Since 2008, Codemasters has flown the flag for offroad sport with its highly acclaimed rally games. Acquiring the right to use the late Scottish Rally legend Colin McRae’s name, early titles attempted to capture the spirit of rallying, with extreme conditions, tricky handling and set-up changes all helping to bring the offroad experience consoles and PCs alike.
Since then, the ingredients have been diluted, with later games and the inclusion of the Dirt moniker signalling a more arcadey, accessible, career-based approach. Now, the new, simulation-based, PC-only Dirt Rally makes the other titles look like a simple Sunday drive.
So why the sudden change in direction? “I think a lot of people wanted a more authentic and in-depth, professional approach to the sport that they loved,” explains Paul Coleman, lead designer on Dirt Rally. “There was a feeling that we were almost devaluing rally sport through the way that we represented it in the previous games of the franchise.”
A reflection of the demand surrounding them, each Codemasters game has given fans what they wanted, and Coleman believes that now is the golden era of simulation based gaming. “Don't get me wrong, those games were absolutely the right games to make at the time and I think that the sales and the Metacritic results they received absolutely reflect that, but over the last four years we've seen the market shifting towards these more in-depth and detailed experiences,” he says. “People want to buy into an experience and grow with it. They don't want these throwaway experiences quite as much as they did in the past, so this is kind of our reaction to that.”
So just how different is Dirt Rally to its predecessors? The answer is massively, both in presentation and gameplay. Where previous titles offered glamorous offroad racing with pyrotechnics, a showbiz career mode and lush, inviting ribbons of road, Dirt Rally has instead captured the grimy, realistic side of rallying. Pitting you and your machine against the elements, Dirt Rally is a far more sobering affair, and it’s all the better for it. “If you attack the stage like you're driving Dirt 1, 2 or 3, the chances are you'll go off the road at the first corner”, says Coleman, and it’s testament to just how more meticulous the Codemasters team has been this time round.
“We've completely remodelled the physics engine and the simulation of how these cars are represented, and that’s given us an incredibly solid foundation on which to build from,” says Coleman when talking about the game’s more accurate handling. “We're getting a lot of this information out of reference books, manufacturers will correct us in some cases, or approve them in others, and we’re then using our new physics simulation engine. We're able to put those numbers in much more faithfully than we've ever done before, so that every car actually feels like it does in real life.”
“We've got cars like the Stratos, the Peugeot 205, we've got the old Mini, and then Lancia Deltas, Ford Escorts, Cosworths and Ford Sierras, so there's quite a good spectrum of rally legends in there. We're only going to make that list broader and stronger.”
In the same way, Codemasters has taken an even more faithful approach to the main ingredient in any rally game: the tracks. Where circuit racers simply model one circuit, and then use it for around 75 laps, a rally game must recreate miles of one-off stages from start to finish – accurately capturing the challenges that make rallying one of the most demanding sports in the world.
“Formula One: it's all about perfecting something that you can practise” agrees Coleman. “With rally it's all about moment to moment driver’s skill and being competitively quick, which comes from your own innate ability to react to the conditions and the corners that are coming at you, many of which you'll never have seen before.”
It’s this aspect that makes getting a complete snapshot of each stage so crucial, and it’s a factor that hasn’t been lost to Coleman and the rest of the Codemasters team.
After identifying iconic stages across the world, Codemasters set about bringing every pothole, puddle and car-chewing ditch to its new game. “It was a case of sending level designers and art teams out on research trips. They take tens of thousands of photos on each of the trips, they measure road widths and camber and all sorts, but they do it in a traditional tape measure kind of way rather than with any sort of laser scanning,” explains Coleman.
This time the stage is the star of the show – not the driving experience. Rather than being presented with ribbons of gravel and tarmac that begs to be eaten up, Dirt Rally has recreated tricky, awkward stretches of road, and made players negotiate through them. “With Dirt Rally we've really embraced the fallibility of the road, we've really taken a look at why these roads are great to rally on. 99.99 percent of the time it's because they weren't designed to race on, and that's where the challenge comes in.”
As you’d expect, Codemasters have packed in a number of different surfaces, giving drivers a 360 degree experience of offroad racing. There’s dry, heavy rocky gravel in Greece, wet muddy gravel in Wales, slushy snow in the mountain stages of Monte Carlo and much more to come. Completing the experience, the Dirt team has also included a range of weather and time conditions.
“You get some heavy rain, light drizzle, we've got snow and sleet and then we've also got mist and fog in some of those winter stages, and then on top of that you've got the different times of day”, says Coleman. Stages transform as the sun sets, with cars even using light pods – clusters of lights attached to the bonnet to illuminate the unfamiliar terrain of night stages. “It's incredible how challenging it becomes to pick through a stage when the shadows are really long” reveals Coleman. “Obviously if you smash into the tree and lose your light pod, then you're going to have to really listen to your co-driver to finish off the stage.”
Unlike rally games of old, Dirt Rally doesn’t throw the standard “Easy left” or “Hard right” commands at you. Instead, the team have rightly identified co-drivers as one of the key things that sets rallying apart from other motorsports – and nailed it. Giving drivers a sixth sense, co-drivers tell you what to expect just before you approach it, and are an invaluable weapon in your arsenal to conquer the untamed roads. For Dirt Rally, Coleman and the team have packed in an unprecedented amount of detail.
"If you play in English language I'm the co-driver and that's come about from me getting to do the sport first hand for the first time back in 2011,” reveals Coleman. After using software to describe each corner mapped in the game, Coleman and the team went through every mile of stage, refining and double-checking the pace notes until they were 100 percent true to life. From there, Paul Coleman was strapped to a D-Box motion chair, and made to read out the pace notes at the exactly the right point in the stage.
