Back in the day, Colin McRae games were seen as definitive when it came to rallying. Since his tragic death in 2007, the series somewhat fell from prominence and was largely replaced by titles that tried to fill the rally niche, but found little fanfare. Codemasters have decided to put an end to that by re-entering the race with the latest in their flagship DiRT series, which takes it back to its origins.
The biggest feature in denoting a driving game's worth is the vehicle handling, and the best way to describe DiRT Rally's would be twitchy. As someone who's spent a lot of time with, and gotten used to, the heavy car handling found in the likes of Forza and GTA, it initially came as a bit of a shock that here the cars demand a much higher level of control. If you feel that you're starting to lose it, you genuinely do have to wrestle with the controller to keep yourself on track. It can be an exhilarating feeling when you manage to stop your car taking a tumble, although less so when you fail to do so (more on that later). There's a variety of options for making exact adjustments to handling, like upping the thumbstick sensitivity for added manoeuvrability, which will please the well-initiated. Despite that, it feels like the game would benefit from a driving wheel - then again, what racer wouldn't?
Special mention goes to the audio. Played with headphones, it's very immersive; car engine noise and throttle vary a lot vehicle-to-vehicle.
On the visual front, it's hardly a graphical powerhouse, but they certainly do the job. Cars are decently modelled and become sufficiently knackered as events play out. The road surface texture detail is good, allowing you to very easily work out what you're driving on, which is important when gauging braking distances. The landscapes around the track edge can look quite flat and lifeless, though further off in the distance there are some nice views rendered. For a game so dense in trees the foliage is quite poor, though when you're in-motion (pretty much always), it hardly matters, as you'll be concentrating on what’s ahead.
Special mention goes to the audio. Played with headphones, it's very immersive; car engine noise and throttle vary a lot vehicle-to-vehicle, and you even hear the gravel dinging off the underside of the car, or twigs snapping under the weight of your wheels. The menu music consists of a listenable, if repetitive, set of mild electronic tracks.
One disappointment was the lack of vehicle customisation. While there's a decent range of cars on offer, the only visual changes the player can make to them is swapping the decals from a set selection. You can't make your own car designs, or even change colours.
More bizarrely, for a game claiming to be “the most authentic” rally game ever, it's odd that you can't manually upgrade your car, or choose tires based on what you think will be best. Instead, upgrades are earned based on time spent with each car - even then, there are only three available, all of which increase your speed. This means that whenever you buy a new vehicle you're at a disadvantage from the start; a real problem in rallycross, as you'll likely struggle to keep up with the AI.
Further frustrations are introduced by the level of difficulty. The handling isn't the only twitchy part of the game, as the physics are equally eager to flick you off the track. Whilst, yes, this is obviously a skill-based game, and one that requires a lot of concentration, it's far too easy to find yourself off the track and heavily damaged. Clipping an obstacle will often stop you dead or send your car tumbling - realism's all very well and good, but when the slightest mistake can cost you the whole race it can become tiring. Frustrating even, especially when trying the daily/weekly races which can only be attempted once. Add to this the unmarked teleport zones (some only a few metres from the road), the resultant time penalties and track designs that frequently see you get wedged at the roadside whilst attempting to get back on track, and you'll need some real perseverance.
Rallycross is especially unforgiving, I personally didn't manage to get past the first event, as even the tiniest mistake almost ensures last place - there is no margin for error. Rally and hill climb, on the other hand, start you off with generous time allowances.
Players can set up or matchmake into rallycross races online and there's a system of daily, weekly and monthly leaderboard tracks with higher-tier rewards on offer for high placement. Bizarrely, you can't set up a custom rally event with friends unless you sign up and do so via the Codemasters website.
This might all sound very negative, but if you can accept some frustrating moments, and a tendency for the game to screw you over, then there's a lot of content to be found here. Races get longer, harder and more satisfying as you progress, whilst cars earnt through this progression increase the satisfaction twofold thanks to their improved handling.