You’re screaming down a rain-slick dirt road in Wales. You hear the engine bounce off the rev limiter, a brief stutter in the climbing tone of the Impreza’s iconic boxer-four. You slip into fourth and the mounting cacophony of thunderous exhaust burble and banshee turbo spool resumes. Your co-driver warns: turn unseen, three right long. You’re feeling ambitious; the spirit of Colin McRae is with you. If in doubt, flat out. The pedal hits the end of its travel. Raw power, that feeling of pushing to the edge, courses through you. You fly onwards apace.
The road’s geography is unwilling to submit to your ego, no matter how malleable the world feels through your vice-like grip on the wheel. The bend continues. You don’t have the angle. You reconsider, and lift off the throttle – too much, the car’s rotation tells you, you must press again. The four wheel drive system scrabbles for grip in response, and finds it. But not enough, not soon enough, not planned enough. A tree rises to greet you from the path’s left edge.
If you’re me, and depending on how many tries you’ve already had, you swear a bit. But you don’t have to explain to the Subaru engineers why exactly you totaled their car, or tell Phil Mills’ family why the co-driver is in the hospital. Of course I’m not a real rally driver – God help us all if I was – I’m just a casual Dirt Rally 2.0 enthusiast. The thrills this game offers are properly addictive. Gliding over, and often into, the varied terrain at dangerous paces, feeling every little bump through the force feedback on my entry-level Logitech wheel, and even occasionally winning stages, releases unbelievable dopamine.
Dirt Rally feels like a course correction, almost, to the direction that much of the racing genre is going in. This even extends to the mainline Dirt games, which have for a while now adopted the same sort of festival-themed colour-splashed aesthetic loudness as Forza Horizon. Increasingly focusing on arrays of increasingly weird cars doing only vaguely rally-ish races, there’s a fear that they’ve lost the ‘soul’ of the successor to the Colin McRae Rally series. That central pillar – rally-spec road cards hurtling across mud, gravel, snow, and whatever else to set the fastest times – was replaced with other things. Not that this is inherently bad, mind. Audiences change and it’s evident that plenty of people like it.
So when they released Dirt Rally in 2015 it was somewhat of a revelation. A hardcore, unforgiving rally sim. While it never replaced the legendary Richard Burns Rally in the hearts and minds of the simulator faithful it was regarded as a return to form for Codemasters’ mainstream games. I joined in at the sequel, Dirt Rally 2.0. It was mostly iterative, and had a slightly suspect DLC policy whereby locations from the first game were conspicuously absent, released over the course of two season passes. I didn’t mind too much as a latecomer, as the full version is reasonably priced. It’s also one of the most stressful games I’ve ever played, and I love it.
You also basically play it completely alone. Other drivers aren’t really there on the track (though the game does have a track deformation system, where the stage’s busiest bits get appropriately churned). Even in multiplayer, on the standard rally ruleset you’re racing to set times through a set of stages. Nobody will bump you, ram you into a hedge or brake way too late trying to overtake through a corner. There are no excuses. Just you, your car of choice, Codies’ virtual co-driver and an array of terrifying tracks which only barely qualify as a road.
It’s all up to you to master your car, understanding its particular properties. Is it two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive? If it’s 2WD, does the power go through the front or rear wheels? Is it naturally aspirated, where the power comes direct as the RPM climbs, or is it turbocharged, where it sharply ramps as the turbo comes to life? Is it fast but manageable, aided by years of technological advancement? Or is it a horrifying rocket-ship, a four-hundred horsepower death machine like the vehicles of the legendary and deadly Group B?
Dirt Rally 2.0 puts all its focus on you – your choices, your developing skills, your caution or lack thereof. It seems intimidating at first, but really it’s liberating. It’s the same sort of feeling that I get from the continuous ramp-up in improvement you get in fighting games, except without the double-edged sword of eventually having to exercise your skills on others. You’re totally by yourself. The only one inconvenienced by your success or failure is you, and the only one who can really exult in the feeling of a mastered stage is you. You are the single point of failure (as much as I’ve occasionally impugned the quality of Mr. Mills’ co-driving).
As much as a game like Dirt Rally 2.0 is game about tearing cars around muddy fields, it’s also an exercise in personal growth. The first time I did a proper handbrake turn around a tight hairpin – clutch in, pull the handbrake, first gear, throttle and release the clutch – I felt the same sort of eureka-like exhilaration I got from finally being able to play an AC/DC song on the guitar as a wee lad. Much like learning any other skill, it takes determination, a bit of frustration, and a lot of patience. As with anything else, learning to accept that you’re not any good is part of the process. I wasn’t, and I’m still not, really. That Dirt Rally 2.0 is a little outside my normal gaming process is part of it too – it really does feel like learning a proper new skill. It might have even made me a better driver (citation needed).
If you’ve ever watched any given episode of Top Gear, you’ll likely have heard a few cliches about man and machine, connection to the road, or the quintessence of speed. Sometimes, to me, normal racing sims like Assetto Corsa or Project Cars 2 fail to capture that fundamental rawness of firing a hunk of metal around really, really fast. Something about Dirt Rally 2.0’s finely-tuned, controlled chaos bottles that feeling. It insists that I master the controls, understand my vehicle, listen to the co-driver’s calls and understand the impact of surfaces, camber, or tyre choice, and that I crash sometimes (a lot). It supplies the thrills and the stress in equal measure.
From what now feels like pootling about harmlessly in the game’s first car, the Lancia Fulvia HF (it felt like high-octane racing at the time) to roaring around corners in a monster of modernity with an instant-shifting sequential gearbox and advanced four-wheel drive, the exercise of my increasing powers keeps me hooked. Always a sliver away from the loss of control, the trees at the side of the road waiting to greet me again.
Who decides which Bits are Best? Why, we do, of course, and if you’re curious about our other favourite bits, check out George’s article on Hitman 3’s best level or Nevi’s article on Phantom Doctrine. If you prefer your Bits cheap and cheerful, take a look at my write-up of free puzzle-game demo Doll Explorer.