Accurate tracks and gameplay would be nothing without similarly involving game modes though, and the Dirt team has continued to reassess its previous decisions, eschewing the superstar career of the later games with a gruelling yet rewarding championship mode and other time sensitive challenges.
“We’ve got a championship mode in there at the minute that will grow as we put more content in,” says Coleman, confirming the presence of Service Areas, an aspect that slowly disappeared from the game’s sim roots. Giving players 30 minutes to repair their car between stages, these pit-like areas return the endurance element to rallying.
Rallying is time-trial based sport, but Codemasters has still found ways to fan drivers’ competitive streaks. “We've got daily weekly and monthly challenges and these are essentially leader board challenges, so you can drive at any time that suits you and your time will get submitted to the leader board”, Coleman outlines. “The daily event is a one-off thing, so you get one go at it. We've had a WRC driver who I shan't name winning that a few times already, which is kind of cool, knowing a rally driver can get on our game and be competitive in that daily challenge. We've then got a weekly which is currently four stages but we're looking at expanding that a little bit.”
Feedback and communication with fans appears to be one of the newest and most novel aspects of Dirt Rally, and part of that comes from its release on the PC exclusive, Steam Early Access platform. After listening to the demands of fans, Codemasters has produced a tailor made game, and invited fans to continue to refine the driving experience.
"The number one advantage is the ability to listen to what people think and want from the game experience and then react to that. We've been speaking to members of the community directly, and they've given us some insight into the sort of stuff that they want. That's something I just don't think would be possible if we weren't working in early access on a PC product.”
Codemasters seems to have created the holy grail for fans of rally simulation games, but it seems at first that it’s in danger of catering to a small audience of extremely vocal, niche fans – but Coleman believes this is not at all the case. Instead, he says the key to making a good racing game is to build upon a simulation base, and then add on more accessible options later. “By having a more in-depth simulation underneath, you're not taking the possibility of doing something more Dirt 3 based away from players”, Coleman explains. “You just have to layer the stuff in on top that we always traditionally did on console to make those experiences more accessible, and actually although we're doing narrow tracks in rally, there are things we can do to the track edges – for example to soften the blow of going off the edge of the road and crashing and hitting tree your car getting written off.”
What’s more, Coleman believes that the cars themselves are actually easier to drive thanks to more realistic physics. “We've actually ended up with something that feels a lot more intuitive. Driving a rally car slowly down one of our rally stages shouldn't feel dramatically different to driving an everyday road car down one of these stages – it's driving it fast that has the challenge.”
Steam Early Access also means it’s possible for the Codemasters team to add content, much like a DLC, but Coleman is quick to differentiate the difference between a DLC and the extra content he and his team will provide to players for free. “For Dirt Rally, what you pay gets you all the content that's been released at the point at which you pay and then everything that is released ‘til the end of the early access period. So while the packs are being delivered in a DLC style, the business model behind it is very different to how we've traditionally done stuff.”
For Coleman, like much of the gaming community, DLCs have become a dirty word, associated with the perceived ripping off of gamers, and it’s something he’s keen to avoid. “I think the community has always not trusted us perhaps as much as we'd hoped they would, because they always looked at the way we delivered our DLC as almost a money grabbing exercise, and for me that was painful. As a developer I don't want to people to be looking at the work that we're doing in the studio and thinking that it's all a cynical money grabbing thing… This is about listening to what the community wants and reacting to it.”
Kicking off at the end of May, Codemasters has promised content including a semi-historic and modern version of the legendary Pikes Peak hill climb event. June sees the introduction of the fast paced tarmac of Germany, and in the following months the game should also feature Rallycross – frantic multiplayer door to door racing on dirt tracks.
After that, the fast flowing tarmac of Germany, speedy Finnish gravel stages and the icy roads of Sweden are set to arrive later in the year.
Despite its somewhat polished exterior, there is a sense that Dirt Rally is study for something much bigger, and when combined with the success of Codemasters’ officially licensed F1 game, it’s only natural to prod about a console version of the game, and one that uses the WRC license.
Rather than just welcoming the challenge of an officially licensed game, Coleman explains how a license can be a double edged sword. Unlike Project Cars which is free to explore a multitude of racing formulae, F1 2015 is bound to the F1 season, and it’s a compromise Coleman has considered. “We wanted to show a much broader spectrum of rally and the wider rally sport then perhaps the WRC would offer”, he explains. “We did have conversations with WRC along the way… I definitely don't want to say the door is closed to the WRC… But right now I think we're doing the right thing with early access, and representing a broader spectrum than perhaps the WRC would let us do.”
Coleman however is far more receptive when it comes to getting Dirt Rally on consoles. “I want really to be in the hands of as many players as possible and I'm well aware that the PC market is only a section of the wider gaming market, so ultimately I want players who invested in consoles rather than PCs to be able to experience this game first hand. Early access is the pathway or road that we're using but I think that once we get to the end of that road we can confidently be packaging and curating a console experience from the content and also from the learnings that we had on PC for our console audience… I think it's something that we should be actively looking to do.”
A curious beast of a game, Dirt Rally is one of the best examples yet of a game designed by racers for racers. Using a platform designed precisely for feedback and with a rally enthusiast at the helm, there’s no reason why Dirt Rally can’t finally give the sport the proper, scientific yet faithful approach that its fans are asking for. We can only wait and see what Dirt Rally evolves into over on Steam, but we’re hoping a more refined version will be drifting its way onto consoles as soon as possible.
Get the best gaming stories delivered straight to your inbox with the Red Bull Games newsletter.