Motorsports have always been something of a mystery to me. I understand why they happen, and conceptually it’s neat to see cars being used for something other than driving people to work, but purposely watching people make cars do stuff like that just baffles me. This extends to racing games, as well – I’ll occasionally delve into some less-realistic stuff like Daytona USA, but more ‘realistic’ titles tend to lie out of my grasp. I’ve tried Gran Turismo 5, and while it sure is nice to own all of those Toyotas, I can’t say I was any good at it.
This makes me the perfect candidate to preview DiRT Rally, right?
I’ve considered playing DiRT 3 in the past, mostly due to its inclusion of gymkana (which combines my two favorite things: cinematic car chases and tiny hatchbacks!), but otherwise I was pretty unaware of the series’ lineage. So you can imagine my surprise when it turned out that DiRT Rally doesn’t have you racing other cars, but driving the same track in an attempt to beat their time. After picking from the cars I at least recognized (I didn’t have enough credits for the Lancia Stratos, which I only recognized because my favorite Transformer as a kid turned into one), I began the first event.
The handling in DiRT Rally is a bit more finicky and realistic than I’m used to, although I can absolutely see the appeal. At first, though, it had me cussing up a storm. I would constantly go flying off the track, miss turns, and go careening into the spectators, and the penalties I incurred ate away at my precious finishing time (which wasn’t going to be that good to begin with). Realistic damage modeling meant that my poor Mini Cooper was constantly suffering from overheating, punctured tires, and a smashed frame – which, I was both impressed and horrified to find, actually affects your vehicle’s handling and performance without requiring you to restart the race. (And try not to restart the race, you’ll incur a pretty big credits penalty. DiRT Rally wants you to LIVE WITH YOUR MISTAKES!)
So yes, it was pretty discouraging at first. But you know what? Deep down, I was actually having a lot of fun! I’ve never had a virtual car react to my commands like this one was, and something about it compelled me to keep going. And as I did, I found it to be a greatly rewarding experience. I slowly learned how to make the car do what I wanted it to, sort of – I mean, what the hell is a handbrake anyways, am I right guys? I learned the differences between terrain and track types, subtle though they are, and I even started to get the hang of the cryptic (to me) advice and symbols your co-driver uses to help navigate you through each track.
Actually, that navigation really came in handy. Racing purists might totally hate/disagree with what I’m about to say, but DiRT Rally (and presumably other racing games) is almost more of a platformer or obstacle-course-game. Better drivers might not have this problem, but anyone with less experience in the medium will find themselves playing each track (or at least each section of track) over and over again until they remember where everything is and what they have to do to get past them. Other than the fact you’re in a car, it’s not too different from the thought process one might use for a particularly difficult stretch of Mega Man.
There’s been any number of Steam Early Access horror stories involving unfinished games with iffy physics or any number of problems, and while DiRT Rally isn’t flawless, it is worth mentioning that it isn’t nearly as bad as plenty of other Early Access titles. The game itself is absolutely gorgeous, with minimal but effective sound design, detailed car models, and realistic weather patterns. I did run into a small problem where it wouldn’t actually finish loading a race (and the load times are a bit much to begin with, so it took me a while to figure it out), but a simple clearing of the game’s cache solved the problem. You know, just like you had to do in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Huh, that’s a weird thing to say in a racing game review.
Look, maybe someone with a little more experience behind the wheel will totally disagree. Maybe I’m just some dumb noob who doesn’t know anything. I will say this for sure, though: even without a ton of experience behind the wheel, I wound up having a lot of fun with DiRT Rally. Yes, it was frustrating, and yes, it was pretty demanding of my ability to just keep a car on the goddamn road, but I get the impression that’s exactly what they’re going for. I believe in judging games on how well they accomplish what they set out to do, and not what I hope/expect from a given genre, and in this regard, DiRT Rally is gonna be a hell of a lot of fun…for the right audience.