A new rally racing title from UK-based developer Codemasters, Dirt Rally represents a strong change in direction from the last few off-road driving games that studio has released. Currently available through Steam’s Early Access program, a complete rethink in strategy has seen this latest addition ditch the arcade handling and garish energy drink advertisements in favour of twisting narrow tracks and an emphasis on simulation.

The game also makes a welcome return to focussing almost exclusively on the core discipline of rally driving itself, akin to the iconic Colin McRae series that has gone before. No more gymkhana in front of the cheering hordes – here there’s just one lonely car belting along the a desolate road through hazardous conditions.

The game has two basic modes of competition, Rally And Hill Climb. The player will be able to compete against AI times in both career and custom race, or choose to take on other players through online events and leagues. A third Rallycross mode is also scheduled to be added in the coming months, which will allow for players to compete directly on circuit-based tracks.

Dirt Rally triumphantly returns to its off-road racing sim roots

With four countries represented in the game so far plus the separate hill climb track, the total number of stages currently clocks in at a little over 50. This sounds like a lot, but every rally location effectively has only two unique stages, which are both subsequently halved and then all run forwards and backwards.

This does make it easy to memorise the routes over time, and so far there have not been any more additional stages added to each country. However, as the full length courses clock in at around the seven minute mark, they do make a welcome change from the three minute sprint affairs that have sadly become the status quo for rally games over the last few years.

The vehicle line-up could also be considered a bit lean with only 25 cars available, although recent additions have improved the variety somewhat. The selection is excellent in its pedigree though, covering classics from as far back as the ‘60s right through the modern machines from the last few years. All of the cars feel completely different to drive from each other (even those within the same class), and mastering them all will take both time and practice.

Dirt Rally triumphantly returns to its off-road racing sim roots
Dirt Rally triumphantly returns to its off-road racing sim roots
Dirt Rally triumphantly returns to its off-road racing sim roots

From a visual standpoint this game is certainly very nice. Each car is well-detailed both without and within, with a fully animated and lit cockpit for those who enjoy driving from that viewpoint. The tracks are just as impressive with each location beautifully showcasing the locale’s unique scenery. Whether it’s the gloomy forests of Wales or the expansive snowy vistas of Monte Carlo, Rally really looks fantastic on a high end PC system. While there are a few visual glitches in odd places, this is to be expected given the game’s unfinished state. Besides which, they are generally few and far enough between that they do not have a large impact upon the experience.

One area that Dirt Rally truly stands head and shoulders above the competition is in its audio. When racing from an interior view, the sound effects of loose gravel smacking against the underside of the car or rain peppering the windscreen are an absolute treat to the ears, but it’s the little signature sounds unique to each vehicle that really showcase how much work the developers have put into this particular component of the game. The co-driving calls are also exceptional, with detailed instructions being juxtaposed with plenty of quick-fire embellishments when a particularly nasty hazard is ahead.

And speaking of hazards, this game is hard! The tracks are consistently narrower and tighter than previous Dirt titles, and sudden changes in camber or surface type keep the player guessing as to what will be around the next bend. With sharp drop-offs or hidden rocks sometimes little more than centimetres away, the room for error is minimal and complete concentration is required just to keep the car on the track, let alone drive fast enough to beat the competition. The stages can also be run at various times of day and in less-than-ideal weather conditions for those seeking an extra challenge. While playing with keyboard controls is technically possible, a gamepad or racing wheel setup is highly recommended.

Dirt Rally triumphantly returns to its off-road racing sim roots

When a mistake is made or a pace note misheard it can come at a very high price, as the damage system will deform the body of the car, puncture the tyres, and even rip wheels off, completely forcing a retirement. A very limited amount of time is allowed to repair any failing parts between stages, so car preservation becomes a key factor in longer events.

The biggest sticking point is of course that Dirt Rally is an Early Access title, and is therefore unfinished. While the level of polish in the existing content is high, there are also a number of game-breaking bugs that have completely stopped a small percentage of people from being able to play at all. I have spent a great deal of time playing this since its initial launch, and at various points the experience has been marred by sporadic crashes to desktop, and in some cases an inability to even start the game at all.

Obviously every experience will be different due to the myriad hardware and software factors that comprise an individual’s machine, but the new Steam refund system does go a very long way to mitigating the risk of being left out of pocket if the game refuses to run.

As it stands Dirt Rally is a fantastic game – even in its current beta form. With a focus on putting the rally back into rally games and the promise of plenty more content still to come, overlooking a few rough edges is not unreasonable for what could be a real gem in the making.