Driving games are fiendishly hard to get right for developers, striking that crucial balance between arcade and simulator, between accessibility and difficulty, between story and career...these are not easy tasks.
I have played some truly incredible and truly awful driving games. My first was Lego Racers, a true classic which manages to still be one of my favourite games, just because of how polished and flawlessly entertaining it was. Its sequel failed to totally recapture the magic it had, even if it was objectively 'better'. I also recall playing TOCA 2 (which I thought had great graphics when I was young) and its sequel TOCA 3. These were both excellent Forza or Gran Turismo style games from Codemasters, and I sunk countless after-school evenings into those two.
Driving games, while not my most played genre, is certainly one of my favourites. And Dirt Rally is an exceptionally good driving game.
What makes a good driving game?
Immersion always comes first. Whether your car is a Mario themed go-kart, an Italian supercar or your grandmother's hatchback, when you are controlling those digital wheels, you have to feel involved. Car handling is one of the most essential parts of this. It is irrelevant whether the handling is arcade-like or simulation-style, it has to feel intuitive and be well executed, otherwise you realise you are just moving pixels across a screen, and immersion is broken. This includes the importance of a good control scheme, and certainly the ability to customise it, as different players have different styles. When lacking a wheel to play with, players have to be given the opportunity to create the control scheme they feel most aligns with how they imagine a car controlled with buttons and thumbsticks.
Less obviously, perhaps, is the career, or story, mode of the game. If you're trying to reflect reality, you need a feeling of progression, of becoming a driving legend, preferably with a currency and upgrade system to give the player a feeling of control outside the action on the track. If you are looking at a more arcade style format, a hyperbolic and exciting story is a great way to go. Career and story modes don't need to be complex, just satisfying. Then you also need great track design, a good visual style, and gorgeous sound design.
The Dirt Rally Story...
The Dirt series originally included the name of the late rallying legend Colin McRae, who famously said "if in doubt, flat out". The series evolved from basic sim to arcade rally game, remaining a solid experience throughout. Last year, I was thoroughly enjoying Dirt 3, a strange but enjoyable hybrid of rallying and Ken Block gymkhana (fancy car stunts and tricks) but had begun to lose the focus on the core rallying that I really love. Thankfully, a small division of Codemasters believed they could make a true rally simulation. They designed fresh handling systems, begun creating tracks based on real map data, and rebuilt their physics model from the ground up. Dirt Rally was a work of love, and game director Paul Coleman saw that releasing their vision in early access was they best way to make the game as good as they believed it could be. Therefore, it entered early access on Steam the very same day it was announced, on 27 April 2015. The game was instantly received well by critics, citing its accuracy, exhilarating gameplay and sound and graphical design.
When I first encountered Dirt Rally, I was deterred by its very clear targeting at the simulation market. I, after all, do not own a wheel and pedals for the PC, and saw this is a significant roadblock (pun intended) to enjoying the game. In fact, the game had completely passed me by for months because of how little attention I was paying.
My experience of Dirt Rally...
When I finally decided to pluck up the courage to give Dirt Rally a shot last month, I plugged in my XBOX One controller (I bought it for PC, I don't actually own an XBOX) and fired it up. I popped myself into a custom rally event, a short stage in Wales in a trusty Mini Cooper S. I turned my speakers up, knowing that no racing game can truly be experienced unless it is earth-shatteringly loud, and prepared to put in a blistering time (my times on Dirt 3 are really quick, so my naive self expected this to happen here too, despite the simulation focus).
The countdown begun and I revved up the engine, before launching off the line. After the first couple of gentle corners of engine noise and mud, I realised that this was not going to be as easy as I had imagined. By the first tight corner, I was experiencing some terrifying understeer, flying into trees and off cliffs. It turned out that my Colin McRae philosophy and Dirt 3 driving skills were of no use here, this was a totally different animal.
I tried the stage again, in some different cars. Then I tried a different stage. I saw minimal improvement. I turned to the game's tutorial videos, hoping for some scrap of information that I had missed. I was suddenly thrust in to the world of mechanics: being educated about RWD, FWD and 4WD; the value of the handbrake; how to manage throttle; what a strong differential actually meant...it became very clear how Dirt Rally expected me to play. This was not a game where the car would stick to the road like glue when you casually thrust the steering from side to side...this was a game where a slight alteration in the angle of the front wheels could send you in to a death spin and off a cliff. From this moment I was hooked. I saw challenge here, the opportunity to learn and fight my way to good times, rather than being handed them on a plate. Even though I was holding a lump of black plastic, I felt like a rally driver learning about their car and how it handled.
I figured that constantly swapping cars would do nothing for my times, I had to stick with it. I used my Cooper S for hours in various career events, before upgrading to a 1980s BMW, and ended up having to learn how RWD cars work (it turns out they're very tail happy). My times were coming down, I could see my splits going from red to green and I was loving it. The immersion was there in totality. I was really controlling this car. It felt so real.
So Dirt Rally is immersive, but is it really a masterpiece?
Even IGN, the kings of optimistic reviews, use their award of the 'masterpiece' descriptor rarely, and they certainly didn't use it for Dirt Rally. Perhaps when compared to The Witcher 3, Grand Theft Auto V or Undertale, then we're not looking at a masterpiece from Codemasters, yet none of these games were exclusively driving games, a genre which rarely manages to attract excited reviews from anyone but enthusiasts. I am not a driving game enthusiast beyond a preference for the genre, but I can say without doubt that Dirt Rally is one of the finest driving games I have ever played.
As I said in my article about World of Warcraft Legion, a game can have the world's greatest mechanics, story and graphics, but the atmosphere and feeling of the game is the most important thing, and those are things that aren't easy to create. Codemasters have nailed the atmosphere of being in a car hurtling down a gravel track in the middle of Wales. They have nailed the feeling of seeing your times fall and your name climb the league table. They have nailed the experience of being a rally driver. Small missteps like a smaller-than-ideal content pool, or a slightly shallow career mode, do nothing to detract from the gameplay and the exhilaration that brings.
While Dirt Rally isn't the finest video game ever made, or perhaps even the finest driving one, the feeling it creates for the player is unbeatable. The sheer thrill of just staying on the course is enough to keep me coming back again, and again. Dirt Rally is the best rally game I have ever played, and I think it might just be the best one ever created. It truly is a masterpiece