DiRT Rally – the Exquisite Joy and Pain is Back (a set of Impressions; Video)

Dec 31, 2015

I’ve been playing the DiRT series off and on since 1998; back when it was called Colin McRae Rally (may he rest in peace). I have a weird fandom of motor sports, and it has carried over into my video gaming hobby. It has persisted while any affection I’ve had for football, basketball, hockey, baseball, tennis, and boxing have faded to novelty. I have not been as invested since the series became DiRT. I’ve typically gotten those titles late, well after their launch. That is because as the series made the shift to consoles, it got dumbed down, simplified, and became more about the graphics and the multiplayer than an authentic representation of rally racing. The Windows versions then got intermixed with the god-awful Games for Windows Live Service. The games also felt more at home on the XBox 360 than my PlayStation 3, but there were so many other multiplayer games to play on 360, and none of my friends were playing DiRT.

It looks like Codemasters recognized that some of these dynamics were going on, and decided that DiRT Rally, the 10th release in the franchise, would be a PC-first title. It dropped on Steam as an official release on December 7th, after several months as an Early Access title. I’ve squirreled away about 3 hours of time this month to play the game. This is not a full review, but it’s a bit beyond an initial impression, also. And that impression is good.

With this title, Codemasters has returned to a gameplay style that is skewed more towards gearheads and rally enthusiasts than pick-up-and-play bystanders. Don’t get me wrong; I do not think the game excludes those who want to approach it more casually. It also does not offer the entire depth of tinkering that some may want. In fact, the design choices make a surprising split straight down the middle that feels neither punishingly exclusive nor overly arcadey. It is definitely more involved than a Need for Speed title, but not so much as the RACE franchise.

Let me first say that I find DiRT Rally to be graphically delicious. This racing title looks soooo good. And it plays just fine on my CyberPowerPC Fangbook iii with a Core i7-4710MQ + 16GB DDR3 RAM + nVidia GeForce GTX 860M. While the eye-candy is nice, the physics modeling is even more rewarding. One thing I’ve noticed in the racing game genre over the past decade is that more and more games, Gran Turismo especially, seem to be damping the impact of tuning on race results. The car may feel different, and when you tune to the extremes you can get a very different driving model, but race results seem to almost wholly depend on raw HP ratings between cars. Maybe because DiRT Rally is not primarily about wheel-to-wheel racing and because there is more attention to detail on the impact of terrain-type and weather conditions on the driving model, even minor tuning can make a huge impact. Add that the effects of damage and managing repairs in-between stages can also weigh heavily on your results, you have a game that arguably provides the most feedback, both rewards and punishment, from your tuning efforts.

dirt rally1

This ain’t yer DiRT on the XBox. Tracks are, from out of nowhere, incredibly more complex and treacherous than anything seen in the console-centric iterations of this franchise. My first race was along a cliff where there was zero room to make the error of getting off-track on the right side. My second championship was snow-covered and icy with switchbacks all over the place. One of my races was in blinding snow with a 700-hp car which all competitors had, forcing me to race the icy track at near max speed with a white-knuckled grip the whole way.

To add even more sugar to an already tasty treat, Codemasters gave some clearly deep thought to what the career mode was going to be and how you would negotiate progression of your driver and your team. You do not earn experience points, or kudos, or gold, or even cash with which to selectively choose where to expend on your team skillpoints. You hire a crew chief and an engineer at the outset. After that, your progression is paced by your total track-time and their talents. When you have put in enough track-time and based on the team’s inherent talent, your crew will “level-up” in a given skill area. You do not have any input into this progression, other than to get your ass on the track and put in the damned time. Which is the way it works in real-life. It feels totally organic and natural and innovative. In some ways it feels like the Dungeon Siege progression model, but I have not seen it done in the racing simulation genre before now, and so it feels totally fresh. While I am not certain, I do believe that there is a performance-based component to the progression algorithm so that the pace is not hard-wired to your time on the track, but maybe rewards you faster for placing higher. But again, that is some amount of speculation based on what I have felt in playing the game. The other side of this model is that the cash rewards that you earn for competing in the seasonal, class-based championships are only used to buy new cars. As your team levels up, they will implement improvements on your individual vehicles, which you can then tune. It may feel like they are taking some things out of your hands, but it also feels like you are not handcuffed into an endless monotonous grind of driving to buy the same parts over and over again for your stable of cars.

dirt rally2

Needless to say, this is my current favorite racing game. It holds my attention way more than Forza 6, mainly because you do not have to deal with BS driver AI that is nailed to a set route on the track and has zero concern for the damage that occur to themselves if they run directly into you. That’s a generic complaint towards the racing sim genre overall, not directly and solely at Forza 6. While I have not put a lot of time into this game, I know it is going to stick with me for years as long as Codemasters and Valve keep it compatible with Windows. Simply superb.

There are a couple of problems with the game. Foremost is that there is currently a bug that keeps the game from going to full screen. You can render in 1080p and maximize the window, but at the end of the day, it is still in Windowed mode and you get the same bars and the taskbar that you get in Microsoft Office, for instance. You could hide your task bar, which I have not tried, and probably do another thing or two to make it feel like it is in fullscreen. This might normally be the kind of glaring bug (and it’s a problem with nVidia cards specifically; not sure if you get the same problem with AMD cards) that would cause me to summarily write a game off. But in this case, for me, it is barely noticeable except when I look directly at my task bar or am reviewing my captures and streams. It’s not enough to have impacted my overall takeaway from the game. Again, simply superb.

Please recall that I’ve had 3 hours in the game. You should compare and contrast my views with other users on Steam or the Codemasters forums to get a more synthesized takeaway than solely relying on my perspective.