“The Bloodborne of racing games.” I can’t remember where I read it or who said it but this was the nail in the coffin for my interest. But curiosity eventually got the better of me and I signed up for some suffering. So just how hard is Dirt Rally?
There is a moment of “uh oh” loading this game for the first time. A less than welcoming screen appears explaining that this is a simulation and suggesting that means it is challenging. Of course, they don’t tell you that on the back of the box, they prefer to wait until it is too late and you’ve parted with your cash. It was hardly a surprise but I’ve just never had a game ask me if I should be playing it.
Full of dread, I felt it best I hit the tutorial videos first. There is a handy selection of videos explaining all there is to know about driving a rally car. There is a lot more to it than accelerate, brake and steer. The videos cover understeer, oversteer, pendulum effect, weight distribution and many other aspects I’ve instantly forgotten. To go along with the verbal is a nice clip using the in-game graphics engine showing someone drive in a very different way than what I manage. It all makes sense but applying all those theories when you are behind the wheel is another thing.
Pacenotes are something covered by the tutorial videos and these are crucial to rallying. There are different styles of pacenotes but the ones in use in Dirt Rally are the ones devised by Colin McRae. Guess who was paying attention during the tutorial videos. I’ve always found pacenotes the toughest part of rallying. All of my focus is on trying to stay on the road that I switch off from these vital bits of information. What is tougher in Dirt Rally is that there is so much more than what I am used to from the other rally games that I have played. Left and right turns and their associated number are here and I’m used to that but we also have bad camber, crest, jump… maybe, keep in, don’t cut, square turn, acute turn, past junction, be brave. It is an art in itself trying to take it all in and then you have to react to what you’ve been told. Sadly there isn’t a ‘can you repeat that?’ button.
A nice touch with the pacenotes is how they react to the speed you are cutting through the course. Naturally the co-driver spouts them out in time for you hitting the next corner and they do come thick and fast if you are going at speed. Come to an abrupt stop however (usually after a closer inspection of one of the trees) and the co-driver adds an “aaaaaand” infront of the next instruction. I can tell he is rolling his eyes at yet another mistake on my part.
The career involves rally events (obviously), hill climb events and rally cross. Naturally the rally events are the main attraction so let’s start there. First things first, you’ll need a car. There is everything from 1960s rally cars right up to modern day powerful beasts. Funds are limited when you start out so you’ll not be getting behind an Impreza just yet. I started in a 1960s Mini Cooper which is ideal for someone of my limited rallying ability. It’s not too powerful so I stand a better chance of getting round the corners and being a thin car, it feels like there is more space on the track. Next up you’ll need a crew. Again, funds are limited so you’ll not have a full quota of staff or the best of the best but you’ll have someone which is better than none at all. These are hired for a set period so you’ll need to do a bit of HR and make sure nobody’s employment terminates mid-event.
The rally events are done in a championship. Each rally is based in a different country with differing road surfaces and is made up of stages. After every 2 stages you have 30 minutes in which to let your crew patch up your car. If you drive like me then chances are it may not be enough time. As with all rally games, Dirt Rally gives you an indicator for each sector as to how far ahead (yeah right) or how far behind you are. At the end of each stage you can see the leaderboard and points are awarded based on finishing position at the end of the rally.
The car handling is very different on the different surfaces and you need to adjust accordingly. Naturally snow and ice offers the least grip but the snow banks at the side of the road also slow you down a lot more than if you veer off the track. To compliment the different surfaces is the weather. Rain and snow add extra challenges for grip and there can also be some must, just in case things aren’t challenging enough. Driving on the frozen Swedish roads in practically a white-out is certainly very challenging. And then you can throw in some night driving to complete the ingredients for a wrecked car.
You need to finish in the top 3 in order to progress to the next championship. On my first attempt on the first championship I finished 4th which, due to my early expectations, I should have been delighted with. However I was 3rd going into the final stage on the final rally and then had a howler. I ended up finishing on the same points as 3rd but was put into 4th for the rallying equivalent of ‘goal difference’. Agonisingly close. On my 2nd attempt I finished 2nd and got that well-earned promotion. As things stand on the next championship, I am currently in 1st place but will lose that based on the current rally in which I’m not doing so well.
The hill climb events are pretty much as they sound. I’ve got a Peugeot which seems to have been fitted with a rocket and some dodgy wheel alignment. It wasn’t long before my hill climb became a hill crawl. I was missing a tyre and missing a door but I crossed the line. And then I had to do it all again for the 2nd run. There is a championship format to these events too but it is hard to imagine anything other than last place at the moment. With the way my little Pug wants to fly off to the side, I suspect a steering wheel setup might be better than a control pad for these events.
The Rally Cross events are circuit based racing with the other competitors racing with you. There is a long cut portion which you need to do once, this being your joker lap. You race a few heats and need to earn the right to progress. I’ve managed to get as far as the semi-final, once. I find this the least interesting of all the events. There is an officially licensed rally cross event but you need to be a professional rally driver ranking to unlock that so I doubt I will ever see it.
There is a good online portion to test your skills further. There are daily, weekly and monthly events where you get a random event to participate in before the timer expires. There are also leagues you can join to compete in events against other members. You can create your own leagues or just join one of the existing ones. There are some player vs player events for the rally cross events. These are the only events where you get to race at the same times as your competitors and it should come as no surprise to find that corner 1 is demolition derby.
So how difficult is Dirt Rally then. Well on one hand it isn’t as bad as I feared and on the other hand, there are many reminders that this is not a stroll in the park, one misjudged turn is all that can lie between finishing and not finishing at all. You can reset your car on the track if it is not wreck and suffer a damaging time penalty so the game isn’t completely cruel. It could be argued that I’ve not seen a lot of the game for the time I have spent on it and that I’ve stuck to the lowest class of cars. Both points are perfectly valid but from the online portions I have driven a vehicle from pretty much every class of car. I might be on a 1960s Mini in my career but I am averaging mid-tier finishes online with more powerful cars and even managed a top tier finish online in an Impreza. Hill Climb and Rally Cross I do find incredibly tough however.
Dirt Rally isn’t a game where you’ll just cruise to first place without really trying. There are some assists you can set for the car handling but nowhere near as much or the range there is in the other Dirt games. Those that are comfortable with the car setups can tune away but I prefer to just stick to the defaults. I don’t think it is quite the Bloodborne of racing but it is definitely a few steps up from other rally games. The AI at the top of the leaderboard is very competent and I doubt I will trouble it too often but it hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment of trying. Yet.
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