The thirteenth title in the long-running Colin McRae franchise by racing kingpins Codemasters, DiRT Rally 2.0 is also the seventh game in the now 21-year-old series to have “DiRT” in its name.

The previous DiRT Rally had a reputation for being tougher than a well-worn tyre and racing enthusiasts have been waiting to see whether Codemasters would follow suit with the sequel or change things up to make it more suitable for weekend racing enthusiasts. The wait to find out just what they did is over - well, nearly; I’ll save that reveal for the chequered flag...

your only chance of making a half-decent time around the course is by interpreting the constant chatter of your co-driver

At its heart, DiRT Rally 2.0 is clearly an attempt at recreating the realism of rally racing. This is patently obvious right from the very first moment you spend behind the wheel; there’s no map to look at and your only chance of making a half-decent time around the course is by interpreting the constant chatter of your co-driver. What he says is never explained, either, so you’ll need to apply some logic and pattern recognition to figure out what he’s on about between the more obvious “left” and “right” instructions he also uses to prepare you for what you’re about to see.

The main part of the game is split into two types of discipline; rally and rallycross. Rallycross, if you’re not familiar with it, is a stadium-based version of rally where the drivers all race against each other at the same time. Rally, on the other hand, is a driver-vs-clock situation, where you must set the best time possible and then hope your time gets the results (and championship points) you’re seeking.

In theory, tracks in rally mode degrade based on how many other cars have already carved up the course. I couldn’t tell if this was the case or not, but the track definitely had a lot of rich detail in its surface and - a true result or just placebo, I couldn’t tell you, but - it sure felt like that texture impacted handling.

DiRT Rally 2.0 Review
DiRT Rally 2.0 Review
attempting just one night stage with only the memory of smashing your headlights on a previous stage to light your way is enough to keep you super focused

Another thing that has a clear impact on your car’s ability to behave in a predictable manner is the weather. Ranging from “dry” through “rained a while ago but isn’t raining now” all the way to “torrential downpour”, the weather really needs to be taken into account when determining just how fast you should hit that “left 1” or whether the handbrake is entirely appropriate at the upcoming hairpin.

Outside of some dip-in, dip-out arcade options, the bulk of the game takes place inside the “my team” career mode. Options here include rally, rallycross, and some daily/weekly challenges for you to tackle with whatever car you can currently afford. Completing events earns you cash you can use to upgrade your vehicles, and you can even upgrade your staff, hiring new folks to give you more options when it comes to tweaking your wheels.

the opponents in rallycross can come out of nowhere to absolutely wreck your chances in a millisecond - I much prefer to wreck my own chances, thank you very much.

Of the two racing modes, rally was far and away my favorite, as the only real opposition here is the track; the opponents in rallycross can come out of nowhere to absolutely wreck your chances in a millisecond - I much prefer to wreck my own chances, thank you very much.

Championships are long affairs, made up of a whopping six events - which are further broken down into four stages that can take more than ten minutes each to complete. Fortunately, every second of them is fun; you can’t afford to let up in concentration even for a moment, or you’ll end up rolling/smashing/careening off the side of the track. Such accidents don’t just slow you down, either; your car will be easily damaged and that damage carries over between tracks - with just one chance to repair per event. Trust me, attempting just one night stage with only the memory of smashing your headlights on a previous stage to light your way is enough to keep you super focused on driving clean.

DiRT Rally 2.0 Review
DiRT Rally 2.0 Review
DiRT Rally 2.0 Review
Ripping up the backcountry in an extended stage where you really don’t know much about what’s around that next corner is a rare treat

Lights aren’t the only thing that can impact your ability if you wreck; your gearbox, engine, tyres, and more can wreak havoc on your vehicle’s performance should you break them. The sound of a screeching engine that just won’t shift up to a higher gear as you crawl slowly through the Hawke’s Bay hills is something that will haunt you forever, trust me.

The stages in the game are great; there’s lots of variety, and each really feels like the country they represent. I first started playing the game after going for a nature walk, and the game’s New Zealand tracks were instantly recognizable - down to the in-game lighting feeling hemisphere-appropriate. About the only issue with the graphics (I run an OG PS4 from the launch of Sony’s console in NZ - if you have a pro, your mileage may well vary) is that there are some weird little glitches that appear from time to time, including z-fighting and lighting/textures popping in and out a bit in the distance. It’s far from bad, but you’ll probably notice it.

The most important thing to prep yourself for if you are keen to head down the DiRT track is that difficulty thing. There is definitely a difficulty ramp - the problem is you have to scale a difficulty cliff to get to it. In fact, I couldn’t get out of last place for my entire first championship in rally mode and qualifying for the second round in rallycross is something you’ll need to really work at… until it clicks.

For me, what made it click was ditching the starter car (in rally mode) for a retro Mini. I’ve owned several Minis in my life and I love driving them; as soon as I owned a virtual one (and it looks/sounds the part here), I started driving in exactly the reserved, cautious way the game rewards. My first championship out with the mini, I won. From that point, there was no stopping me; it gets harder, but once you understand it, you’ll accept that you only fail when you make a mistake - not because of some unfair aspect of the game itself.

So, it might well be the Dark Souls of racing games, but if you can hack it, you’re in for a treat. Ripping up the backcountry in an extended stage where you really don’t know much about what’s around that next corner is a rare treat in a crowded genre. I still don’t understand everything my co-driver is jabbering about but I wouldn’t swap him for a map in a month of Sundays. Highly recommended.