I don't usually get hooked by driving games. Being a license-less citizen, I don't even drive. And yet here I am in the TV's 3am glow, barreling down Finland's unforgivingly narrow rally course.
I slam hard and late on my Audi quattro's brakes heading into corner 5, understeering and sending the car's tail-end toward the flanking tree line. The rear wheels scramble for traction until wood and metal viciously meet in a cloud of engine smoke. Try again.
Corner 9. A deceptive jump sends all four wheels airborne, landing just too late to avoid a quaint, track-side farmhouse. Again.
I spot a chance to make up precious milliseconds on corner 14. My co-driver advises me not to cut. I cut, and a boulder teaches me to never repeat the same mistake. Again. Again. Again. Such is the merciless gameplay loop in Dirt Rally.
A Game of Trial, No Error
You'll learn early on that mistakes will be punished, and severely. misjudge a corner, wander off course, or clip a crowd member and you'll instantly receive a harsh (though maybe lenient for the mangled bystander) 15 second penalty, which in Dirt Rally terms might as well be half a lifetime. Restarting a race will also cost you, so it's important you get it right the first time round.
To up those already perilous stakes, playing in full-on simulation mode -- locked cockpit view and without any HUD elements -- means that your co-driver's calls become your one and only guide to the fast-approaching road ahead, so you better be listening.
A Crash Course In Rally Code
Even drift amateurs like me will quickly become familiar with the co-driver's intuitive language, optimized for obvious brevity-related purposes. Every corner is numbered from 1 to 6. The higher the number the less severe the turn, thus the faster you should take it. "Square" turns are right angles, a "Hairpin" slightly tighter, with an "Acute" being a turn with a corner severity of more than 90 degrees.
"Into" denotes one turn that leads directly into the next. "Open", "Tighten" or "Double Tighten" tell you when the angle of the corner changes mid way through, while "Half Long", "Long" or "Continues" tell you how long it runs for. It might sound complex, but with a few championships under your belt you'll know exactly when to break for a "Crest long into right 4, double tightens."
Every track detail you as a driver need to know, and to climb the leaderboards you'll need every single one of them, is relayed through these static-infused commands. Crests, dips, bumps, jumps, water splashes, bad camber and stubborn rocks, the co-driver covers them all.
Shut Up And Talk To Me
This navigational guidance might not seem so vital, but when you're tearing through Welsh countryside in complete darkness, your headlights merely teasing the next few meters of road, this prophetic voice in your ear is a godsend.
Without the assistance of on-screen corner signals, never has an AI companion been so essential to achieving the player's goal. And not 'essential' in an 'I-can't-complete-this-damn-escort-mission-without-you-so-please-stop-dry-humping-the-enemy-base-and-come-with-me' kind of way.
I see Dirt Rally's co-driver as something of a rarity in video games, being an ancillary AI companion. One that you're forced to work with in unison, rather than micromanage, protect, or even worse ignore.
I can only applaud Codemasters for succeeding where many developers have faltered. And I haven't even mentioned the game's astoundingly realistic physics system, which got a non-driver enthused about suspension tension in a way he never thought possible.
There is a mode that has you racing against other cars on the track, but Dirt Rally is at its best when it's a game against yourself. With your automated co-op partner assisting, of course. The brutal time penalties mean one mistake really does stop a competitive race dead in its tracks. So you summon your concentration, block out all but your co-driver's voice, and hope to hell that this will be the run. When it all finally comes together you'll cross that finish line beaming, covered in mud.
Even if you can't drive, there's plenty fun to be had here.