PC gamers are already in love with Codemasters' return to the pinnacle of rally driving; last year's Dirt Rally. The British developer laid the foundations for this new, more straight-laced Dirt title back with Colin McRae Rally, which at the time was a serious simulation. Since then, however, the studio has gradually steered the series towards a more arcade-fuelled interpretation of the sport. After its last outing - Dirt Showdown - a small team at the studio decided to return to basics and try to bring rally racing, without embellishment, back to our screens. The end result last December was a magnificent piece of programming - and now console gamers can join the fun.
Even loading up the game makes it clear that this is the Dark Souls of motorsport. Plain text panels explain the core of the game, which itself provides unflinching realism. The career mode is stingy with information, but the slimline, text-heavy interface hardly leaves any questions open to interpretation. The best three riders at the end of the season will rise to the next league, where the skill of the opposition grows. With the money earned, vehicles of various classes can be purchased, and you need to throw a little cash at repairs and spare parts. There's even a dash of crew management.
In Dirt Rally you'll get nothing without hard work. We'd already spent a good 75 hours with the PC version, and still we could fly off the track and into the abyss after the first few meters of a track if not paying full attention. The various surfaces, ranging from asphalt to gravel via mud, snow and ice, must be played aggressively and with accuracy. It's the only way to cope with the detailed physics, a system so good that even the smallest irregularities can have an effect on your racing line. Fortunately the settings can be customised to suit your preferences. We raced with a wheel most of the time, but a controller still allows for perfect control over your ride, so it comes down to personal taste (and perhaps budget). However, without the force feedback offered by a steering wheel, the learning curve is certainly a bit steeper.
The fact that the career kicks off with one of the most demanding stages, namely "Koryfi Dafni" in Greece, is basically a gauntlet being thrown down by Codemasters. The range of tracks on offer is broad. Each country has two longer courses, which consist of eight segments. In order to achieve more variety, only four of these eight segments are used at any time (usually), and they can be played both forwards and backwards. The easiest is Finland, followed by Sweden, where you can mostly put your foot down. Germany offers solid roads with the option to drift, in Monte Carlo the roads are dangerous, but at least they're largely paved mountain passes. Scotland offers mud, obstacles, and slopes with the potential to frustrate - but maybe it's Greece with its barely vehicle-wide cliff-side gravel tracks that perfectly demonstrates the nature of Dirt Rally.
When you're on the track and speeding through woodland or kicking up dust, the quality of the graphics will catch your eye immediately. The different landscapes are designed in detail, and they're suitably varied. The console graphics are approximately the same as the medium settings offered by the PC version, which still looks good by any standard. On the PS4 the game runs at 1080p, as does the Xbox One version (although at times it will dynamically shift to 900p). Both systems generally achieve the targeted rate of 60 FPS, and although there is the occasional stutter these moments are hardly noticeable.
It needs to be super smooth, because while a little mistake might result in a cracked windscreen, a more serious error will ruin a decent run and rule out a personal best. Putting the vehicle back on track naturally means there'll be a punishment. Setting off before the countdown means a penalty. A burst tire means a penalty. If in fit of over-zealous steering you misjudge a corner and throw your car into a ravine, you'll not be surprised to hear that you'll get a penalty. Restarting is only possible five times and you can add to that a cash fine.
If it sounds tough, that's because it is. Dirt Rally can be punishing, and the career mode is a genuine challenge, but it's totally worth it. Once you've got to grips with it you'll start rising through the ranks, and the vehicle classes you unlock later on in the campaign will push you very hard indeed indeed, although it's always fair despite the challenging difficulty.
Additional modes that flesh out the package include Hillclimb events and there's even Rallycross Championships. The latter offers PvP modes, where several cars simultaneously compete over short, often hilly race tracks. It's chaotic, but a great addition and a nice change of pace. In private events one can choose the car class and the number of preliminary and main rounds, and it makes for a great mode to enjoy with friends.
Another source of entertainment came in the form of the online events, of which there are usually five or six available at any given time. During the daily events each player has only one attempt to post a suitably impressive time. You can, during these events, try vehicles that you might not yet have the money to buy in the campaign, although in the weekly and monthly challenges, often owning a particular car, or at least a class, is a strict requirement. These modes should, however, be seen more as decorative accessories, even if their inclusion is appreciated.
This is a game that has been fleshed out since its initial release on PC via Steam Early Access late last year. It was deemed feature complete, and since then Codemasters has worked on bringing the racer to console. The studio hasn't added a huge amount of content to this new version - most notably they've brought in some fan-favourite cars, a gravelly Pikes Peak, and the aforementioned Rallycross, - but the journey that Dirt Rally has been on (Early Access, release on PC, and then being ported to console) ensures that feels like an expertly balanced and well-rounded package.
There are a few trimmings, and a solid selection of modes, but the core of the game is the hard-hitting simulation. This is digital driving in the tread marks of Colin McRae and Richard Burns. And there should be no doubt, Dirt Rally is the absolute number one rally game currently available on PS4 and Xbox One. Perhaps, if you wanted to, you could ask for a couple of extra tracks, maybe some more cars, but when a racer offers an experience as rich and detailed as this, it deserves the very highest praise that we can offer.
For a slightly more technical analysis of Dirt Rally, head this way for our review of the PC version of the game, which was written by our very own rally fanatic Petter Hegevall (who, incidentally, also scored the console version of the game 10/10 over on Gamereactor Sweden).