In Dirt Rally, your co-driver's instructions are as imperative to your survival as your car staying on the road. They're a source of guidance for the severity of each twist of the track, and offer a crucial warning for approaching dangers. Fired off at a rapid clip with almost robotic precision, they ensure that the fear of the unknown is offset by the calm, informative voice sitting next to you. Yet for all the significance of their direction, there’s one phrase that stands out more than any other, and that's "be brave." I'm not sure what coaxes it out of your intrepid co-driver, but once in a blue moon he'll tell you to be brave, offering up a moment of encouragement--and a slice of humanity--amidst pinpoint instruction. It’s a rare phrase that summarises my time with Dirt Rally, because you won't get very far in Codemasters' latest without showing a little dare.
This is due in no small part to a punishing difficulty curve that has earned Dirt Rally quite the reputation since its release on Steam Early Access 11 months ago. By abandoning the series' previous American flavour and arcade-style racing, Dirt Rally differentiates itself from its predecessors by presenting an uncompromising simulation of rally racing that has more in common with 2004's Richard Burns Rally than anything released in the interim. With a phenomenal new physics engine, a plethora of variables that affect each stage, and a challenging assortment of beloved courses, Dirt Rally demands a lot from players. And in the move to consoles, its notorious challenge has remained fully intact--which is certainly cause for celebration.
Dirt Rally's demanding difficulty might alienate some racing game fans, but this console release includes 21 tutorials to help ease players in for a slightly less bumpy ride. They’re by no means perfect--mainly because they’re not actually playable--but each video tutorial is suitably in-depth and informative, basically out of necessity. The robust driving model means there's a range of techniques you'll want to learn--from how to perform a Scandinavian flick, to executing an opposite lock. The game even explores the mindset you'll want to approach each stage with. These tutorials are useful even if you just want to jump in and learn about one particular aspect of rally, but with no convenient way to practice, you will still have to hop onto the track and figure things out the hard way.
Dirt Rally is a triumphant return to form for Codemasters
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however, because if you stick with it long enough you'll unearth a satisfying sense of progression once you get the hang of things. But with the type of car (be it four-wheel, front-wheel, or rear-wheel drive), the weather, time of day, altitude, and driving surface all playing crucial roles in how you approach each stage, getting comfortable is easier said than done.
The console version does at least keep up with its PC counterpart. With a wealth of cars to tame--each giving your thumb a considerable workout as you wrestle just to keep them on the road--it’s commendable that the PlayStation 4 version maintains a steady 60fps throughout, ensuring a fantastic sense of speed and ensuring each twitch of the wheel is just as responsive as you would expect.
You'll need it, too, with the wildly disparate traits of each stage providing one tenacious challenge after another. Take the snowy tundra of Sweden as an example. You have to account not only for its icy slick roads but also the mounds of shovelled snow that tightly funnel you to the finish line. Veer slightly too far to the left or right and they're likely to spin you out or leave you on your roof. Or there’s the undulating paths and man-made obstacles in Germany, where deviously placed rocks prevent you from even thinking about cutting a corner and hay bales turn a simple straight into a tricky chicane. Even Monaco, and the relative safety of its tarmac roads, becomes a nightmare as its grippy surface is suddenly covered in near-gripless sheets of ice, turning parked cars into terrifying obstacles.
All of these stages make up the bulk of the career mode as you compete in a number of rally championships. These are lengthy multi-staged events where you compete against AI drivers to set the best time. Any damage sustained here is persistent throughout the championship, so if you play in first-person and suffer a large crack across your windscreen, that’s going to stay there for the duration. Other damage, like kinks to your engine, gearbox, tyres, and so on, can be fixed by a customisable team of engineers, trading your time for repairs. Catastrophic damage, however, will put an end to any championship run, even if you're a few stages deep. Sure, you can simply restart the stage over again. But the trepidation that accompanies each bump and bend when you know that one wrong move can spell the end is so thrilling, and the reward for finishing so gratifying, that I urge anyone to resist the temptation to restart.
Elsewhere, Hillclimb and Rallycross make up the rest of the career; the former letting you tackle the famous Pike's Peak in, Dirt Rally's greatest challenge, while the latter pits you against three AI or human drivers in short, combustible races. They're both enjoyable asides, but with a limited track selection, they feel half-baked when stacked up against the density of its rally offering. Fortunately, the console release does introduce some lower tier Rallycross vehicles, so you won't have to suffer through races with less capable vehicles at the start. While this doesn’t quite solve Dirt Rally's grinding problem, it's alleviated somewhat with earlier access other modes.
Despite a few issues, Dirt Rally is a triumphant return to form for Codemasters. The PS4 version arrives as a slightly more fleshed-out package at release and its technical performance is admirable. It's still mightily difficult, but if you're a rally enthusiast or even just have a passing interest in a challenging racing game, you can’t go wrong with Dirt Rally.