DiRT Rally 2.0 Review: The New Rally Sim Standard

DiRT Rally 2.0Product Reviews 142 February 20, 2019 by

The debate is never-ending: is rally the hardest discipline in motorsports? To many real-world drivers it is. Talk to any long enough and you’ll get some variation on the “track racers drive one corner 1000 times, rally racers do 1000 corners once” line.

And if you ever played the original DiRT Rally, you definitely believed there was some truth to it.

Four years on from that title (and 2017’s middling DiRT 4), Codemasters is back with DiRT Rally 2.0. It’s just as grit-in-your-teeth authentic as the last one, but has evolved the formula to push it past everything else in rally sim racer space. Strap in, because this is going to be a thrill ride.

DiRT Rally 2.0 launches February 26 on PC, PS4, and Xbox (or this Friday for Deluxe Edition owners). Codemasters provided a pre-release version of the game for review on Xbox. I played it on Xbox One X, with both a pad and the Fanatec CSL Elite PS4 wheel (with P1 Elite rim).

Content and Value For Money

The numbers game is not kind to DR2, but judging it solely on the on-paper stats does Codies’ latest a disservice. The full car list is 50-strong, broken up into 14 categories. Some are filled with more similar machinery than others, like the Rallycross rides, but it’s the older metal that really gives the car roster its depth. Cars like the classic Mini rub shoulders with rare-in-sims metal like the Opel Ascona and Skoda Fabia R5.

The unexpected stars of the car lineup are the Rally GT machines. Typically meant for tarmac duty, these beasts — including a Camaro and an Aston Martin Vantage — feel surprisingly at home playing in the mud. It’s just the right amount of incongruity that makes sim racing such an appealing endeavor.

If there’s an area the game falls down, it’s the track count. There are eight tiny little rallycross circuits, all plucked from the official real-world championship, alongside six rally locations. On the plus side, each point on the map offers its own unique setting, so you’ll never mistake something like Australia’s Bondi Forest with Poland’s Jezioro Rotcze stage. Same goes with any of Spain’s offerings, though that’s because it’s the only all-tarmac affair. The lack of a snow/ice location is also a miss.

Codemasters has dropped D4‘s Your Stage feature in favor of hand-made tracks. There’s no doubt that this approach leads to more impressive layouts, with every stage feeling more authentic than the inevitable sameness of Your Stage. And surely the hand-crafted stages here will take a long while to truly master in all of the available cars. But for my money, there’s something inherently “rally” about Your Stage, about never truly knowing what’s coming next.

While I appreciate the existing rallies (and there will be more coming via the Season Passes), I do hope the team hasn’t permanently abandoned work on Your Stage.

My personal nemesis was Argentina’s Valle de los puentes. It’s an absolutely ruthless five-mile run between walls of jagged rock, leaving zero room for error. The slow stuff is easy enough to dispatch, but it’s once the speeds start climbing that it really gets scary.

The single player content makes the most of what Rally 2.0 has to offer. My Team is the premier mode, with careers in rally and rallycross alongside daily and weekly challenges.

The careers are straight-forward, and should be familiar to those that have played previous games in the franchise. Each season offers a randomized number of races. As you race you’ll earn credits, which can be used to upgrade your car as well as flesh out your support staff.

DiRT Rally 2.0 doesn’t lock most of its content away behind progression however. You can access everything from the Time Trial and Custom Championship modes. There are also Historic and FIA World Rallycross Championship modes, which largely follow the same structure as My Team, only without all the credit managing.

Helpfully, there’s an AI slider this time around to pin the computer players at a level that you find challenging. Even at the default setting they’re quite quick, but now those learning the ropes won’t immediately feel out of their depth.

In the end, there’s no getting around the number of unique stages being quite low. You’ll be repeating locations quite early on in the campaign. But crucially, what is here has a depth to it that the plain numbers don’t quite reveal.

Online Features

There’s the standard smattering of online features here. Leaderboards are present for each class on every stage, which is very useful. The Custom Championships mode doubles as the multiplayer section, as players can determine if their lineup is available for others or just themselves. There’s a lot of customization available here — befitting the name — allowing players to tailor their experience to exactly their liking. Well, unless they want rallycross cars on a rally stage: sadly, that’s still not possible.

