In the Lab: DiRT Rally

 

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Here at Outer World Labs we have mainly covered fighting games and the occasional open world action game, and the only thing resembling a driving game I’ve written about has been Carmageddon, so a review of a hardcore rally simulation might seem like a bit of a curve ball. However, I am actually a huge motorsports nerd. I love Formula One and never miss a race (the last time I missed one was in 2007, and that was because I was in the army at the time), I watch Indycar whenever it’s on at a Europe-friendly time, and I’m interested in many forms of racing.

And hey, why not? I hail from Finland after all, and motor racing is a pivotal part of our national identity, right up there with sauna, salmiakki, alcoholism and suicidal depression. Obviously, not every single Finnish person is a hardcore racing fan (or a depressed alcoholic), that’s not how it works, but motorsport is highly ingrained into our culture and we’ve produced many top drivers over the years including three Formula One world champions and a whole goddamn bunch of world rally champions who all learned their craft on our shitty forest roads which are often covered with snow and ice. If you ask a random person on the street who Mika Häkkinen, Kimi Räikkönen, Juha Kankkunen or Tommi Mäkinen is, there is a very good chance they’ll be able to tell you at least something. Not only that, but the sport of rallying as we know it began in Finland and Sweden when the concept of the special stage was invented.

These days, of course, rallying is in a bit of a bad spot, as audiences are dwindling and the sport simply doesn’t capture the public’s attention as it used to in the 80s and 90s. Even here in Finland, it’s no longer the national pastime it once was, despite the Finnish World Rally Championship round attracting decent audiences to this day. The level of competition isn’t nearly the same as it used to be a few decades ago, causing a couple of Frenchmen to dominate the WRC series as they please, the attempts to appeal to more casual audiences (such as the “super special” arena stages) have driven away some of the hardcore followers, and the cars themselves simply aren’t as interesting as they were in the past.

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*yawn*

When I was growing up in the 90s, rally cars such as the Toyota Celica GT-Four, Lancia Delta Integrale, Mitsubishi Lancer EVO and Subaru Impreza were the coolest damn things and instantly recognizable to anyone who had even a passing interest in the sport. Now, we have a bunch of Volkswagen Polos and Ford Fiestas which, while still powerful cars in WRC trim, simply don’t have that same iconic status as something like Colin McRae’s Subaru Impreza with that blue and yellow 555 livery. These cars are simply not cool enough. Their road versions are vehicles your mom drives to the supermarket, not something you’d be clamoring for. I can’t imagine little kids drawing sketches of Sebastien Ogier’s WRC Polo in their school notebooks, because the current crop of rally cars all look the same and don’t have anything to make them unique in the way the 90s cars (let alone the Group B monsters from the 80s) did, nothing to capture a fan’s imagination.

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Look at this thing. Just look at it. This is what I think of when someone says “rally car”.

Rally games have been similarly underwhelming for many years now. The official WRC games are completely forgettable with their bland gameplay, and the once mighty Colin McRae Rally fell into obscurity after a number of lackluster sequels, eventually turning into the DiRT series around the time Colin McRae himself was killed in a helicopter accident. The Rally Championship series disappeared altogether. The last rally game that could claim to be an actual rallying simulator, Warthog and SCI’s Richard Burns Rally, was released in 2004, and even though that game still has a hardcore following and an active modding community, it is very much an early 2000s sim and considered by a lot of people (including real rally drivers) to be too difficult. Still, for the longest time it was the only option for those who didn’t care for the arcade style of DiRT and the WRC series.

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After more than a decade, a challenger for RBR‘s throne appeared out of nowhere as DiRT Rally showed up on Steam Early Access. By now, DiRT had firmly established itself as a casual arcade-style experience focusing on X-Games and gymkhana (not to be confused with Gymkata) nonsense that has nothing to do with actual rallying, with an obnoxious dudebro-style presentation full of XTREME ENERGY DRINK ADS and that kind of thing. Codemasters hasn’t been known for realistic driving games at the best of times (having introduced the “rewind” mechanic to racing games), so a lot of people were very surprised when DiRT Rally turned out to be anything but an average Codemasters release.

