DiRT Rally: Early Access Preview

On April 27th, in what seemed like a stealth move from Codemasters, DiRT Rally made an appearance on Steam with little to no fanfare. It was an Early Access title, unusual for a “big name” developer with a proven back catalog, and you would be forgiven for erring on the side of caution. An unannounced Early Access game almost screams “shitty- broken cash-grab”. But this is Codemasters after all, an established developer and this is a DiRT title. Surely this would mitigate any kind of suspicion you might have?

Well, yes, depending on your outlook towards previous games in the DiRT series. If you fell into the camp of hating the oversaturation of the Gymkhana elements, where everything was about “the sick skills, brah” as you down another energy drink and an annoying commentator barked what is essentially white noise into your eardrums, then yes DiRT Rally is for you.

Even for a last-gen engine, DiRT Rally looks sublime.
Even for a last-gen engine, DiRT Rally looks sublime.

DiRT Rally can trace its lineage way back to 1998, when the first Colin McRae Rally was released for PC and PlayStation. At the time it was breathtaking, offering a semi-simulation take on arguably the most dangerous of motorsports. It offered a near-perfect handling model, a complex damage model and unrivalled atmosphere. Over the following decade and a half it enjoyed increased success, expanding beyond Rally and Rally sports after adopting the Dirt moniker and gaining an American accent. Many felt it had diluted what had made it such a well-loved series, and after making their voices heard Codemasters appear to be listening.

DiRT Rally is Codemasters’ attempt to not only strip back the DiRT series to its McRae beginnings, but to go further – to enter simulation territory. It is CM’s most realistic driving game to date, with a newly re-developed handling model being the current centerpiece. It’s excellent too. Cars handle on the right side of simulation, fast sweeping corners require just as much attention as acute angles, and you can almost feel the tires carving their path through the top layers of gravel.

The cockpit camera makes each race even more terrifying.
The cockpit camera makes each race even more terrifying.

Special attention must be made to the sound too, hearing the rattle of the chassis, rumble of the engine and the deep throated burble of the exhaust all paint an extensive and wonderful audio image. Switch into the cockpit view for maximum effect as you hear the gravel pinging off the underside of the car, brakes squealing as they strain to reign in all the horsepower. All this happens whilst the co-driver gives you the heads up on the next set of turns, his voice raising in intensity at higher speeds and warbling as you blast over bumpy sections.

Your chances of a decent stage time can all be over in a flash when you put a foot wrong, which will happen more times than you will like to admit. Overcooking a turn or not obeying the advice of your co-driver will see you barreling off the track and into one of the following: A tree, rock, spectator, post, log pile, parked cars or even unfortunate spectators and marshals. If you are lucky you will be able to quickly get back on the track with minimal damage, but if you are more unfortunate you might end up with a tire puncture which will eventually work its way off the rim. If the crash is particularly severe then the tire might just blowout completely.  On night stages, losing your headlights ramps the challenge up substantially, increasing the chances of further damage.

The Group B rally cars are the most exhilarating to drive.
The Group B rally cars are the most exhilarating to drive.

It’s not perfect however. Mechanical failure, fluid leaks and total failures both minor and catastrophic do not seem to be present or take far too long have any impact on a championship. I tried over five stages to terminally wreck my car by crashing as much as possible, but I was always able to complete the stage and was never in a situation where I felt it was necessary to retire. It’s made worse by the fact that you can see the A.I opponents suffering from the very damage you would expect yourself to succumb to. Hopefully, this is something that CM will work extensively on.

As it stands right now there is a decent selection of content to sink into. There are three locations offered, the best of which are the fantastically claustrophobic and dreary Wales stages. Greece offers up an arid and twisted mountainous climb and Monte Carlo punches you in the face with its sneaky juxtaposition of grippy tarmac and grip-less ice and snow.

Even with insane amounts of visual damage its was disappointing to find a lack of real mechanical failure.
Even with insane amounts of visual damage its was disappointing to find a lack of real mechanical failure.

More locations are planned in future updates, the first of which being the Pikes Peak hill climb. At the moment, there is a rudimentary championship to progress through, though it’s not fully fleshed out at all and feels a little sterile.

Also, you will find the now obligatory daily/weekly/monthly events as well as the ability to create your own leagues offer you the ability to see how you compare against the rest of the world including current rally drivers. There is also a smattering of cars from various eras of rally with the largest selection coming from the hair raising, heart pumping, banned Group B and it’s easy to see why.

Take the Metro 6r4 for example a rear engine, 4WD monster. With 380bhp of raw power in something that weighs less than a flea’s ball sack. Making it around any corner, let alone finishing a stage, is a white knuckle, edge of your seat dance with digital death. It’s truly exhilarating to ride on the fringes of control and addictively satisfying getting to the finish. This is DiRT Rally’s biggest draw in what is possibly the most polished Early Access game released yet, but there is a lot of work for CM to concentrate on before it can win over fans of the punishingly hard Richard Burns Rally and become the sorely needed rally sim that many have been praying for.

Lose your lights on a night stage? Good luck.

So far Codemasters are doing the right things, listening intently, building and tweaking the game around the community and filtering the most common wishes to hopefully include them in game. DiRT Rally may not be the next-gen graphical powerhouse that DiRT 4 will no doubt be but it is slowly but surely gaining back and going beyond what made it so good 17 years ago.


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Tags : DiRT RallyEarly Access
James Payne

The author James Payne

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