Dirt Rally Early Access Review

Dirtier than ever.

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Over the years playing through Codemasters’ popular Dirt series, I thought I came to understand how to race rally cars, that I could strap into a Subaru Impreza and hurtle through the rapid twists and turns of any white-knuckle rally stage. I mastered the techniques, perfecting the hairpin turn and the Scandinavian flick, travelling from muddy field to arid desert as I conquered all before me and took my place atop one podium after another.

Try to play it like Dirt 3 and you’ll be halfway up a tree on the very first corner.

Then Dirt Rally snuck onto Steam Early Access and hastily revealed the stark reality that I, like Jon Snow, know nothing. Because, unlike its seminal predecessors, Dirt Rally is not an accessible approximation of the lauded motorsport, but a merciless simulation. This marks a drastic shift for the series, with it now being more akin to the decade-old Richard Burns Rally than anything Codemasters has ever done before. It strips away Dirt’s penchant for American flavour, ditching the gymkhana events, destruction derbies, and the extreme sports theme, returning to basics to celebrate the unbridled purity of rally.

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And it works. By God does it work. Whether you’re darting through the dense, drizzled forests of Wales and its rolling countryside, careening around a sun-swept dustbowl in southern Greece, or skidding across the undulating roads of Monaco’s snow-capped mountaintops, Dirt Rally captures the essence of its chosen motorsport in a way very few have before. This is a game all about the crucial relationship between drivers, their car, and the road. It’s a game about adapting to a deluge of variables, and of contending with a phenomenal new physics engine that makes your chosen vehicle, the weather, the time of day, altitude, and driving surface all crucial components to each and every stage.

Subtle details, such as a camera drone flying overhead, litter every stage.
Subtle details, such as a camera drone flying overhead, litter every stage.

Try to play it like Dirt 3 and you’ll be halfway up a tree on the very first corner. These aren’t the floaty cars you could throw across the road in previous Dirt games: They’re tight, responsive, and weighty--the wheels digging into the mud and gravel, creating grooves through narrow bends as the road resists your hefty momentum.

Each of the 17 cars currently available is a joy to drive, yet taming them is a great challenge; You’re teetering on the verge of disaster at all times, engaged in a furious battle just to keep the car on the road. You have to be precise and manage each corner, transferring weight to flick out the backend and drift around a tricky bend. You must know when to be careful and when to push the car to its absolute limits, always reminding yourself that one wrong move could irreparably harm your stage time or put you out of action altogether. There’s no margin for error here, with Dirt's rewind feature conspicuously absent.

With no tutorials to speak of, this level of difficulty may prove frustrating for some. It can be hard to figure out where you’re going wrong, and while various online forums are helpful, with people usually willing to lend a helping hand and share tips, this is one aspect of the game that will hopefully be rectified either in the coming months or by the time it’s fully released.

With no tutorials to speak of, this level of difficulty may prove frustrating for some.

During my first few hours, it felt like an accomplishment just to finish a stage, narrowly avoiding the sorts of catastrophic crashes that would put an end to any prospective run. The more I played, however--and I know this sounds simple--the more I unearthed a tangible sense of progression. Not just because I was setting quantifiably better split times, but because of the way I was driving, too.

Eventually I found myself feathering the accelerator to glide around modest corners, as opposed to jamming on the breaks, and pointing my car at just the right angle to ensure that pulling on the handbrake would gracefully slither the vehicle around a tricky hairpin corner. Such a learning process was as intuitive, and it provided me the confidence to take more risks, believing that I was better equipped to deal with the consequences. Before long it wasn’t just about simply finishing in one piece, but about setting competitive stage times, improving on those times, and eventually earning a place on the podium.

This contemporary tale, of triumph over adversity, ended the moment I arrogantly bought the fastest car I could afford. I was back to square one: Skirting off the track, crashing into trees, rocks and whatever else was nearby. The disparity between each vehicle is really quite staggering, and at first I could only fail miserably in my shiny new ride. Going from the relatively meagre 1960s Lancia Fulvia to the blisteringly fast Peugeot 205 T16 Evo is genuinely terrifying. Not only is the rate of acceleration and speed difference profound, but the handling model is completely different. I had to learn how to drive a new car while re-learning each stage, differing my approach from corner to corner to compensate for the adverse shift in power and weight.

Click on the thumbnails below to view in full-screen.
Click on the thumbnails below to view in full-screen.
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Crashes are nothing to make light of either. Damage is persistent in Dirt Rally, so if you mash your car down to half its size, ruin the radiator, and break the gearbox during the first stage, you’re going to suffer for it the rest of the tournament. Fortunately, you can often repair your car between stages, which trades vehicle performance for time added onto your overall tally--which can then be shortened by hiring better engineers. Go too far, however, and even the best engineer in the business won’t be able to help you.

Heading onto the track with this in mind makes those moments when you skirt a sheer drop completely nerve wracking. One wrong move and it could be calamity. It doesn’t matter if you’re mere seconds away from finishing an eight-stage tournament--if you wreck your car, it’s all over. That's exactly zero points and a lonely spot at the leaderboard’s nadir. Of course, you can always just restart the stage (and suffer a monetary loss) but then you lose the thrill of this persistent threat, of knowing that one mistake could cost so much. It’s like playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown by fully embracing its permadeath, constantly forging ahead rather than reloading a previous save back when your top sniper was still alive and well.

Night time excursions are particularly perilous. Just don’t smash those headlights.
Night time excursions are particularly perilous. Just don’t smash those headlights.

Dirt Rally still has room for improvement in terms of production values, but it more than makes up for this with a robust and in-depth driving model that’s as exhilarating as it is rewarding. The stiff challenge it presents won’t be for everyone, but the prospect of mastering its many intricacies is a tantalising proposition I’m sure many will gladly tackle. This is not the Dirt we once knew, but a reinvention of the series that’s going in all the right directions. You should consider getting in on the ground floor.

What’s There?There’s a career mode that progresses through tournaments, from grass-roots rally to professional championships. Daily, weekly, and monthly challenges are also included that task you with beating other people’s stage times, while online leagues let you create your own tournaments to play with friends. All of these modes utilise the 36 stages spread across 3 countries, and the 17 cars ranging from 1960s classics to modern vehicles.
What’s to Come?Famous Pike’s Peak will be added later in May, and a Hill Climb mode is already being teased in the menus. There will also be new cars and stages added over time, including those from the 2015 FIA World Rallycross Championship.
How Much Does it Cost?$35 (£25) on Steam at of the time of writing, but Codemasters says this price will rise throughout Early Access. All updates to the game will be free.
When Will it be Finished?Scheduled to go gold by the end of 2015.
What’s the Verdict?Dirt Rally is proving to be a merciless and rewarding rally sim so far, and we're confident it can get even better.

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