As the sun momentarily blinds you while cresting a Spanish hill, there’s a moment where the pressures of Dirt Rally 2.0 melt away. You’ll forget that this is the sequel to one of the best simulation racers of recent years, and you briefly ease your grip on the knife edge that speeding through any of its exquisitely built tracks puts you on, to soak in the game’s seriously arresting visuals. Dirt Rally 2.0 is about as serious a racer as it’s possible to be, but it’s one that hasn’t lost its sense of wonder.
From your first career event where you take a beautifully rendered Lancia Fulvia HF through the Leczna fields in Poland, it’s obvious that this is a game that’s been crafted with the affectionate eye of a team who truly know the sport. The view from behind the wheel is photorealistic at times – particularly during the post-race replays – and barring the occasional flat building texture Dirt Rally 2.0 is a superb-looking racing game.
Fortunately those good looks are backed up with some gaming nous, and there’s all of the expected settings for armchair racers to delve into to tweak a car’s underpinnings before you take it out onto the course. You can tune pretty much every aspect of your cars, from the ratio of each of your gears to your tyre compound (a new feature for Rally 2.0), and even how many spares you’re going to bring. It’s all given a decent enough explanation that even someone with only a passing interest in cars will be able to tailor their vehicle to their liking.
Once you’re happy with your set-up – you can take part in a good few shakedown’s before the next stage of any event to check – then it’s time to race, and while there’s a bevy of other racers out there trying to outdo you as you hurtle around, the only thing you actually see while rallying is the time. This is a game where it’s you versus the track; everything else is an afterthought. You’ll need to be ultra-sharp just to stay on the course, with the previous game’s precise handling model returning as you attempt to negotiate the often exceedingly narrow routes. If you want a rally game that captures that feeling of a few inches being the difference between success and wrapping yourself around a tree, then Dirt Rally 2.0 has you ably covered, especially if you fancy taking a spin in one of the viciously difficult RWD racers.
Dirt Rally 2.0 goes to great lengths to really put you in the role of a rally driver, and even the loading screens flick away with information about the track you’re about to tackle, from its elevation above sea level to the time of day that your slot is at. The headline feature this racing sequel brings to the track is surface degradation, with the track becoming more uneven, with deeper ruts and troughs the further down the running order you are. It’s much more nuanced than the arcade stylings of last generation’s Sega Rally, but there’s still a clear difference between an early run and a later one. In what was already an exceedingly tough sim racer, Codemasters have really just doubled down on the difficulty for those further down the running order. It all adds to the series already impressive level of realism though, which will please the hardcore, while more casual players can probably get away without giving it too much thought.
It doesn’t take much for it to all go wrong. You can be sitting at the top of the leaderboard after the first couple of stages of an event only to lose your headlights five minutes into the next race, forcing you to limp home while you’re straining to see the solid grey of the track in front of you. Suddenly you’re looking at a sixty second hole that you’re going to have to drive yourself out of, and it feels – quite rightly – as though it’s entirely your own fault. It’s certainly no one else’s. The lack of a rewind feature speaks volumes to Codemasters’ intentions, but you do at least get a limited number of restarts if things go really wrong.
Wrestling my car through a night time stage with a bunch of my internal organs in my mouth was unlike anything any other racing game has put me through, and I’d readily argue that Dirt Rally 2.0 plays host to the most enthralling, involving and downright terrifying night time racing committed to digital form. Codemasters have excelled themselves here, and it makes the still decidedly tough daylight stages feel like a reprieve.
In some racing games there’s a mental disconnect between what’s happening on screen and what you’re doing, but Dirt Rally 2.0 manages to make you feel like you’re genuinely in the seat of a rally car, hurtling down a gravel track in the rain. Even without the benefit of VR, which will show up later this year for PC players, there are few racing games whose sense of place is as strong. If you add in a wheel – the GT 300 RS we used feels like a perfect companion, but anything from Logitech, Thrustmaster and Fanatec with force feedback will do nicely – then things get even more immersive, though as is often the case I wasn’t able to improve on any of my performances from playing with a controller as I wrestled my way through a stage. There were flashes where it just felt right though, breezily sliding round multiple corners in a row, and it’s something that I’ll undoubtedly need to work on. Those without access to one though shouldn’t feel shortchanged, as Dirt Rally 2.0 feels just as rewarding with a controller in hand as without.
The sound design is excellent as well, with each of the cars issuing forth some fantastically throaty engine sounds, rising as you pull on the throttle to puttering as they’re idling. That’s tied up with the dulcet Welsh tones of the legendary Phil Mills as your co-driver and while there have been rallying games in the past where you could ultimately ignore his instructions, Dirt Rally 2.0 is not that kind of game. The work that’s been done to get the timing of his instructions just right has really paid off as well, and they’re easier to follow than ever before. The incidental music is also keenly enjoyable, pumping away with some laidback dance beats while you’re looking through the extensive menus or tuning one of the fifty cars on offer.
Perhaps the only downside at the moment is a mild lack of tracks and content, though future DLC will add to the game’s rallying and rallycross stages, first by revisiting Monte Carlo, Sweden and Germany from the first Dirt Rally. There are a few added niceties like the Historic mode which give a short sense of the flavour of that era’s rallying, but it’s disappointing to find your beloved Lancia Stratos setting out from a starting point emblazoned with Monster Energy sponsorship and an audience dressed in modern clothes, especially when the cars themselves look absolutely authentic.
There’s a dedicated FIA World Rallycross Championship mode to go alongside the rallying, featuring eight of the tournament’s real-world locations, and it really brings out the wilder racing class’ strengths. If online racing is your thing, you can race against other players head to head in Rallycross (padded out by bots if there’s not enough humans), or scamper through rally stages and compare times afterwards. Just like the first game there’s also daily and weekly challenges to get stuck into as well. No matter what mode you choose, the sense of achievement for making it through any of Dirt Rally 2.0’s tracks is worth the price of admission alone.