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Dirt Rally 2 PC review - a punishing sequel for skilful drivers

Codemasters' follow up to Dirt Rally drops the gentle hand-holding of Dirt 4 and asserts itself as another unforgiving masterpiece

Dirt Rally 2 rallycross Ford

Our Verdict

Builds on what's good about its unapologetically hardcore predecessor and adds a full-featured Rallycross career mode for those who prefer to trade paint in their racing.

Rally is a punishing discipline. In road racing drivers have the benefit of careful planning, but in rally that premeditated memorisation is replaced with a passenger who is constantly blurting out a series of numbers and directions. The predictability of staying within your limits of traction is replaced with improvised, reactive fixes and the counter-intuitive truth that maintaining traction is often not the fastest way around a tight corner. Rally requires precision like road racing, sure, but there’s no knowing what the target is until you need to hit it. There’s a reason the only car I’ve ever crashed was a rally car.

Unless you really know what you’re doing, start out on your Dirt Rally 2.0 career in a front-wheel drive car with low power and work your way up. That’s infinitely less frustrating than trying to hop straight into a squirrely, twitchy Rallycross Supercar. 600 horsepower may be a lot in something like a McLaren, but it’s utterly ludicrous in a Ford Fiesta.

Crashes in Dirt do serious damage that can impact performance or just take a car out of action completely – heavy impacts are accompanied by a subtle sound effect and a white blur, not unlike how some games simulate flashbang grenades. Even if you get lucky on the damage you might still lose quite a bit of time. Like its forebear, then, Dirt Rally 2.0 is not mucking about.

In fact, the game picks up where Dirt Rally left off. Dirt 4 was designed to be approachable; it was a great game, but it fudged the details of physics a bit in order to be a tiny bit easier to play. Dirt Rally, on the other hand, offers no hand-holding at all. Failure is abundant, and each mistake has the potential to ruin you.

While for the most part I think this dichotomy is wise – having both an approachable rally game and a hardcore one depending on your mood is great – I do think it was a mistake not to include a rally school section like Dirt 4’s. One of the most frustrating things about racing sims in general is the sheer difficulty of entry for people who haven’t been to racing school in real life. Having a series of tutorials that help people who are interested in playing a serious sim, but don’t yet know how to drive, is hardly a sop or a compromise, so it’s a shame to see it missing here.

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That said, if you already do know what you’re doing – and Dirt Rally 2.0 clearly assumes that to be the case – it’s wonderful that the playground begins wide open. There’s no grinding to unlock tracks or disciplines. You can play a one-off event right away in whatever car you want on whatever rally stage or rallycross track you choose.

If you start a career, yes, you’ll need to save some in-game money in order to purchase the car you want and upgrade your crew, but that’s a feature and not a wall between you and what you want to do. Moreover, even within that structure you can still decide whether you want to be a stage rally driver, a rallycross driver, or a mix of the two right off the bat. Dirt Rally 2.0 doesn’t force you to start on one discipline to unlock the next.

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That freedom allows you to focus on the aspects of the career that you want to. Building a better team is fun, building a better car is fun, buying a better car is fun, and bringing it all together in order to win a championship is a lot of fun. Play a daily challenge or design your own event then come back to the career later. It provides a bit of extra motivation and imbues the results of each race with a little more impact, all of which helps you stay invested.

Handling is just as involved. Sharp weight shifts can be catastrophic, and the different surfaces and weather conditions drastically change how you have to approach them. The traction level of wet dirt versus dry dirt isn’t just different, but dependent on the speed you tackle them. Slipping on dry dirt is more linear, while wet dirt can go from an extreme slip to bogging down and a sudden grab – details like this make this game great.

One of the rally-specific techniques that you’ll learn when honing your skills is spinning the driven wheels, digging past the loosely packed dirt which offers little traction to get to the harder, denser stuff beneath. Digging in wet dirt is very different from digging in the dry or gravel, but Dirt Rally 2.0 manages to impart that feeling nicely, even if the force feedback could use a bit of work – judging exactly how much traction and what degree of rotation I had in a slide was difficult without more information coming through my wheel.

There are, at least, plenty of locations in which to sharpen your senses. At launch, the game comes with eight Rallycross tracks and six rally locations, each with a variety of stages. They’re all nicely rendered, and faithfully reproduced, but they’re not as replayable as you’d hope – a problem with many rally games. Part of the appeal of the sport is the communication between co-driver and driver, and the improvisational nature of figuring it out as you clip along at ridiculous speeds. Once you’ve sunk a decent number of hours into the game, however, you start to recognize the rally stages more and more, and then start memorizing them.

Dirt 4 tried to solve this with its stage generator feature, but there simply wasn’t the variety of corners to make it work. When your Dirt 4 co-driver said “right two, don’t cut,” you knew exactly what that corner would look like. I was hoping that Dirt Rally 2.0 would build upon that feature, introducing greater variety – if there were eight to 12 versions of “right two, don’t cut” a stage generator could really provide the infinite replay that represents the holy grail of this particular genre.

Even so, the stages that are here are all distinctive and challenging, and this will keep even the best drivers occupied for plenty of time. Moreover, if your favorite discipline is rallycross, the most important tracks are already represented, and Codemasters has promised that more will be added. You’ll be in heaven – or Hell, if you choose Norway.

Dirt Rally 2.0 is as punishing as the discipline it simulates. If you want to play a fun racing game that doesn’t punish mistakes ruthlessly and ask you to dig deep right off the bat, Dirt Rally 2.0 probably isn’t the game for you. However, if you want to take the simulation aspect seriously this is absolutely the game you want. It’s the best rally sim out there right now.