DiRT Rally – Early Access Hands On

DiRT Rally – Early Access Hands On

Codemasters sneakily released a new game onto Steam Early Access the other week when they went public with DiRT Rally, the latest game in the DiRT series, but one that takes an approach more in keeping with the older Colin McRae Rally games. Codemasters talk boldly about realism with Rally, and I’ve been checking it out over the past few days to see how it fares, and how it stands compared to other rallying titles.

For some background, my first experience of a rallying came with Network Q RAC Rally Championship from 1996, a game I talked about during my search for a real rally game four years ago. The dearth of genuine rally games in recent years is telling, since I wrote that article in 2011, nothing had provided me with something approaching the genuine rallying experience.

The last officially licensed WRC game from last year featured a rallying experience with only 3 days of competitive rallying with 2 stages on each day. There might have been all the rallys from the WRC, but that small number of stages is shocking. You can understand how it happens with the small budget developers Milestone have, but they would be better focusing on the quality of a small number of locations than doing the real WRC a disservice.

Completing a stage with my Mini Cooper largely intact, a good feeling.
Completing a stage with my Mini Cooper largely intact, a good feeling.

To this day, hardcore rally game fans still refer back to Richard Burns Rally as being the last true rallying game with the last Colin McRae Rally game being released the year before Richard Burns Rally. I’ll be honest that I thoroughly enjoyed most aspects of the first DiRT game, which could still claim to hold some link back to the original series with a decent variety of stages to explore, but since then, the series has fallen away from the real rallying experience in favour of gymkhana based events with 2011s DiRT Showdown scraping the barrel of rallying legitimacy.

I am so happy then that DiRT Rally has been released (albeit in Early Access), giving us a glimpse into what a focused effort can give us. As it is in Early Access, this isn’t close to the final game, but regardless, it is an extremely well polished title to see appearing in Early Access. At the moment there are three locations to throw your four-wheeled beasts around: Greece, Wales and Monte Carlo, with 12 stages for each country. There are of course a number of reversed stages, or routes expanding on one main location (the legendary Col du Turini springs to mind here), but in these early days, DiRT Rally is providing a greater variety of unique stages to explore than I’ve seen for a number of years.

We won’t be left with just these three locations, on the timeline that Codemasters have revealed, before the end of this year we can expect more traditional rally stages to appear in Germany, Finland and what can only be Sweden, the ‘Winter Wonderland’ the timeline refers to. That won’t be all as the monstrous Pikes Peak hill climb will appear later this month in both the original dirt route and the new tarmac route, this will be along with some new vehicles tuned especially for hill climbs.

At the moment there are, understandably given the focus on traditional point-to-point rallying, no PvP online elements. These will be appearing towards the tail end of the summer with the introduction of Rallycross events. Some might think this is a sign that Codemasters aren’t sticking to their simulation mantra, but as ex-WRC Champion Petter Solberg is currently dominating the FIA World Rallycross Championship, I think this will be a worthy addition to the game, and in turn should open it up to a broader audience who might currently be put off by the focus on classic rallying.

It is all well and good talking about the future of DiRT Rally, but how does it feel to play at the moment? I have to say that it really is the most authentic rallying experience I’ve had the pleasure of trying out since the early Colin McRae Rally games (I never played Richard Burns Rally), the car selection (while slim at the moment) covers the main eras of rallying history, and as I’ve indicated, I am more than happy with the number of unique stages to explore.

The handling model is thoroughly enjoyable (but I do have some reservations), and when matched up with the extremely impressive audio, you do feel immersed in the game. My concerns are that there seems to be a tendency for cars to understeer, while at times you don’t get a clear feel for the grip, or lack of it, under the tyres. This might all be a symptom of playing with a control pad, not a wheel and pedal set up, but I would be looking for some more work on this before the final launch of the game, hopefully later this year. The audio though is amazing, bashing around in a 1960s Mini Cooper, you can hear the squeal of the breaks and the suspension trying to cope with the lumps and bumps, while the co-drive pace notes have been well created.

A Championship mode is present which sets you off with the challenge of building up your racing career with a small starting budget which limits you to the 1960s classic racers. As you progress through the championships, you earn prize money to buy new cars, while having to manage you finances when paying out to repair you vehicle between stages. The inclusion of a Crew Chief and Engineering team feels a bit gimicky at the moment to me, but I can see how it will influence your efforts over the course of your career. If a career isn’t what you want, you can create you own rally experience and choose any car to get stuck in with.

While making your custom rally, you can choose your weather conditions for the stage. Sadly your choices are limited for each country, Greece will only ever be dry, Wales doesn’t see any bright sunny days while Monte Carlo makes use of snowy and icy conditions. I haven’t been convinced by the snowy visuals so far, but when racing through the Welsh forests of the real-world Sweet Lamb stage in the driving rain, the atmosphere is second to none.

The interiors are extremely well detailed.
The interiors are extremely well detailed.

For multiplayer fans there are daily, weekly and monthly events with financial rewards based on your finishing positions. The daily event takes place on one stage, with the lengthier stages saved for the weekends, while the longer events take in four or 24 stages. These are the kind of multiplayer modes which are becoming ever more common, and I certainly think they are a good way to get the community involved together before the release of the PvP update. You can also join and create Leagues where you can create custom events for you and your friends. You can find details on The Reticule’s league here.

First impressions then are very good, I am so happy to see a game actually focus on the art of rallying without superfluous gymkhana events and such like. The handling model isn’t as polished as I would have hoped, but I would be interested in seeing what users with a wheel and pedals think. For now, have you been playing DiRT Rally, and what do you all make of it?

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