There’s no driver rating system like other racing titles, which will likely lead to quite a spread across an eight-player lobby. Then again, with rally being a solo, against-the-clock affair, and contact in rallycross pretty much a requirement, a ranking system would have to be quite different in design than something like GT Sport.

The game’s biggest frustration would be the required RaceNet connection to access My Team. It was locked out during the early time of the review period, leaving me to explore the other parts of the game first instead of what’s meant to be the main single-player attraction.

Driving Physics

I’ve been lucky enough to drive about 40% of the car roster by now, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. Codemasters has imbued every single DiRT Rally 2.0 ride with a unique, realistic character.

The pert, front-drive Lancia Fulvia is all about momentum conservation. It doesn’t have the power to mask mistakes, needing calculated, smooth inputs to really top the leaderboards. Nonetheless, that nose-led layout and light weight make it a great learning car.

Move up a few classes to something like the deliciously old-school Opel Ascona 400 in H3 class and be prepared for a crash course — literally — in throttle control. DR2 is not a hand-holding sort of learning experience: there are driver aids, sure, but that’s about it.

The Group B machines are truly unhinged. Driving them gave me even more respect for the ’80s pilots of these mad machines. Trying to keep an RS200 balanced on the edge of grip, while fighting the unsettling habits of old-school turbo lag and not missing a gear on the H-shifter, there’s simply no other option.

Pad users will find DR2 much more friendly than the first game. The analog stick on the Xbox One controller still prefers a light touch, though there’s now a level of consistency that’s most welcome. Balancing a car on the throttle through a corner is easier than before, even in the wet. There’s the right amount of rumble through it too, to accurately gauge just how much grip is left.

Of course, the best way to experience DiRT Rally 2.0 is on a wheel. Switching over to the Fanatec, I was impressed with how well it all felt out of the box. The wheel was a little too heavy initially, but some quick tinkering in-game to lighten the load, as well as reduce the self-centering, was all I needed to do. The slight see-sawing gone, the Fanatec was a joy with DR2.

It’s with a wheel that the subtlety of rallying really comes to the fore. The rim chatters away with constant feedback, telling me what the front wheels are coping with. Point a rear-drive car into a corner and get a bit greedy with the throttle, and the FFB gets ever so slightly lighter until you straighten out. There’s no guess-work when trying to counter-steer: it feels intuitive and natural.

Dancing on the pedals is also supremely satisfying. Instead of the point-and-squirt approach that controllers lend themselves too, the CSL Elite pedals let me count every single pony I’m letting out of the corral. Running without ABS doesn’t feel like a death wish either, since it’s a cinch to mete out braking power.

Two bugbears of the previous title were low-speed physics and tarmac driving. I’m happy to report both are (mostly) cured. Low-speed physics feel much more natural now: it’s both easier to rotate the car under power, yet free of that bizarre crab-walking feeling. The asphalt feels better now too, though there’s still a slight sense of wander and float around Spain, even in something as seemingly strapped-down as the 911.

A lot of the talk pre-release focused on the stage degradation. It’s certainly noticeable, with the ruts doing their best to turn your Datsun into a roller coaster train. I’ll have to spend more time with it, however: there’s the big differences between sweeper (first few drivers), ideal (mid-pack), and rutted (near the end), but it isn’t entirely clear how gradual the change is between them.

Jump into the game after any other and an unfamiliar feeling will start to creep in during runs: one of fear. DiRT Rally 2.0 does what none of the track-based racers out there really nail, which is the sense that a single wrong move can utterly end you. It’s the four-wheeled Dark Souls, but that approach feels completely appropriate for rally racing. Getting the best time on a circuit is about finding the absolute limits via small adjustments every lap.

Rallying is risk management, knowing there’s no do-overs. Get just a little too sideways out of a right-four, clip the left-rear tire on the only sizeable rock found on the side of the road, and hang on as the car spins to the left, catches on raised land, and barrel rolls. Even if it’s still drivable, you’ve lost a ton of time, and the rest of the run is compromised by the damage.

Every time it happened, I wasn’t even mad: I was busy having too much fun.

