana vibe just didn’t resound with me, and I didn’t bother picking up either Dirt 2 or 3. So, it was with some reservation that I put down my $33.00 and downloaded my copy of Dirt Rally from Steam back in late April. The moment I released the handbrake for the first time and felt my Ford Fiesta dig into the muddy Welsh gravel, I knew that Codemasters had done something very special.
There have already been a lot of reviews written about Dirt Rally, and I don’t want this to just be another typical article rehashing the same topics that have already been covered. Every review that I have read about the Dirt Rally project have been written from a gaming perspective. Most have done a great job of covering gaming aspects such as sound, graphics, and interface. While this review will certainly cover some of that material, I am going to attempt to approach the game from a different perspective: that of a rally fanatic who lives and breathes the sport 24/7. Yes, I care about those “gaming” aspects, but I care more about Dirt Rally’s faithfulness to the sport that it attempts to portray. This is a blog of rally opinion, not a gaming blog, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at Dirt Rally from a slightly different perspective.
One of the hardest things about organizing this piece was trying to figure out where to begin. After quite a bit of thinking, (and a few beers), I have decided to address that elusive “feeling” that we hear Jari-Matti Latvala talking about so often. I guess that the concepts of game physics certainly play a role when it comes to this “feeling”, but there is also an emotional aspect that rally games often fail to capture. I have never driven a rally car, so my evaluation of Dirt Rally’s feeling is based purely on my 15 years of watching hours of rallying footage and listening to the comments of drivers in post-stage interviews. The very first thing that I experienced when I took the wheel in Dirt Rally was that I felt like I was driving a real car. At slow speeds, the car behaved like a car should. Driving down the Sweet Lamb stage at 60kph felt very similar to driving my road car down a gravel road. Yes, there were a few slippery sections where some counter-steering was required, but all in all, it was a fairly straightforward drive. To me, this was the first evidence of the incredible authenticity of Dirt Rally’s physics system. The developers didn’t try to recreate an interpretation of “rally driving” by making the cars floaty and drifty. Instead, they created Dirt Rally’s cars to behave as they would in real life, whether it be at 60kph or 150kph.
As I gradually gained the courage to increase my speed, I began to understand how well Codemasters had captured “the feeling” of rallying. There were moments when I felt like I was linking corners together and had the confidence to push, but there were other times when I just couldn’t find the rhythm. For the first time, I felt like I began to truly understand exactly what Jari-Matti was talking about when he said, “I just didn’t have the confidence.” In Dirt Rally, one bad corner is enough to throw off your rhythm for the next 1-2 kilometers of the stage. When you experience “a big moment” in Dirt Rally, you will feel flutters in your chest and loose all of your pace and momentum. However, at the same time, once you ease off and work back into a rhythm, you can rebuild your confidence and find the ability to push again. At the end of the day, that is all I am looking for when it comes to a rally game. I don’t know what it feels like to drive a rally car at full tilt, but if a game leaves me experiencing the same feelings and emotions that I hear my WRC heroes talking about during their stage-end interviews, I am satisfied. Dirt Rally captures “the feeling” of rally to perfection, and their recent force feedback update only elevates this even further.
Let’s take a step away from how Dirt Rally feels and spend some time on the vehicular content that it includes. As I write this, I am fully aware that the current car list is not a representation of the final product. However, I will speak to the content that we have so far, and I have to say that it is already quite impressive. It seems that Codemasters are taking a “quality over quantity” approach when it comes to the rally cars featured in the games, and the results are absolutely fantastic. While Dirt Rally doesn’t feature the massive car counts of games such as Forza and Grand Turismo, the cars that are included were created with love. Each car feels completely unique when it comes to appearance, physics, and sound. In past rally games, I have tended to stick to only a few cars which felt and sounded better than the rest. While I still have my favorites in Dirt Rally, (MKII Escort and Mini Countryman), the quality of Codemaster’s work has made me want to try every car.
As a rally enthusiast, what I appreciate most about Dirt Rally’s car list is that it pays homage to all the significant eras of rallying. If you would like to have a go in the small but agile Mini Cooper that dominated the world of rally in the 1960’s, you can. If you want to take the legendary Lancia Stratos over the Col de Turini, you can. If you fancy trying to hang onto a screaming MKII Escort over some classic muddy Welsh stages, you can. In Dirt Rally, the last 50 years of rallying history is represented in all it’s glory for you to enjoy. In addition, as you try out different cars, you begin to understand just how much the technology has developed over the years. I have found myself running the same stretch of road over and over again in various cars from different eras just to see how they stack up against one another. Even after several months, this hasn’t gotten old, and this speaks to Codemaster’s genius when it came to their car selection and creation.
