Dirt Rally 2.0 Hands-on Preview: Devilishly Difficult, Delightfully Detailed

We went behind the wheel with the stunning Dirt Rally 2.0, and it was a tough but enjoyable ride...

Dirt Rally 2.0 Preview

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

On a chilly day in January, Den of Geek traveled to a real-life dirt track in Wales to check out Codemasters’ upcoming driving game Dirt Rally 2.0 in the most appropriate setting possible.

This is the 13th title in the series that began in 1998 with Colin McRae Rally for PlayStation and PC, and this new one comes hot on the heels of 2015’s very positively reviewed Dirt Rally. So, this year’s Dirt Rally 2.0 is following in the tread-trails of some beloved titles and it is bound to come under close scrutiny from long-time fans of the franchise.

As we settled down to try out the new game, which is due for release on Feb. 26, 2019, it became immediately obvious that the graphics have taken another impressive leap forward here. The cars look divinely detailed as you pick them from the menu, and the tracks are absolutely tantalizing. The pre-release build offered a variety of modes, including Historic, WRX Championship, Custom (which lets you mash together different stages into a race of your own invention), and Time Trial, and we spent a fair bit of time with each of these options.

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Firstly, we checked out some of the Historic content on a PlayStation 4. We set AI Performance to the recommended 70/100 and left hardcore damage switched off, before setting off on a variety of gorgeous rural tracks. The level of detail in the tracks was incredibly impressive from the off, with one particular feature catching our eye the most: depending on how many other racers have tested out the track before you, the surface will degrade accordingly. If you’re going first, it’ll be pristine, almost to a fault. But if you’re way back in the pack, there will be mud flying everywhere and your maneuverability will be significantly compromised. Being somewhere in the front-to-middle of the running order seems to be the sweet spot.

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In terms of actually controlling your vehicle, though, other important sweet spots can be very hard to find in Dirt Rally 2.0. Even after having gone out on a real dirt track to get the basics of skidding and cornering in an actual car, we found that staying in control behind the wheel in the game itself can be devilishly difficult. This isn’t a simple case of braking on the corners and holding down the R2 button for the rest of the time.

Although the controls feel fairly standard, that sort of route one approach will see you smashing into sides, spinning out of control, and flipping through the air until you eventually see TERMINAL DAMAGE splayed across your screen. Even if you have the gear-changes set to auto, you’ll want to control your speed and your braking very carefully at all times. This is a game that rewards cautious drivers, especially ones that can interpret the instructions of their NPC copilots and determine the perfect moments to pick up the pace.

Even on the slicker, less grubby tracks of the WRX mode, spamming the accelerator is a tactic that simply doesn’t pay off. It’s just as easy (if not easier, thanks to the omnipresence of your rival drivers) to lose control in this mode, and you still need to keep a keen eye on what’s ahead.

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This is, after all, a game that loves to put you on the wrong foot. It zigs when you thought the track would zag, and there are also “Joker” diversion segments on certain locations. These Joker bits add some extra distance to your lap, but the game punishes you if you don’t take the Joker route when it tells you to. Similarly, cutting corners does not go unnoticed. This game punishes you whenever it can, forcing players to put silly habits (such as smashing into your nearest rival) aside and genuinely focus on their handling and acceleration.

There are lots of things to think about, then, which can create a fair bit of stress when split-second decisions can send you spinning out of control and down the leaderboard. It doesn’t help that the smallest bit of damage, in the name of realism, can make your vehicle a lot less easy to drive. Once you’ve lost a decent spot, it’s very difficult to climb that leaderboard again. In fact, restarting a race from scratch once you’ve crashed a couple of times seemed to be a popular tactic among my peers.

Certainly, it’ll take a lot of hours (as many as 100, I heard it suggested) before inexperienced players will begin to feel truly confident with Dirt Rally 2.0. We also had a chance to play the game in a racing chair with a gaming steering wheel, which threw up some interesting additions. It was particularly helpful, as the wheel spun around with a mind of its own, to know that control had well and truly been lost.

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In moments like this, we just have to wait for the car to calm down. This isn’t always an obvious choice to make when you’re playing with a normal DualShock controller, which makes it seem like a full-on set up with loads of snazzy gear could make this game a bit easier. Suffice it to say, that when all the journalists came together for a time trial contest at the end of the day, the stress levels were high and my leaderboard position was not.

This is a game that wants you to feel like a pro driver, but, just like in real life, you won’t get to those heady heights and podium positions without putting in the work. Over the course of the day, thankfully, there were moments when it started to click together. Glorious times when I felt in sync with my car and on course for a top spot.

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It must be said, though, that there were far more moments when all I could do was marvel at the impressive graphics – the single grains of dirt, the tiny scratches in the paintwork, the stunning vistas – as I trundled off the road or flew through the sky in a violent fashion.

“Who said that journalists can’t play games?” asked one onlooker, back-seat driving like a pro, as I desperately attempted to complete a Historic course in a thoroughly bashed-up banger. Maybe restarting once you’ve crashed and burned isn’t such a bad idea after all…

Dirt Rally 2.0 releases for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Feb. 26 2019.