DiRT Rally is the rally game we’ve been waiting for

Iconic cars, incredible handling, brutal yet beautiful courses. If you need more than that in a racing game, DiRT Rally is not for you.

DiRT Rally is a game about realistic rally driving, and nothing else. There’s no glamor, no in-your-face EDM or punk music, no showcase events, no Ken Block or Gymkhanas. DiRT Rally puts you in a car with a copilot, and throws you down point to point tracks against the clock. It’s rallying at its most basic, and it’s great.

It’s an Early Access Game on Steam. This means it’s playable but unfinished, so there’s plenty of time for developer Codemasters to add to the game, but DiRT Rally is already excellent.

DiRT Rally has simple, functional menus. There are none of the flashy, brash menus of earlier DiRT games. This minimal approach is carried on throughout the game – everything seems designed to get you in a car and hurtling down a narrow track as soon as possible. There isn’t even a flashy garage where you can admire your cars from any angle. The only thing you’re allowed to admire is the replay of your last stage.

There’s a new physics model for DiRT Rally, and it shows. Road surfaces really affect your car: you can feel your tires eating into gravel, or struggling to find grip on icy tarmac. Every surface requires a genuine change in your driving style. You can hear your car creaking, groaning and rattling as you try to guide it to the finish line. The game screams simulation – even if you engage all the driving aids on offer, it’s still really tough and uncompromising. But it’s completely exhilarating.

The cars, which number 17 at the moment, are similarly realistic. There are front- and rear-wheeled drive cars, and four wheel drives too. Despite the relatively small number, each is a classic. When I graduated to the 1970s class, the three cars on offer presented me with an almost impossible choice. Fiat 131 Abarth, Ford Escort MK II, or Lancia Stratos? Choosing one seemed unfair to the others.

Obviously I chose the Stratos: my inner seven-year-old won out. Driving it is just as exciting as my inner seven-year-old always imagined, too. In the 1980s class, the MG Metro 6R4 feels, quite correctly, like a death trap. The cars are all totally distinct from each other. Each one has to be learned, and means finding new lines through the dangerous and narrow courses. The difference between forward, rear and four wheel drive is huge. It’s impressive how real Codemasters have made these cars feel, and how honest the game is. There’s no hand-holding, no making you feel you’re a better driver than you really are.

DiRT Rally gives you a wonderful sense of flow when everything’s going right. You feel in tune with the road and your machine, but are constantly a hair’s breadth from total wipe out. This makes DiRT Rally thrilling in ways most modern racing games aren’t anymore. If you can rewind and correct your errors, there’s not the same tension or excitement. DiRT Rally demands your complete attention. Helping this, there’s no in-game music. The soundtrack is your co-pilot, your car and the road. Listening to all three is essential. The Go! Team would not improve the experience.

I haven’t played a racing game that made me feel so bad about crashing for years. With no ‘rewind’ function, and limited time to repair between stages, you need to take care of your car as you race. Making a tiny error on one corner can put your car off-line for the next few, and easily result in you flying off a mountain road or wrapping your car around a tree. Crashes, rightly, feel major. The current locations, Monaco, Greece, and Wales, are also markedly different. They look and feel right, and affect how you need to drive just as much as your choice of car does.

The DiRT games were originally a loud and brash development of the Colin McRae Rally series. Featuring pretty much every off-road driving discipline around, they catered for everyone. But that broadness also made the games a little shallow – you barely got used to one class of vehicles before being asked to jump into another. DiRT Rally is so different, it’s surprising to see it use the DiRT brand at all. Everything about the game is unassuming and quiet, until you start your engines, and it becomes explosive.

Finally, we have a rally game that’s just a great driving experience.

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