I would contend that the stages are one of those things that can make or break a rally game. I am pleased to say that for he most part, the stages in Dirt Rally are an asset to the game. For years, developers, including Codemasters, have been trying to “design” rally stages to look and feel like the real thing. This approach has only resulted in stretches of virtual road that are too flat, too short, and too wide. To their credit, Codemasters finally saw the flaw in this philosophy and decided to just create roads as they exist in real life. The last rally game to take this approach was Mobil 1 Rally Championship 2000, and at 15 years old, I contend that it still has the best stages in any rally game. Rallying does not take place on manicured stages created just for the purpose of driving cars fast. No, it takes place on real roads used for everyday driving and industry. These roads have flaws and imperfections that are captured perfectly in Dirt Rally. We just saw Kris Meeke get launched into the air by a rut that he wasn’t expecting during Rally Poland’s shakedown, and in Dirt Rally, you will face the same risks. The slightest imperfection has the potential to throw you off the road if you catch it at the wrong speed or angle. In this way, the stages in Dirt Rally will feel fresh, unique, and endlessly challenging.
However, my only gripe with Codemaster’s stage selection in Dirt Rally is that they have fallen into the same mistakes of past rally games: recycled roads. Now, I know that in real life, the WRC uses the same stages several times during a rally. However, those stages are 20-40 kilometers long. In Dirt Rally, the stages are significantly shorter, and this makes them easy to memorize with time. Because Codemasters put so much time into the detail of the roads as I outlined above, it does increase the re-playability of the stages. However, the advertized 12 stages per rally is actually only one 15-20 kilometer stretch of road that is broken up into several sections and run in both directions. When I realized this, I have to say that I felt more than a little cheated. I know that Codemasters will still be adding more rallies and stages, but at the moment, the current collection of stages isn’t enough. My only hope is that the developers will continue to add stages as DLC once the early access period has been completed. I think that I can speak for many rally enthusiasts that if more stages were created with the same quality and attention to detail as the rest of the game, we would be willing to open up our wallets to acquire them. Just like the cars in Dirt Rally, the stage quality is there, but I think that we could use some more quantity moving forward.
We’ll move away from pure content of cars and stages and take a look at another aspect of vital importance in a rally game, the co-driver. I am pleased to say that Dirt Rally features the best virtual co-driver ever featured in a rally video game. Now, it is easy to nitpick about specific calls on specific stages, but overall, the Dirt Rally co-driver is heads above the rest when it comes to navigating you through a virtual rally stage. Yes, if I were to do my own recce on the Dirt Rally stages, there might be a few corners that I might change down or up a number, but for the most part, the co-driver’s calls are spot-on. More importantly, the co-driver is not the monotone robot featured in past rally games. Instead, he sounds like a real person who is affected by the forces within the car. The quality of the co-driver is one the features of Dirt Rally that contribute to that visceral “feeling” that I discussed at the beginning of this piece. The pace of the co-driver’s notes follows the pace of your driving, and will allow you to settle into a rhythm as you would with a real person. Yes, there is always room for improvement with small tweaks, but for the most part, Codemasters have given you a great teammate by your side to help you tackle the complex stages of Dirt Rally.
Damage is a fact of life in rally. Sometimes it is sustained from an off-road excursion, but other times, it is a result of simple wear and tear. In rallying, sometimes even the slightest mistake such as being slightly untidy with the rear of the car can result in a squashed exhaust or a broken damper. Catching a rock at just the wrong angle can result in a puncture forcing the crew to limp through the rest of the stage. At this point, I would have to say that the damage model in Dirt Rally is the feature with the most untapped potential. Yes, the game does include the ability to damage many different components of the car, but at the moment it seems too forgiving. For example, you can puncture a tire, but it only seems too happen after a tremendous impact. Even when you do puncture, it is relatively easy to speed through the stage and set a fairly decent time. I would love to hear the de-laminating tire flail against the undercarriage of the car and feel the steering become more and more difficult as the tire falls apart. Increasing the consequences of other types of damage would add to the immersion as well. Could you imagine damaging the transmission and getting stuck in one gear for the rest of the stage, or having to manage the water temperature after smashing your radiator on a boulder? I understand that the developers might be hesitant to take these suggestions due to a fear of making the game too difficult to the general public. However, a realistic “extreme” damage model could be included as an option that could be turned on or off at the player’s choice. My thought is that since Codemasters already created a faithfully realistic simulation in terms of car behavior, why would they take it easy with the damage model? The current damage model doesn’t fit with the tone that is being set by the rest of the game. Success in rally is achieved through both speed and survival. Dirt Rally has captured the speed aspect perfectly, but seems a bit lacking when it comes to surviving damage over the course of a rally.
