Platforms: PC (reviewed), coming soon to consoles
A racing game is only as good as its controls. After all, if your car handles like it's consistently slipping on a banana peel, there isn't much of a point to hitting the road. But when a developer can dial in the physics of a vehicle to a science, then put you on the track to test just how durable your driving skills are, it's a thing of beauty. And that's exactly what Dirt Rally does.
This long-awaited Rally follow-up from the team at Codemasters doesn't cut any corners. Gone is the sheer easiness we've come to expect from previous entries in the Dirt franchise, instead replaced by the kind of demand that really puts you through your driving paces. It can be rough – expect to crash a few times as you get the hang of handling tight corners and passing cars – but you'll eventually find it rewarding, especially as you unlock later races and really make a name for yourself on the circuit.
A True Machine
What makes Dirt Rally stand out over the competition is how well it handles. No longer will you be going over hill crests at lightning speed while coming down for a landing perfectly. Nope, you're already preparing for the next turn, hoping not to lose any momentum as you try and get a first place spot on the board – which isn't easy, since the AI competitors actually put up a fight this time, instead of simply letting you coast by.
Those of you who grew up with previous Dirt games might be slightly alarmed by this, but it's really the evolution that the series needed. By getting more serious with its racing tactics, while keeping the solid controls that we've come to expect from the series, Dirt Rally feels like it's truly grown up, in a good way. With that, many enthusiasts shouldn't have a problem making these adjustments, handling turns like a master and eventually beating the clock.
The only thing is how overwhelmed newcomers might be at it all. In the past, Codemasters' games on this level have had a hard time welcoming them with open arms, namely with the frustrating F1 games. But with Dirt Rally, little adjustments can be made here and there, and all it takes is a couple of runs to make drivers feel right at home. It does get progressively harder as you go on, though, so proceed with caution. Veterans, however, will feel right at home.
The availability of upgrades is a huge plus as well, as you can increase engine performance, adjust handling however you see fit (in case you want looser or tighter steering) and even make up a team that knows how to repair damage on your vehicle the right way. Again, it's a lot to take in, but devotees will find it utterly rewarding, especially as you're conquering later tracks like a gridiron champ.
Along with a robust single player campaign that will take you all over the world, Codemasters has also packed Dirt Rally with online challenges, so that you can race alongside a team in a league and post your best times. However, you're better off leaving this mode alone until you've mastered the game's physics and can handle beating the pre-set times without breaking a sweat. Also, you'll want to watch for minor performance breaks – sometimes racing online can have an effect on the frame rate. It's not too bad, though, especially if you've got a PC that can handle this beast.
A Sharp Looking Ride
Dirt Rally is probably the most realistic looking game in the series to date, pushing aside all its fancy tricks (like from Dirt 3) in favor of a more visceral, straight-to-the-point appearance. The cars look like true beauties, and being able to adjust from a number of camera angles, from the front of the vehicle to riding close behind, offer something for everyone. Furthermore, the tracks look stunning, taking you across the globe for a number of tight, challenging courses that will have you peering down to see how your next turn will go.
If you prefer, you can listen to your co-captain call out instructions – and boy, has he got a lot of them. He jabbers non-stop about what's coming up on the track, just like those that help out rally racing pros in real life. Some may be annoyed by his motormouth skills, but he has a lot to offer, and listening can make all the difference between riding smoothly on the track and taking a header into the woods.
On top of that, the car noises are truly authentic, and the way they sound on different surfaces will have rally fans squealing with delight. There's not much music in the game as a result, but you can always blare something in the background if you feel like having a soundtrack to race along to. Maybe a good battle theme would fit your racing preferences.