Even though I own the latest Forza Motorsport and spend plenty of time behind virtual steering wheels, I’m not exactly a racing simulator aficionado. When I’m fixing for an adrenaline rush, I tend to choose something more forgiving: I pop in Mario Kart or Need for Speed, where the key to victory often centers on slamming the acceleration and never letting go. While the arcade racer feels like a celebration, the simulator captures all the excitement of sitting in an exotic car showroom. The owners certainly have a taste for the elegant, but they take driving as seriously as a death in the family and always operate under the strictest guidelines. They somehow manage to suck all the fun out of a Ferrari reaching 200 MPH on a sun-drenched beach.
Given my obvious distaste for realistic racing, why have I spent over seven hours in an Early Access build of DiRT Rally? It’s the farthest you can get from the likes of Paradise City or Rainbow Road: vehicles must be repaired in between rounds, you rarely make it over 60 MPH, and you have to abide by ironclad rules if you ever want to finish in one piece. There are no driving lines, no rewinds, and startlingly few handicaps for inexperienced drivers. You’d be hard-pressed to find other modern racers demanding the same level of commitment.
But we’re not talking about riding on heavily manicured asphalt in a sterile stadium: this is rally racing! DiRT Rally’s events take place in the ice, mud and (of course) dirt of Monte Carlo, Wales and Greece. These tracks run through unkempt wilderness and steep mountain cliffs, comprised of surfaces that don’t play well with tires. A pleasant British co-driver grasping a clipboard will read off upcoming turns and hazards, but comprehension is hardly the same thing as execution. If you’re not on your A-game at all times, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll be sent flying off a ridge or lose a tire to an inconveniently placed rock.
These rough-and-tumble tracks give DiRT Rally a boost of energy that most racing sims sorely lack. The uneven bumps and dips in the road turn an otherwise straightforward path into a true gauntlet; taking a bump at the wrong angle could ruin a tire or throw the wheel alignment, making it even more difficult to finish in anything resembling a decent time. Though you won’t reach ridiculous speeds at any point, the ground itself is the visceral thrill, turning even the slightest bend into a tense battle for control.
The cars themselves handle like glorious nightmares. Each is considered a rally legend in their own right, but the greatest mechanics in the world can’t prevent them from turning into unwieldy metal cages in the roughest of the elements. Every turn demands you wrestle the wheel into submission, finding the slim middle ground between running headfirst into a wall and spinning out. That left trigger is there for a reason: brake early and often, understanding that speed means nothing if you can’t even finish with most of the chassis intact.
Even when you’ve mastered a particular track and somehow managed to best those hairpin turns, there will be times when you slip up and send your beloved roadster into a tree. In this regard, DiRT Rally is actually more forgiving than its arcade counterparts: it hardly expects you to get the fastest time in every race, and will let you advance through the career without fully trouncing the AI. There’s still a pressing desire to smoke the competition and take home the gold, but it encourages personal advancement above all else. The push for first place is replaced with the thrill of staying alive, and a swelling pride that only comes from shaving seconds off your previous records. This even carries over to the currently-implemented multiplayer in the form of daily challenges: regardless of how well you perform against friends and other worldwide racers, you’ll always take home a handful of in-game currency simply for participating.
It’s this friendly approach that balances out the daunting challenge on the track and makes DiRT Rally a warmer beast than most simulators. It may not be willing to accommodate Burnout-level speeds or handling, but it’s eager to reward you for participating in the first place. Whether you’re first, fifth or dead last, you still braved treacherous roads and did your best to reach the peak, and despite what anyone else might tell you, that’s worth something. It’s a nice pat on the back before you hit the road (and inevitably a tree) again.
As-is, DiRT Rally is slightly lean compared to most racing games. Codemasters seems eager to release more content over the coming months but on the off chance that its Early Access plans fall through, you’re stuck with 3 locations, 36 courses and less than 20 cars. Despite having driven through each course a fair number of times, well-implemented daily, weekly and monthly challenges combined with a satisfying career mode have kept me coming back again and again. With DiRT Rally, Codemasters have done the impossible and given me an appetite for sim racing.