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Although DiRT Rally is ostensibly the latest installment in the DiRT series, the fact is that it has nothing to do with the previous DiRT games aside from the name and some reused assets. DiRT Rally is a bonafide rally driving simulator, with everything that entails. The handling is less slippery than Richard Burns Rally (which of course led some folks to decry DiRT Rally as arcade bullshit), but make no mistake — this game is savagely difficult and punishing, to the extent that it has been dubbed the Dark Souls of racing games by some players.

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What did the Manta driver say when he crashed into a tree? “What the fuck, I had the right of way!” (apparently, jokes about Opel Manta owners are quite popular in Germany)

While you could dismiss the comparison to Dark Souls as silly hyperbole, it is actually fairly apt. All of your deaths (or, in this case, crashes, some of which may not actually be fatal) in DiRT Rally result from not playing the game properly. You have to learn the characteristics of each car you’re driving, find the right ways to tackle different road surfaces, master weight transfering to take corners quicker, listen to the co-driver and pay full attention if you are to finish a stage in one piece. There are no shortcuts to victory here, and if you try to floor the accelerator the way you would in previous DiRT games you’ll soon find yourself very well acquainted with the beautifully rendered scenery. The first time you try to drive fast in DiRT Rally, you will crash (unless you’re already a rally driver, in which case your first run can look very impressive), and there are no rewinds to be found here. When you take a corner just a bit wrong and slam your face into a tree 50 meters from the finish line, that’s your ass. You may be able to continue, but most of the time your car will be in such bad shape after a crash and you’ve lost so much time that you can kiss any chance of a good result farewell. The stages are longer than in most rally games, so screwing up at the last corner means losing five to ten minutes of progress.

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Protip: Try not to smash up your lights during a night stage.

If all of this sounds daunting, chances are DiRT Rally is not the game for you. However, if you are willing to take it slow, learn the ropes and gradually work your way to driving faster, DiRT Rally offers an incredibly satisfying gameplay experience in a way few games manage to do. When you finally manage to win a stage with all assists and the HUD turned off while using cockpit cam, the feeling is absolutely amazing and you might notice that you have been holding your breath for five to ten minutes. Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with enabling some of the driving aids to help you out, especially if you’re driving on a gamepad instead of a racing wheel, but personally I disabled all of them as soon as I started the game. The HUD will show you the next turn, your progress through the stage and how your time stacks up to the opponents, but I thought all of that was pointless and distracting (and therefore potentially dangerous) clutter and turned it all off. When I’m driving a 500 BHP Lancia Delta S4, I want to focus on the road above anything else. Actually having to listen to the co-driver’s pace notes might take a while to get used to, but once you do you’ll never want to go back to using the HUD.

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The car selection in DiRT Rally isn’t a perfect representation of every rally car ever, but most of the classic cars you’d want to drive are there (including the Group B cars, and the good old Lancia Stratos) and you can take a few of the current crop on a spin as well. The only major omission that bothered me was the Toyota Celica GT-Four, which took three consecutive world championships in the early 90s in the hands of Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol. Apparently, Toyota is a bit of a dick when it comes to licensing, so Celicas are unlikely to ever show up in DiRT Rally in any official capacity (they do, however, appear in the upcoming Sebastien Loeb Rally EVO, which has a demo available on the PS4 and Xbone and isn’t nearly as good as DiRT Rally, although it also goes for a similar realistic gameplay style). Most of the cars in the game lack the more famous sponsorship liveries, but mods have already fixed that problem and you can drive your 555 Subarus and Martini Lancias to your heart’s content. You don’t really see the car’s livery outside replays anyway, but it’s the principle of the thing. What is even the point of driving the Lancia Stratos if you can’t have it in the Alitalia colors?

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It’s almost the right colors, but not quite.

All of the cars drive exactly as they should, and going from the humble 1960s FWD Lancia Fulvia to something like the angry-snake-on-wheels Stratos or the Group B Delta S4 (which has a turbocharger and a supercharger) is quite scary indeed. The modern WRC cars have so much grip that they’re a bit boring to drive in comparison to the old flame-spitting monsters, but they do handle really nicely. Still, who wants to drive a Fiesta or Polo when you have far more enticing options?

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Awww yes, that’s the spot.

