DiRT Rally is a visceral experience. I’ve played a lot of racing games in my time, a lot of good ones. But none have ever made me feel the way that DiRT Rally made me feel. There is something emotionally gripping about barreling down a narrow gravel road, knowing one errant twitch of the joystick will have you flying off the road and ruining your chance at a podium finish. As I cross the finish line, I can feel the tension release from my shoulders. I unclench my hands from the controller. I breathe a sigh of relief. I can think of only a few games that have elicited such a reaction from me, and none of them are racing games. In this, DiRT Rally is something special.
I was actually just taking a break from playing DiRT 3 when I checked Steam and saw DiRT Rally was out. Not only was it released unannounced, but on Early Access as well. As bizarre as the circumstances surrounding its release were, it was still a DiRT game, and I was excited to give it a try. When I loaded up my first race, I expected a similar feel to DiRT 3, which I was playing only hours earlier. I knew I was completely wrong in this assumption when I completely blew it on the very first turn. I quickly searched for a rewind feature, only to realize that it had been taken out. I then restarted the race and was informed that, by restarting, I’d be losing potential winnings from a “No Restart” bonus pool. It became exceedingly apparent that this game meant business in a way that the other DiRT games did not.
What proceeded was a mess of flipped cars, spinouts, popped tires, and bad finishes. However, with each race I got a little less awful. I began to know the limits of my car, how hard I can push it and when I need to play it safe. I could feel myself get better little by little, and every second I shaved off of my time made the hours of frustrating screw-ups worth it. However, the screw-ups have a lasting price. Damage your car has sustained carries over to every rally in an event. At the beginning of every other race you have the opportunity to fix up your car, with percentages showing how messed up each aspect of your car is. However, you only have a finite amount of time to fix it, so it comes down to personal preference. Do you use the time you would use to fix your brakes in order to fix that crack in the windshield? Or do you deal with the distracting crack and focus on pure performance? The damage and repair mechanics add a layer of depth to the experience in a way that I’ve never seen with another game of this type.
Despite its early access nature, DiRT Rally certainly doesn’t feel like an unfinished game. The wonderful production values you’d expect from a Codemasters racer are all there. The menus are sleek and stylish. The environments and lighting look stellar. The sound design is fantastic as well, with the sounds of your tires spinning on ice or gravel pinging against the undercarriage of your car providing helpful audio feedback. However, the damage modelling is by far the most impressive thing about DiRT Rally, graphically speaking. After a rough series of rallies, cars will look appropriately beat-up and dirty. There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing just how smashed-up your car can get, and there’s always the juvenile fun of covering a pristine car in mud.
Content-wise, the game could almost pass for a final product. As of now, DiRT Rally features three very distinct environments with over 30 different routes split across them. One environment is set in Wales and features rain, mud, and harrowing forest sections that are particularly difficult to navigate. Then you have Monaco, which features snow and ice on tight, winding asphalt roads. Then there’s Greece, which features faster routes on dusty gravel roads. All tracks are challenging and provide plenty of opportunities to smash into some trees or go barreling off of a cliff. Every environment is extremely unique, and the amount of routes keeps things from getting stale after hours and hours of gameplay. The game also features 14 cars, which is admittedly a pretty low number. However, every car is distinct in the way it performs and handles. I thought the lack of car variety would be a bigger problem than it is, as I’ve fallen in love with every car I’ve driven in the game so far.
As much as I love the game so far, DiRT Rally is still a tough sell. This game is niche, even in the world of racing simulators. DiRT Rally is unforgiving and uncompromising in a way even some of the most hardcore modern racing sims simply aren’t. However, for racing game fans who want a unique experience and aren’t afraid of a challenge, I couldn’t recommend DiRT Rally enough. I’ve never played a racing game that’s so unique and so laser-focused on delivering a specific kind of experience. DiRT Rally isn’t due to be fully complete until at least the end of 2015, but it’s already a contender for my personal game of the year.