Slap bang in the middle of Powys, Wales, up country roads and winding trails to the top of a hill, you find Phil Price Rally School. It’s here that Codemasters and Koch Media took us for a little bit of real rally car driving and (of course) some hands on time with Dirt Rally 2.0. Perhaps the biggest impact it had on me was in the first 15 minutes as Phil explained not just how to drift around corners, but why it’s about so much more than looking like a flash git. Instead it’s all about where the grip is, about momentum, the (in)stability of the car and the direction of travel in a way that I’d never really grasped before.
It’s that which makes me wish that Dirt Rally 2.0 had more in it for the novices. I totally understand that Codemasters are preaching to the converted with this game, answering the loud calls for more hardcore sim racing from their most ardent fans and realising that they really don’t need to mollycoddle them through a basic in-game rallying school. However, I also know that there’s tons of people out there who would gain a lot from having more engaging lessons that teach you some more of the tricks of the trade. The game will eventually be paired with some online tutorial videos by Jon to teach some of the more advanced techniques, but not having that in-game, even if just as an option feels like a shame.
So how much of that is actually applicable between game and real life? Well, when Codemasters brought in Jon Armstrong to be a consultant on the game’s physics and handling, they found someone who easily straddles the divide, with experience in real world rally driving and as an esports champion. But what about for the rest of us?
We got perhaps the world’s best type of racing game tutorial, getting to try and slide around a muddy little donut track a few laps at a time in a Mitsubishi – a lot of fun, even if I sort of got a handle on what to do and then totally lost it by the afternoon – and then could try and apply that in game. The process of coming up to a corner, turning, kicking the throttle and then trying to hold the slide through it was something that we could then try and apply in game, both with controller and steering wheel. Personally, I felt I could apply that new experience much better with wheel than with controller, where the former allows for more nuanced control. Of course, that didn’t stop me from getting a bit too eager with cutting a corner and smashing into a log.
Thankfully, Dirt Rally 2.0 brings back the ability to rinse, repeat and learn the stages in the game, compared to Dirt 4’s stage generator. The six locations have a lot of visual variety to them, and make a departure from those featured in the first Rally. Sadly, this means that I couldn’t do a 1 for 1 comparison with a real world foggy, damp Powys, but there’s a lot of strong new environments to be found between Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Spain and the US.
They all look good, if a little lacking in fine detail (not that you’ll really notice it if you’re whizzing past at top speed) and with a fade in to some scenery that’s apparent on PS4 Pro. There’s some really nice atmosphere to racing down tree-lined asphalt and dirt roads in Poland with the shafts of sunlight breaking through the gaps, and there’s a lovely autumnal feel to New England, USA, while the arid and rocky steppes of Argentina feel almost otherworldly in comparison. Even when racing across the similar looking reddish brown mud in Australia and New Zealand, the type and thickness of the trees, bushes and grass make it feel different.
What you will need to be aware of across those that feature gravel and dirt is that the stages degrade over time. If you’re near the front of the running order, you’ll have more grip and much less to worry about if you get off line, but further down the rutting of tyres starts to be much more visible, the looser surface is pushed to the outside and you might want to be more cautious. In a rally across several stages, those at the top of the time sheet will get to go first, unless the order has been reversed following a service stop. Generally, being in the first eight racers will give you good conditions, but you’ll know roughly what to expect from a little graphic that shows the level of degradation.
It’s difficult to actually get that across in game, though. You don’t get to see how the stage started off and you don’t get to see the stage as it ends and how extreme it gets, but are simply presented with what you’re racing on. Instead of being procedurally generated, Codies have three set levels of degradation that they blend between as you get further down the running order. Regardless, it does mean that you’re always dipping a toe into the unknown, bringing back that element from Dirt 4, even without the track randomisation.
As is so often the case, you’ll be starting off with a trip back to the 60s and the early classic rallying cars like the Mini Cooper S and Lancia Fulvia HF, work you way through Golf and Ford Escort MkII, the powerhouses of Group B, and on to modern day rally cars. Alternatively, if you want a break from the rallying, there’s always RallyCross, with this game featuring the official WRX license with a good selection of cars and tracks to be found in game and with plans for more.
Ultimately, whatever and wherever you decide to drive, this game is all about hard-nosed, unforgiving rallying. Without a rewind button, you’re bound to be on the edge of your abilities to get through each stage with only the ability to throw away all your progress and restart as a safety net. Coming in the top 5 and just a few seconds off the pace in a short stage is already tricky, but to be that consistent through a track that’s 10km long is especially challenging, and I lost count of the number of times it went just a little bit wrong. That’s what appealed about the first game and Codies are taking it one step further with Dirt Rally 2.0.
Thanks to Codemasters and Koch Media for organising and providing travel and accommodation for the rally school event. Be sure to also check out our interview with Codies’ Ross Gowing, and the game is out for PS4, Xbox One and PC on 26th February.