The rally events take place in six different countries. Initially, the only rallies available were Monte Carlo, Wales and Greece, with Germany, Finland and Sweden having been added in updates. Each of these is completely different; the Monte Carlo rally takes place on icy tarmac between cliff faces and snow banks as well as some very poorly parked cars, Wales takes you through the rainy countryside and forest roads, Greece is full of dust, gravel and rocks, Germany is an asphalt rally with a lot of grip until you actually need it, Finland is a terrifying high-speed and high-flying run through the forests near Jämsä, and Sweden is full of ice and snow. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many different stages here, as you’ll often find yourself driving the same stage in reverse or shorter stages combined into one longer stage, and the scenery gets rather familiar after a while.

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Suggestion: Watch Climb Dance.

Along with the rally stages, DiRT Rally also includes the famous Pikes Peak hillclimb (both the old mixed-surface version and the current all-tarmac variant) and a few rallycross tracks. Both the hillclimb and rallycross portions of the game could be more fleshed out, but they are still fun diversions and have their own special car selections. Unfortunately, you can’t take these cars onto the rally stages. Modern rallycross cars are far more powerful than WRC cars, so it would’ve been interesting to try them on the special stages.

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The career mode in DiRT Rally is quite bare-bones as well. You go through a series of championships, buy new cars, hire better mechanics and so on, but there isn’t much incentive to playing it. As such, I prefer to play the custom events, where I can drive any of the cars in any of the rallies. The custom events give you the option to drive against AI opponents, compete against your personal best times or try to beat the community delta time. The latter is quite easy, as you’ll regularly beat the delta by over 20 seconds as long as you mostly stay on the road. Beating the AI is far more difficult, because they are very consistent and you’re screwed if you make even one mistake or drive too conservatively. This is the case even on the easiest (“Open”) difficulty, and I don’t actually see any real difference between that and the medium (“Professional”) level.

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Even the community delta time isn’t quite THAT bad, so this is unfortunately a glitch.

As we’ve established, the gameplay of DiRT Rally is hardcore simulation fare. That said, it does still have a few odd things going on that could use some work — first of all, the car damage isn’t extensive enough. As I mentioned earlier, it is quite brutal and you will feel the effects if you smash up your car, but I think it could stand to be far more extensive both visually and from a gameplay standpoint. Even the most massive roll won’t end your run altogether, and your engine block can take several hits before the car packs it in. I have obviously been spoiled by BeamNG.drive and Wreckfest and their soft-body damage models when it comes to visual damage, but it just doesn’t look quite right here. You can tear off panels and doors and bend the chassis and all that, but really smashing up your car that badly requires some effort. There was actually a mod that made the damage more realistic, but unfortunately it doesn’t work with the full release version of the game.

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Never mind, someone just uploaded a new one! That’s better.

The other issue I’m having is with the recovery system. When you fall off the track in certain places, you’re immediately reset back onto the road with a time penalty and no damage to the car. Other times, falling off the road ends your run at the spot with no chance to recover. Personally, I’d remove the automatic recovery altogether or at least have it as a toggleable option, because I want there to be consequences if I fall off the cliff at Pikes Peak. The game also auto-recovers you if you happen to plow into a group of spectators (nothing is shown, of course, it just cuts to black and you’re back on the road with the 14-second penalty), which is just silly in my opinion. Obviously I’m not asking for a graphic re-enactment of the 1986 Portuguese rally, but in a game that is so realistic in many ways it seems odd to be able to smash into spectators without any consequences. Either have the people scatter and dive out of the way so you can’t hit them at all, or cut to black and immediately retire the car with terminal damage.

Of course, these are just minor complaints as the rest of the game is extremely good. DiRT Rally is easily the best game Codemasters have ever released, and I hope we get some more content and a better career mode in the future. What is there now is fantastic, but six main rally events with Pikes Peak and a bit of rallycross on the side will get old at some point. A system to procedurally generate stages has been talked about, but I’m not sure if there is any way that kind of thing will ever actually be implemented. The game will be released on the PS4 and Xbox One in April 2016, and I hope we get some news about extra content after that. Until then, I’ll be having a blast with what we have now. Remember: always go MAXIMUM ATTACK. (Actually, don’t do that unless you know what you’re doing, you’ll crash)

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