Few games over the years have provided me more joy than racers. Whether it’s by tearing through arcade-style ovals in Daytona USA, or at the other end of the spectrum, taking things ridiculously too far by almost playing through an entire 24-hour race in Test Drive: Le Mans, I’ve lost count just how many hours I’ve spent racing around fake circuits on computers and consoles. But perhaps the most fun I’ve had racing happened outside of the boundaries of an asphalt course, in the dusty off-road courses of rally games. Be it the many Sega Rally or the Colin McRae Rally, the idea of having to make due with whatever tune-ups I can come up with and fight against the environment proved to be an incredible excuse to sit in front of my TV or monitor over the years.
It’s no surprise that a big chunk of that time playing was probably spent in a Codemasters racing game. One of the first I can recall is TOCA Touring Car Championship, an incredible racer on the very first PlayStation that really showed the potential for racers beyond merely checking laps off in tracks all over Europe. TOCA took things further by really making you mind about your car and its condition, so far as breaking pieces of it apart the more you crashed, consequently forcing you to retire if the damage was too extensive. The most fun part, though, was to damage my car as close to breaking point as possible and then finish the race somehow. It mirrors my time playing NASCAR Racing, an anecdote I shared in a review I wrote for Wreckfest a while back — the big difference is that I actually wanted to complete the runs I was doing and not just goof off destroying the competition. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and here I am once doing the same with Dirt Rally 2.0.
Dirt Rally 2.0 is the follow-up to Codemasters’ attempt to really focus on rally driving simulation from a couple of years back. Not to be confused with the more arcadey racers that are simply called DiRT, which spawned four games so far, with its latest, DiRT 4 not doing so hot commercially, Dirt Rally really took things to a whole other direction by making it much more realistic and demanding. 2.0 not only looks much better, but it also tweaks the gameplay in exciting ways, even though it might not have enough content to keep the hardcore players around for too long, especially compared to a juggernaut like Project CARS 2. Still, for the races it does offer, which include a list of online events that cycle in daily and weekly, helping you earn much-needed credits that can be used to buy cars and parts to use during career mode, as well as some really neat classic and modern rally events that clash the old school with the new thanks to Codemasters’ contract with FIA’s World Rallycross Championship, opening the way to circuit racing.
Realism can only take a game so far, and Dirt Rally 2.0 excels in presenting a close to flawless racing experience that combines the physical demands unique to rally racing with all others elements involved in taking a car on mud, or concrete, or rock, or anything else in between, sometimes even during a single event. That’s not counting changes in climate during these races, which are beautifully rendered in the game. If you’re like me and enjoy racing in cockpit view, Dirt Rally 2.0 provides one of the most thrilling implementations of lighting effects and particles I’ve ever seen, especially in this viewpoint. The PC version of the game that I got to test offers HDR effects that really help these effects pop, adding to the overall immersion. I’m sad that I still haven’t had the chance to try this game out on a racing wheel setup, considering it already feels great on a controller.
Keeping your car on course is more than simply a matter of following a path from point A to B, or even the laps in the case of a closed off track. Rally racing is expertly portrayed in Dirt Rally 2.0 to the point on forcing you to oversteer not only during the turn, but before and even after taking one, depending on the severity of the layout and how deformed it’s gotten thanks to the fantastic deformation model that the game puts to use during races. It makes every run feel different, and that goes a long way in providing more replayability than you’d expect out of the six different environments that you get to race in, ranging from Argentina and Poland to New England and even New Zealand, as well as eight real life Rallycross tracks like Spain (which doubles as a Formula One track). Each feels very unique in look and feel, thanks to the terrain deformation and the game’s terrific weather model, even though in the grand scheme of things the number of locales is still somewhat limited.
I’m a huge fan of the period of time that spanned from the 1960s to the 1980s where Lancia ruled supreme in the world rally circuit, and thanks to games like Sega Rally 2, I’ve become enamored with one of its most iconic cars, the Stratos. Surely enough, it’s in this game, and it’s a joy to drive surely, but the most exciting things that Dirt Rally 2.0 has going for it is that the Stratos isn’t the only car I’ve now grown to really like driving. One of the most charming models this time around happens to be another Lancia called Fulvia, a plucky like hatchback that drives deliciously and is a blast to swing through the narrow turns of many of the courses in the game — thankfully it’s also the star of some of the starter challenges that I tackled, which rocked. Other brands also show up for good measure, and offer up a good mix of the old and modern, each car painstakingly rendered in-game.
Also worth mentioning is just how great everything sounds in Dirt Rally 2.0. Aural presentation in games is rarely commented upon when graphics are usually the main focus in reviews, and surely enough Dirt Rally 2.0 looks absolutely bonkers, but I came away even more impressed by its impeccable sound design. As my poor car breaks down further and further in any particular race, I can hear it struggle, and in conjunction with the controls limitations imposed by the damage it’s taken, makes trudging ahead more and more thrilling. It’s funny to consider that it’s taken this long for a rally game to sound this fantastic, and to think that we’ve been getting navigational audio (you know, your partner’s call-outs for upcoming turns and hazards) for decades. Having both done so well as it’s done here makes 2.0 feel extra immersive.
Personally, racing games over the years have been an emotional experience, and if a game doesn’t grab me right away, it’s really tough to get back to it for repeat plays. I’m constantly picking and dropping games due to the nature of having to review a bunch of them throughout the year, so it’s rare that I’d come back to any particular one after being done with its review. Dirt Rally 2.0 is rare exception to the rule, one that I really hope to set a pin at and come back to, even if it’s only for a few hours every week in order to knock out a new daily or weekly challenge. It’s just so well done and feels so good to play that I don’t want to shelf it just yet.