Reluctantly crouched at the starting line
Engines pumping and thumping in time
The green light flashes, the flags go up
Churning and burning, they yearn for the cup

This week I took a peek at Codemasters’ Dirt Rally early access gameplay. Back in April, Codemasters quietly announced and released Dirt Rally on the very same day. Once upon a time, the Rally series was synonymous with ‘pinnacle rally sim’. More recently, however, it has become less and less true to the racing sim genre. Since adopting the “Dirt” prefix, the series has added wacky destruction derbies and over-the-top trick competitions. Indeed, Dirt Rally is a carefully crafted return to form for Codemasters.

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From the very first moment players boot the game up, they will be reminded constantly of the shift back towards hard sim. The first thing presented to me was a pop-up window where I could configure the simulation depth. Do I want my transmission Automatic? Semi-Auto? Manual? Do bear in mind some of the vehicles are 7-speed, so account for that if you choose Manual transmission. Should the e-brake be engaged automatically as the starting lights count down? Selecting Manual line break allows for faster but more skill-intensive starts. How about the UI? How much should be displayed and how much should be hidden? All of my selections are evaluated. The more sim-like I set my game up, the more bonuses I receive to my race winnings.

Speaking of winnings, I haven’t yet managed any. When the tires meet the rocky road, the racing gets real. Real hard, that is. The handful of vehicles I piloted felt tight and responsive, but I get the feeling that my approach to the tracks still need a lot of adjustment. The pursuit of excellence on the track is what drives the player to continue. From trial and much error, I discovered that I could approach turns with a lighter foot on the break and a more gentle touch of the gas. Perfecting your race times is an iterative science that just makes sense. But until I achieve perfection, I’ll have to resign myself to spin-outs and fender-benders. My engineering crew can repair my vehicle’s damage in between races in 5-race event. If I didn’t take the time to hire a crew, however, the damage my car endures in race 1 will stick with me throughout the event.

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The tracks and vehicles are many and varied. They all feel very different in a good way. Dirt Rally’s physics engine was built from the ground up. Bumbling about along a bumpy dirt road is radically different than the feel of wet pavement beneath your wheels during a stormy night race. Speaking of tracks and vehicles, Codemasters continues to patch at a healthy pace and with each new version, they add tracks, cars, and minor gameplay tweaks. The experience is already extremely polished in its current 0.8 version. The full game is set to release by the end of this year. Judging by Dirt Rally’s impeccable quality thus far, the Rally series is barreling up the path towards ‘pinnacle rally sim’ once again.

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