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Dirt Rally 2.0 - Ford Fiesta drifting around a tree in autumn

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Dirt Rally 2.0 review: Great racing without compromise

Newcomers might surprise themselves how much they really can handle in a tough-as-nails driving sim

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

This weekend I became aware of the fact that my ass was really sore, and I had no idea why. Was it yesterday’s hike? The weighted blanket I sleep under? My cheap desk chair?

More likely, Dirt Rally 2.0 is to blame.

There is more than a distinct feel to each of its 50 cars, or even how they perform on three different surfaces, whether wet or dry. I take that for granted from Codemasters, whose Dirt 4 I adored and whose F1 series has become an obsession. Each car’s handling has such a personality that their manipulation seems to extend beyond the controller’s inputs. I was tensing up through every switchback and square turn, trying to will my Peugeot 280 R2 back from the brink of an unguarded shoulder somewhere in Spain. Sliding through the turns, I am feeling for the edges of a safe speed with every sense I have, including my ass.

But even if Dirt Rally 2.0 lives up to its namesake ancestor, 2015’s Dirt Rally, in how much it demands of the driver, I don’t find it to be tough-as-nails for the sake of it. It feels like there is more than one way to solve a 4-turn that sharpens into a 2, or those hairpins carved through bare granite in Argentina’s mountains. It’s usually found somewhere in the blend of tire choice and wear (both new to the game), surface degradation, and the weight and turning radius of the car, of course. The car seems more manipulable at slower paces, which rewards more conservative driving or a focus on simply keeping wheels on the road. While going all-out is necessary for long stretches or shallow turns, I never felt like Dirt Rally 2.0 expects me to drive flawlessly at maximum speed all the time, as lesser racing games tend to do.

Dirt Rally 2.0 - a car jumping as another one turns in front of it
Dirt Rally 2.0’s officially licensed FIA World Rallycross Championship series promises hair-raising action — provided you’re not driving more car than you can handle.

That equitable treatment is what kept me coming back late into the night, racing something else from the game’s prix-fixe menu of rallies and rallycross events. While Dirt Rally 2.0 does little to onboard new players (there is no driving school, like in Dirt 4), it doesn’t take long for me to find a feel for countersteering with the slippery 1972 Lancia Fulvia HF, the first rally car in the My Team career mode. The payoff when I can maintain my momentum, keep my wheels spinning, and rocket out of a turn (to then take advantage of the slight corner cut ahead that my co-driver calls out) is wholly affirming. It feels like all my other mini-victories in sports video games — a great through-ball in FIFA, or setting up a hitter for a swinging strikeout away in MLB The Show — that make their staple tasks delightful and not repetitive.

That’s fortunate, because the lack of onboarding portends a very difficult game to run competitively, once the player graduates from the “open” rank to Clubman in My Team. I remember a rather curt difficulty spike like this in Dirt 4, too. Even at medium difficulty levels, a single mistake, misread of directions, or just plain bad luck will be enough to drop me to the middle third of the field.

Some of this is because the damage modeling isn’t just for looks or variety in the race notes. A wobbling wheel is going to thwart a lot of cornering plans. The surface is also dynamically shifting and degrading. I see this — or rather, feel it — the most on the dirt portions of a rallycross course. In one (Portugal’s Montalegre), the ruts carved by five races through a sweeping curve at the end almost lock me up, making it a legitimate struggle to get to a cleaner section on the inside.

Dirt Rally 2.0 - Citroen DS21
Two dozen of the 50 cars in the Dirt Rally 2.0 fleet are historical varieties spanning 1964 to 1999. There’s an historical rally series racing in four eras in the free play mode, too.

