Dirt Rally 2.0 review - Codemasters' finest driving game yet
Now this is hardcore. After the 2017 detour of Dirt 4, an accessible and noble experiment in procedural track generation that nevertheless felt like it had gone too far in blunting the edges of the sport it simulated, this is a return to deep, satisfying driving with serious bite. To call Dirt Rally 2.0 a return to form would be underselling it a little; Dirt Rally was arguably Codemasters' first true sim, and in my mind the absolute pinnacle of the racing studio's achievements. This refines and improves that formula in smart, notable ways, for a markedly better game.
That 2.0 might evoke the much-loved sequel to Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally, but really it's a game bearing the name of another sadly departed British great that this commands comparisons to. It's been almost 14 years since Warthog Games' Richard Burns Rally, but it still remains peerless in its simulation of off-road driving, and while Dirt Rally came close its sequel comes closer still. As ever, it's down to a simple matter of taste whether Dirt Rally 2.0 manages to dethrone that all-time great, but for my money there's now no finer off-road sim out there.
Take any given car to any given stage and you'll soon understand what makes Dirt Rally 2.0 special. Take the forward wheel drive Lancia Fulvia around the rain-slicked tarmac of Spain's stages, say, and you can feel the 115 horses under the stubby bonnet slip their way through those front tyres as they spin beyond the edge of adhesion. You can feel the weight shift back as you accelerate up a crest, then feel it pile back on again as the car squirrels under downhill braking, and it's all so tangible, so pliable. The handling in this game, in short, is absolutely sublime.
The specifics of exactly what's changed this time out escape me - attention has been lavished in more than one area - but a new tyre model does seem to have had the biggest impact. It all serves to bring out the character of each car - and what characters they are. There are the brutish Group B cars that thunder along with the constant threat of violence, the impish and fun Fulvia and Mini or the turbocharged Sierra Cosworth RS500 that dares you to plant your right foot that little bit further. I've fallen hard for pretty much every car I've driven in Dirt Rally 2.0.
Given how much Dirt Rally 2.0 puts car and driver through, it's no wonder it can form such a strong bond between the two. There's an element of endurance to off-road driving that Dirt Rally plays wonderfully to, mistakes being punished with mechanical damage or quite simply the end of your run. "If in doubt, flat out," ran Colin McRae's maxim, but here you're better off heeding Alain Prost's philosophy of winning at the slowest possible speed, minimising the risks lest you find yourself in a ditch towards the end of a draining 16km stage. Still, there's something to be said for dragging home a damaged car, bits of it scraped alongside the scenery as it noisily grinds its way past the finishing line in one tatty, heroic lump.
It's seriously tough, and no doubt best played with a serious set up - I've played mostly on the Fanatec CSL Elite which spins like a ship wheel in a storm when things get more extreme, and commands a decent arm workout on most stages - though I'd still recommend it to less committed players on a pad. The handling acquits itself surprisingly well there, and if anything this is a more accessible beast than its predecessor; the funny thing about pushing for more realism in a handling model is that cars behave in a more predictable manner, making them that much easier to tame.
There are assists should you want to tone down the experience, though once again the rewind feature is nowhere to be seen - a move that's bolder than it's given credit for, I think, given how Codemasters pioneered the system in driving games with the original Grid. It just goes to show how committed it is to the cause, and to the demanding discipline it replicates. Dirt Rally 2.0 asks for commitment back in turn, though provided you remember there's more to throttle control than switching it on and off it's never too difficult; most importantly, every mistake you make feels like your own.
The commitment to authenticity extends to some new places this time out - in the small moment of release beyond a stage's finishing line where you slow to a halt by a marshal, or in the trill in co-driver Phil Mill's voice when the speed hits three digits - and most importantly it's there in the surface of each stage. Track degradation is new to the series, though genre lovers might recall the feature from its outing in the brilliant, somewhat underappreciated Sega Rally Revo (it's worth noting that Sega Racing Studio, the short-lived developer behind that project, was later acquired by Codemasters). Its implementation isn't quite as extreme, though it does make a big difference; the quality of a surface will change depending on where you are in the running order, with more ruts and divots appearing and demanding a different approach. It's an ample substitute for the unpredictability that the procedurally generated stages of Dirt 4 introduced (stages are hand-crafted here - and I think they're much the better for it), and combined with the new tyre model it makes the driving feel positively alive.
Problems? There are a handful, though none major enough to take the shine off the fundamentals. There's a fairly slim number of stages, with just six environments, though that's bolstered by the inclusion of eight rallycross tracks which come as part of being the officially licensed game of the World Rallycross Championship. Beyond that licenses are slim on the ground - and given the precarious state of the World Rallycross Championship at present, even that license can feel a bit thin - and I'm not a huge fan of stages from the first Dirt Rally such as Sweden and Germany being part of a paid season pass. The stages that are here are fantastic, mind, from the challenge of threading a turbocharged needle through the sheer rocks of Argentina to the speedy wilds of Australia.
The career mode, too, doesn't quite sit right - here, under the My Team banner, you can hire and fire engineers and purchase cars to develop over time, and while it provides a throughline it feels at odds with the pared-back authenticity elsewhere. It's also mostly redundant when every car and stage is available from the off in freeplay, so I'm not entirely sure why you'd want to other than to have some tools at your disposal for the daily and weekly challenges that are also part of My Team. Anything that gets in the way of the driving can feel like too much of a distraction, so it's for better rather than for worse that there's not much there to do that.
And when the driving is of such exceptional quality I'm more than willing to overlook Dirt Rally 2.0's faults. Go beyond that core and Dirt Rally 2.0 can feel like it's held together with tie clips and gaffer tape, and after some of the glitzier entries in the series' past it certainly feels more like a clubman racer. Anyone who's ever braved a rainy Sunday to watch a 750MC meeting will tell you that's where the really good stuff happens, though, and Dirt Rally 2.0 is part of the new Codemasters - the one that brought us the equally brilliant F1 2018 - that indulges its passion for motorsport. It's deep, involving and crafted with love, and you can't help but love it back in turn. The original Dirt Rally made a convincing claim at being the best off-road sim to date. I think its sequel can lay claim to being one of the best driving experiences available right now.