So far, this review of Dirt Rally has been overwhelmingly positive, and for good reason. In Dirt Rally, Codemasters have created a labor of love for us to enjoy. However, when reflecting on the game from the perspective of a rallying enthusiast, Dirt Rally has one massive omission. When driving in Dirt Rally, I don’t feel like I am actually participating in a rally. The game feels more like a library of notable cars and stages that exist in isolation. If I could pick one word to describe Dirt Rally’s atmosphere, it would be “sterile”. Yes, I can drive any notable rally car on any surface, but I don’t feel like I am involved in an event. When on the stages, I feel isolated, in just a solitary car driving down a lonely stretch of road. The spectators, ambulances, and TV vans placed along the side of the stages help mitigate this feeling slightly, but the world of Dirt Rally still feels empty. I’m going to spend a bit of time on this issue because I think that if corrected, it will set Dirt Rally apart from any other rally game.
Even though in rally, the cars are racing at intervals and competing against the clock, they are not alone. There are several cars on the stage at the same time, and even though they rarely come in contact, there is interaction. Cars crash and break down along the stages. With each passing car, damage is done to the roads, and dust is thrown into the air. In order to be a groundbreaking rally game, Dirt Rally needs to capture this aspect of rallying. I know that it can be done because Codemasters featured several cars on one stage in Dirt 3 and the Dirt Rally physics engine allows for several cars with the Rallycross expansion coming later this month. In addition, having crashed cars randomly placed on a stage was done 10 years ago by Evolution Studios in the WRC series on the PS2. Think about the possibilities. Say for example, a competitor in front of you suffered a puncture and you began to catch the dust. It would force you to make a decision: do you keep going and take risks to pass the stricken car, or hold back and lose time over the length of the stage. Or what if you spun across the stage and stalled your car? The knowledge of another car bearing down on you in only 60 seconds would add a whole new layer of realism that hasn’t been captured in any other rally game.
Off the top of my head, the rally game that best captured the atmosphere of a real rally was Codemaster’s Colin McRae Rally 3. Through the clever use of cut-scenes, the game made you feel like you were really competing in a rally rather than just completing a list of stages. Before starting a special stage, you saw the car in front of you launch off the starting line in a cloud of dust. Then, you would watch your car pull up to the time control and your co-driver exchange the time card with the rally marshals. Between stages, there were scenes of the service park with mechanics working on the car. While simple, these scenes helped to build the anticipation of every special stage and made you feel like you were involved in a live rally. Including similar scenes in Dirt Rally would contribute greatly to the immersion and atmosphere that is currently lacking in the current build of the game. In addition to cut-scenes, menu design is a simple and inexpensive way to add to the immersion. At the moment, the menu interface in Dirt Rally does the job, but adds nothing to the rally experience. With a good graphic artist, Codemasters could transform Dirt Rally’s forgettable menus into something meaningful and memorable. For example, what if Codemasters presented the stages for a particular rally in the format of a real rally roadbook? Using some simple 2-dimensional graphics, the menu could resemble a spiral bound notebook with stage maps, start times and road surface information. It would be a simple addition that would add the atmosphere of a real-life rally to the game.
If you consider yourself to be a rally fan, you really need to pick up a copy of Codemaster’s Dirt Rally. The most obvious reason is that even in it’s early access state, it is a fantastic game that will give you hours upon hours of enjoyment. However, there is a bigger, more ideological reason to purchase this game. For years, we have pleaded with game developers to listen to what we actually wanted instead of guessing about what they thought would make a good game. Way back in 2013, Codemasters held a community survey to determine the course of their rally games for the future. Finally, Codemasters took the chance to listen to the community and Dirt Rally is the result of that decision. If Dirt Rally succeeds, it could change the way game developers approach the future production of not only rally games, but games in all genres. If, however, this new approach fails, it could mean that we never see another game like Dirt Rally again. Codemasters took a huge chance by going against the convention and involving the rally community. They deserve our support to ensure the success of all their hard work in Dirt Rally.