It wasn’t too long ago that console gamers on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were without any rally games to play at all, but with Dirt Rally’s console release next week, they’re now spoilt for choice with a trio of racers tackling the same racing discipline. For the Dirt series in particular, it’s a return to their roots with a much purer take on rally driving, after drifting into ever more populist areas of motorsports.
Of course, Dirt Rally has been a while coming to console, with a release into Early Access on Steam at the end of April last year that featured a relatively cut down selection of content. It grew over the course of the year, with more cars, more locations and tracks being added, and the console release goes even further, with gravel variants of the famous Pikes Peak hill climb and cheaper cars for the Rallycross game mode, so that you can dive right into the popular mixed-surface circuit racing mode.
But the real focus is on the rallying. The career is simplistic in form, letting you spend 50,000 credits on a car of your choice from the 60s, choosing from a Mini Cooper S, Renault Alpine A110 and a Lancia Fulvia HF. You can, of course, dive in at the deep end with a custom event and pick the RWD 70s cars, the powerful 4WD Group B cars, choose between the Impreza and Lancer Evo, or from a handful of cars from this decade.
It’s better to start off slow, though. With the front wheel drive of the Mini, it gives you a good chance to get to grips with the game’s handling model and having to deal with a car’s weight distribution when going through corners. Switching from gamepad to wheel, I found myself having to move the wheel much more sharply into a turn, just to shift the weight to the corner of the car I needed, in order to get it to grip and get round tight corners. Even so, it’s easy to brake too late, lock the wheel to little effect and understeer into a wall or over the lip at the edge of the road.
Moving from one class to another, the cars quickly start to get a lot faster. Initially, with a shift to rear wheel drive, they also get rather difficult to handle, but the advent of four wheel drive and the decades of cars since then help to neutralise some of the peril. Later cars feel tight and responsive, compared to the often floaty, balloon-like handling of previous Codemasters games, and it allows you to handle that speed much better. Those who know what they’re doing will be able to dive into the car set ups, to tweak brake bias, differential, gears and suspension, without going into the true minutiae of setting up a car.
That doesn’t make the game easy, by any means, with each of the six locations – Greece, Monte Carlo, Germany, Finland, Sweden and Wales – ready to catch you out with a particularly devious sequence of turns, dips, bumps and hazards, with the excellent co-driver’s instructions coming thick and fast. There’s a relative safety on tarmac, but it’s never long before you’re back on dirt or gravel, or heading off to the snow of Sweden. Snow is, for me at least, the most exacting of surfaces, with the tight trail that you try to follow lined with banks of snow that sap your speed at best or see you spinning round out of control at worst. There’s really next to no margin for error.
Though Codemasters were amongst the first to allow you to rewind from a bad mistake or car crash and it was a mainstay of their games since the start of the last generation, there’s no such facility here. Dirt Rally’s crutch for the accident prone is the ability to restart a stage in its entirety, potentially wiping out seven or eight minutes of a gruelling and long course. This isn’t as friendly or accessible to newcomers, but if you grit your teeth and accept that mistakes will cost you time, it’s more rewarding when you get through a stage unscathed.
The career structure is an odd one, letting you progress through five tiers of difficulty, based on how you placed over the course of a six event championship and being promoted between them. What car you drive is purely down to what you’ve been able to save up and unlock, with the AI driving cars of the same category, but you’ll have to complete around a dozen multi-stage events in order to afford a car from this century.
You can also indulge in Rallycross, which is made more accessible thanks to cheaper cars, and it makes for a great diversion. You race across four short qualifying heats in direct competition with other cars, making sure to take one longer joker lap each race, with your eventual position and times determining where you start in the semi finals. Then there’s the Pikes Peak hill climb in tarmac, mixed surface and gravel forms, which makes for an exacting challenge, especially as you have no co-driver. However, these are smaller diversions to the main thrust of the game’s rallying.
One thing that stands out on the PS4 is just how well it runs. This isn’t hitting anything like the graphical heights of Driveclub, but it manages to run at 1080p and with a solid 60fps, while the environments can, and often do, stretch off into the distance. The game easily imbues each of these with a very different atmosphere, as you load up in different weather conditions.
You’re a lot more tentative going through a Swedish sprint track when the fog means you can barely see the next corner, let alone the spectators or trees that are just beyond it. There are even moments of contrast within a single route, where the mountains of the Monte Carlo rally can keep part of the roads you hurtle along covered in slippery, treacherous ice, before you can gain confidence on the dried tarmac of the second half. Oh, and if you’re rallying at night, be wary of head-on collisions and knocking out your headlights.
There are a few rough edges, however. Switching back and forth between controller and wheel will saw it forget any changes to the default button layout that I made – I insist on having manual gears on L1/R1 – and the game strangely didn’t default to soft locking with the Thrustmaster T150, forcing me to turn the wheel further and not matching up to the cockpit animations until I realised what would remedy some of my poor driving. The rest is on me, unfortunately.
Speaking of poor driving, the vehicle damage and hiring additional members to your team hasn’t really been fleshed out since the Early Access release. You hire engineers on contract for a certain number of events, who can help speed up repairs during the 30 minute windows you get during a rally. There is a full damage model that can see persistent or sudden abuse puncture the radiator or remove a tyre, but once you’re given the opportunity to fix things, it’s all boiled down to shifting sliders up one percentage point at a time.
Online functionality is also rather limited, where your only option for head-to-head racing comes from playing Rallycross online. Beyond that, you can take part in daily, weekly and monthly community challenges, and there is a system for setting up leagues that awkwardly takes you into the PS4’s web browser and to the Dirt Rally website to create and manage them, instead of having this built into the game. It’s a shame that more hasn’t been made of this, when previous Dirt games featured live rallies with staggered launches or with racing against other players’ ghosts.
Dirt Rally gets Codemasters back to their roots, with a game that focuses on rallying through and through. It’s tough and unforgiving of your mistakes, but that’s what rallying is about and it makes getting to grips with the car’s handling, measuring your approach to a stage and coming out on top all the more satisfying.
Version tested: PlayStation 4