Graphics

DiRT Rally 2.0 is a filthy feast for your eyeballs. Every car is modelled with care, from the achingly pretty Citröen DS to the latest batch of brute-strength rallycross machines. They may not be at the level of something like GT Sport, but they’re more than acceptable, and come with a level of destructibility that shames most of the competition.

Really though, more so than the cars, its the special stages that are the stars here. The level design truly shows off the strides Codemasters has made since the first DiRT Rally burst onto the scene all those years ago.

The warmth of Australia’s flat-out plains is just as visually striking as the coastal stages of New Zealand. The autumn canopies of New England give it a very Norman Rockwell vibe, such is the lushness and density.

What’s more, DR2 maintains a silky smooth 60fps in gameplay. That drops to 30fps in replays, which also do a great job of showing off the surroundings. It’s a shame, then, that you can’t save them. The same goes with the lack of a dedicated photo mode.

The weather effects are another feather in the game’s cap. A rain-slicked stage set in the dead of night is the ultimate challenge, and it looks the part.

The biggest issue with the graphics are some very jagged shadows that crop up from time to time. More often than not, you’ll see them on the windshield banner of your car, or on a jutting rock at the side of the road. The black daggers come as quite a shock — perhaps it’s the age of Codemasters’ proprietary Ego engine showing.

Sound Design

I love how this game sounds. It’s a holistic package, with authentic-sounding cars wailing across stages. The Ford RS200 is all aggression, a pissed-off hornets’ nest that isn’t what you’d call tuneful, but is an iconic note nonetheless.

Then there’s the V8s in the Rally GT class: the big-cube bellow from the Camaro feels absurdly out-of-place on a muddy rally stage, in the best way possible.

The lone car in the class without a V8 is the Porsche 911, and its high-revving flat-six sounds pitch-perfect. There’s a slightly tinnier note to it than the real-world GT3 RS, a reflection of the pared-down interior. It’s this attention to detail that permeates DR2.

That borderline obsession extends to the pace notes too. Phil Mills pulls co-driver duty here, and Codemasters made sure to record everything thrice to best suit the situation at hand. At full chat, Mills’ calls get quicker and more intense, and when you (inevitably) mess up, he checks up on you. His end-of-stage chat could be more colorful, but otherwise, Mills is a welcome partner throughout the stages.

Other sounds coming from outside the car are uniformly great. The stages feel alive, with various atmospherics upping the experience. Special mention to the damage-based effects too: you’ll sometimes hear a problem from around the car before you realize via its actions. As someone more Block than Loeb in their rally prowess, I found that out the hard way on more than a few occasions.

The Verdict

At it’s best, DiRT Rally 2.0 is still just as punishingly difficult as the first game, if not more so. But it earns that reputation for a very valid reason: rally racing is hard as hell.

Codemasters has pulled off the impressive dual feat of retaining that reputation while making the game more approachable. Driving a car isn’t particularly hard, but threading it through a New England forest at triple digits damn well better be. DR2 is so natural on either pad or wheel that it doesn’t feel like work trying to master each car and stage. Despite that, you’ll still get a huge adrenaline rush when you blitz a previous special stage record, because it (rightfully) feels like a real accomplishment.

Like Codemasters’ other big racing title, F1 2018, DiRT Rally 2.0’s biggest hurdle is the perception of niche appeal. But just like I said with that title in our review last yearDR2 transcends niches. This is a great racing sim full-stop, not just a rally one, and a worthy addition to your library. It’s thrilling and exciting in a way few titles manage, and it looks like Codemasters has a long-term plan in place for expanded content.

DiRT Rally 2.0
The new standard for all rally racers. Small content quibbles can't take the shine off this diamond.

Learn more about how our rating system works.

Content and Value For Money
The biggest issue is the dearth of rally locations, but stage design goes a long way to remedying that.

Online Features
Standard fare here, with custom lobbies and a smattering of rotating community events, plus leaderboards. Connection issues locking out career mode are annoying.

Driving Physics and Handling
Fantastic physics make DR2 a treat on pad or wheel. Every single car feels unique and special.

Graphics
Gorgeous level design and silky frame rate. Cars are well detailed, but Ego engine is showing its age. Shame about the lack of photo mode.

Sound Design
Sounds straight off the special stage. Every car sounds mean, atmospherics give the environs life, and your co-driver sells the whole experience.

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