Dirt 2.0 is plenty enjoyable and accessible simply on a DualShock 4, but it’s obvious that a casual driver like me, using a gamepad alone, will not have enough in his toolkit to be competitive at higher difficulties, or at all against people using driving wheels. That’s fine; if I plateau in the career mode, the freeplay suite has every car plus all the stages and rallycross venues available, including a custom event creator for both disciplines. More importantly, it now has a 0-100 AI slider that resembles the one in Codemasters’ F1 series (with a hardcore damage option, though neither is available in My Team). Somewhere in there is a sweet spot for me. But novices may feel like the R5 classification, and particularly rallycross’ RX supercars like the Audi I drove, are too much car with a steep learning curve to solve.

All I can say here is that repeating courses and paying attention still pay dividends — if nothing else, that keeps the car on the course and delivers a respectable result (and I did improve my driving as well). That’s not the sexiest pitch for accessibility, but when the sport is more driver against course, bound by time, than driver against driver, there aren’t a lot of accommodations Codemasters can make for a novice. The accommodation it does make is in a true-handling game that, in time, develops a discrete, tactile sense of how to move the car without losing control — or at least, knowing exactly what will make it lose control.

If Dirt Rally 2.0 has any shortcomings, a big one is the spare lineup of environments (just six) and stages to run (12 per environment). The stages are often reversed or repositioned and shortened from longer runs, so it does not take long to start seeing the same sections. The game does take players to New Zealand, North America, and South America, as opposed to Dirt Rally sticking to Europe. But there is no snow stage at launch, which is a bummer.

All of the stages are hand-built courses. While they’re meticulously illustrated and the environments and turns all blend naturally for it, there’s nothing like the My Stage procedural generator that made Dirt 4 so appealing and endlessly replayable. For me, most of the challenge of rally racing is not knowing what is ahead, relying on my co-driver’s instructions, rather than going, “Oh yeah, here’s where I shave the corner of a parking lot as I leave the village in Robadelles; don’t make any big movements during the exit.” Unfamiliarity makes the risks — and therefore the reward when I do go all-out into a long stretch — a lot more meaningful.

In addition, some environments are subjected to the game’s season pass of premium add-ons, which means daily community events based on them are inaccessible. These daily events have a nice payout (in the form of the in-game currency to acquire, upgrade, and repair vehicles) even for finishing in the lowest tier of more than 4,000 drivers. They helped finance my exploits in the rally and rallycross career events. The freeplay races — which include a historical series of rallies in vintage cars all the way to the boatlike GTs — also offer currency for those who don’t want to grind their way up solely in My Team.

I settled into the career mode fairly early because I found that strategy layer appealing: considering seriously whether I should upgrade a car’s tuning just because that was available, or if I should save that money to train an engineer or make repairs mid-event. It kept me from developing a maxed-out car in a strictly linear fashion. I switched to rallycross events when I needed a break, and the staged format of four to six fast-paced races was the perfect length to build muscle-memory familiarity with the course and best a field that is never afraid to get violent.

Dirt Rally 2.0’s visuals are almost take-it-for-granted spectacular, even on a launch PlayStation 4 (my test console). The sounds are wonderfully varied, leavened with backfires and aspirations and barking or hissing tires perfectly matched to their surfaces. Co-driver Phil Mills’ voice even seems to tremble as he calls out directions through really ragged stretches. The aesthetics left me appreciating, if not entirely understanding, how much work had to be done to give this game such an effortless and natural presentation. While I’m rocketing down a straight in New England (the Berkshires, I think?), leaves are blowing across my trail; the woods in mid-afternoon still got so dark that I manually turned on my headlights (which, of course, I’d forgotten I’d smashed in an earlier stage).

As with its sibling Dirt 4, the joy of Dirt Rally 2.0 is in understanding how much this game expects of me and then surprising myself at how much I really belong in the field. It’s a fantastic driving experience because I know I won’t win everything. Sometimes just finishing in one piece will be victory enough, because the driving it took to get there will be the most exhilarating I’ve found in a video game today.

Dirt Rally 2.0 is now available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a final “retail” download code provided by Codemasters. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.