Dirt Rally Review: Five Things Done Well and Five Things That Could be Improved

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We get to drive some of the best new vehicles at Motor Trend, from the Lamborghini Aventador SV to the Ford Fiesta ST. But when Dirt Rally, a racing game published by Codemasters and released for the PS4 and Xbox One in April, arrived in the mail, I couldn’t wait to get some digital seat time. (The game has been available on PC via digital download since December.) Here are five things the game does well and five more that could use some improvement.

Graphics

We played on a PlayStation 4, and the graphics were amazing. Seriously, look at those screenshots. Not only are the cars highly detailed, but the courses are, as well. Driving surfaces are handled well, too, with snow throwing up powder if you cut corners, dirt kicking up dust clouds, and rocks getting thrown on the gravel parts. Whether you’re driving or spectating, as my wife was, Dirt Rally is a great game to look at.

Sounds

Probably 97 percent of the reason I watch POV rally videos in the first place is for the glorious staccato of a high-strung turbocharged engine, and Dirt Rally has captured the feel of rallying with the sound effects. The engines sound realistic, distinct from each other, and like the real thing. Although the experience was one of information overload for the first 10 minutes, we found the narration of the course by the co-driver was not only realistic but also a refreshing change to the typical race-the-track-until-you-learn-it style of racing in other games.

Driving Dynamics

True to real life, a front-drive car feels different from a rear-engine, rear-drive car, which feels completely different from the all-wheel-drive cars. For beginners, remember that front-engine, FWD is more forgiving that rear-engine, RWD cars. One thing we enjoyed about the incredibly realistic driving dynamics was that real driving techniques (the Scandinavian flick, for example) actually work. This isn’t Cruis’n USA at the arcade anymore.

Multiplayer

One criticism leveled at the Dirt series has been the lack of multiplayer. Although rally racing seems like an odd platform to finally bring it in (racing for time instead of head-to-head), they’ve approached it by allowing players to race against each other in rallycross events. Want to race against your friends or challenge someone? Now you can.

Focused Selection

One problem with most racing games is the number of options. Too many of them, to be honest. Dirt Rally sports 46 cars by our count; Gran Turismo 6 has 1,200, and Forza 6 has 460. When you have 1,200 options, where do you even start? With Dirt Rally you start the game with three choices. Not overwhelming, and the selection includes many of the iconic current and former rally cars.

Newcomer Experience

I had not played a single Dirt title (this is the 10th game in the series) before dropping the Dirt Rally disc in my PS4. Insert the disc, and the game gives you two rally stage options to run as the game installs . I chose a rally in Greece, went through a menu or two, selected “race,” and then the stage loads. Three! Two! Wait a second! I hit pause and flip through the pamphlets in the box: no controls diagram. I check the menus: nope. I exit the menu, shrug, and make a guess at typical racing game controls. I’m right, but then the co-driver starts rattling off instructions. “What on earth is a LEFT 4???” About four or five turns in, I go careening off a cliff to be greeted with a message about how my car was unrepairable. Restart stage. It takes me two more tries before I bash my way through the course to the end.

There’s no coddling and not much help before the game is fully installed. Once it’s installed, there are some tutorials, but those weren’t as helpful as they could’ve been.

Tutorials

When I first saw Tutorials, I thought, “Hey! This is what I needed when the game was loading, not that gnarly Grecian rally,” until I got there. The tutorials contain a bunch of videos that discuss a number of different rally driving techniques and explain the rally notes system. (Turns out 1-6 describes how severe each turn is, 1 being a tight turn and 6 being a rather gentle curve.) There isn’t a driving tutorial like we hoped for.

Too-Focused Gameplay

Dirt Rally is incredibly focused and does the things it does very well. But you realize after a few hours of playing that you’ll have raced on every course in the game. When you compare that to the amount of content available in other racing games, which strive to include as many tracks and configurations as possible, Dirt can come across as too focused. It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to feel overwhelmed by the options, but you also don’t want to run through everything the game has to offer in the first afternoon.

Fun Factor

Dirt Rally is a rally racing simulation, and what they’ve been able to do is incredible. Capturing the experience of rally driving, from the look and sounds of these iconic cars to the barely managed chaos of racing at break-neck speeds down a perilous gravel road rimmed with trees, you’re really put into the action. For us, though, the realism didn’t translate (immediately) into fun. This is not a game you’ll pick up as a newcomer and immediately enjoy. Oh, it’s immensely rewarding once you finally do manage a clean run, and it’s downright cause for celebration when you win your first rally, but you’ll need to stick it out and commit.

Career Mode—Money

You have a bit of leeway in how you choose to progress in the career mode, but it does tend to turn into a bit of a grind because you have to spend the money you win in each rally to not only buy the cars you’ll race but also repair the ones you damage as you go through each series. This isn’t much of a surprise, but the difficulty of the game made it seem like we’d be stuck with that darn Alpine forever. Race for a while, do fairly well, crash, and you’re not as far ahead as you hoped to be. Racing for money to buy more cars works well in Gran Turismo because wins come easily and there are always more cars to buy, but we found it to be more tiring in Dirt Rally.

Verdict

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We loved the accuracy of Dirt Rally and had a great time playing it after we got over the incredibly steep learning curve. The visuals are stunning, and it’s a rush to play while using the in-car camera. If you have any experience with the series, you’ll love it. If you don’t, watch a couple of gameplay videos and visit the Dirt Rally website to read the Hints & Tips section before starting your first race.

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