I had a plan, you know? My gaming summer was mainly going to revolve around Dark Souls III. Dirt Rally and a realisation that force feedback wheels really ARE a step up now from the one I had on my N64 has put paid to that.
Besides, I’ve not finished Dark Souls II. Playing it, Bloodborne and the first Dark Souls in quick succession is taking a toll. There’s only so much brutality and punishment a man can take.
I wanted a break from the killing. So I picked up Dirt Rally.
It’s brutal and punishing. And I’ve lost track of the number of probably-fatal-in-real-life crashes I’ve been involved in.
I guess at least there’s a common thread here.
The original Colin McRae Rally was one of my first real gaming loves. Which was kind of awkward, seeing as it belonged to my sister. But there was something about ploughing head first through twisting woodland routes that, even at that young age and knowing nothing about cars, I found fun.
I kind of lost touch with the sport a bit over the years since then. The series did too, evolving into Dirt’s bright and breezy off road festivals.
But now, here we both are – reunited. And it’s great.
The car handling, the pace notes, the mud and weather graphics, the sweeping vistas. It all just seems to hang together so well. The game’s got a kind of confident swagger, the sort that’s been missing in Dirt’s recent entries: It’s a rally game, and it doesn’t care what else you expected of it.
There’s no watering down of what it’s here for beyond the hill climbs and rally cross events. Which is fine, because it still feels focused. Arguably previous Dirt games seemed to try to cover too many bases to really nail one sort of racing. Not a problem here, with all three events putting in a strong performance.
The cars all feel suitably varied, with the PS4 version’s video tutorials providing a genuinely interesting look at how to use real rally techniques in the game. And you’ll want to use them, too, or you’ll never see the top four, let alone be part of it.
You can get 10 practice runs or shakedowns before you can attempt a full stage. This gives you a chance to tweak the car’s set up, run it through a short section, and adjust it. You can skip all this, but I soon found my times getting quicker if I was willing to put in a bit more prep time and practice. Just like real life.
Dirt Rally’s not without its quirks though. For one thing, the career mode’s car purchasing feels like a strange step back after the more sandbox approach of something like, say, Project Cars.
I was also tempted to nit-pick the slightly “spongy” feel of the game when played with a wheel. But then I swiftly realised I was completely, totally and utterly missing the point. Stay with me.
Dirt Rally’s cars are not as powerful, by and large, as the machines found in some games, and they’re built very differently to handle a very different sort of racing. Obviously they’ll behave differently, so by extension the wheel will. In hindsight that’s all painfully obvious, but this means that what initially started as a minor gripe soon became a massive win for the game’s handling system as I got more used to it and could pick up the subtle (and not so subtle) intricacies.
Short version: These feel like rally, rally cross and hillclimb cars, and you’ll have to work to get the best out of them.
The sound design deserves highlighting too. Dirt Rally doesn’t really care for music – the tracks on the menus are pretty forgettable – but it puts so much into the engine, car and track sounds. Gravel hits the underside. Barriers scrape. Breaks strain and squeak. Gears crunch.
And it’s glorious.
On occasion, when the car’s got a little banged up, I’ve started hearing odd noises and genuinely had to work out if they were on the game or if something outside was doing something odd. You might change gear and something in the engine complains. Tyres might pick up punctures. Wheels might get misaligned and start knocking. It’s all here, and chances are if it’s making a noise, it’ll drag your time down or make you plunge into a ravine.
So yes, in short Dirt Rally will challenge you. You’ll fail. Repeatedly. But ultimately, it’s a fun and triumphant return to the series’ roots and “proper” rally driving.