Dirt Rally was a gamble from a studio that made a name for itself mixing arcade racing with some sort of semi-realism in the Colin McRae titles and onwards. Dirt Rally was, minus the slightly "floaty" asphalt physics, a truly challenging, hardcore rally simulator that catered to a very limited group of fanatics. But Dirt Rally became something more. The simulator subgenre has grown over the last five years and Codemasters released Dirt Rally at just the right time. The fans devoured it and it even managed to reach a casual audience. Something that rarely happens in this particular genre.
Then, Dirt 4 was released, which according to Codemasters themselves would be the bridge between Dirt and Dirt Rally. However, the focus puzzled many when the game, like most previous titles from the people behind the Colin McRae, the Toca, and the Grid franchises, did not seem to know what type of racing game it really wanted to be. Not arcade racing like Dirt 3. Not sim racing like Dirt Rally. Something weird, in between. Something that is also sometimes the case with Dirt Rally 2.0, unfortunately. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Let's start from the beginning. And much like Loeb's driving during the past weekend's Swedish rally, this one starts pretty shaky and continues along in the same fashion.
Dirt Rally was relatively light in terms of pure content when it was first released in early 2015. Quite a few stages were included in the game and it was very clear that a smaller team than usual had been creating the game as more of a side project. The various stages and destinations, however, were well-made and everything was about mastering the cars and the realistic tire physics that the game offered, and it did not matter all that much that it felt a little empty. Not to us, at least. Not four long years ago. The United States, Poland, and New Zealand are the new countries that have been added to this sequel while, for example, Monte-Carlo, Greece, Finland, and Sweden (some of the most iconic rally locations) are missing. This has to do with Codemasters being smart by recycling some material from Dirt 4, which is noticeable. Most of the new stages are taken from Dirt 4 with somewhat redesigned graphics.
What bothers us most about the stages in the actual rally section of Dirt Rally 2.0 is that Codemasters has some problems with finding the same type of variation and flow compared to real-world stages in WRC, even thugh some of them in fact are based (just like in the first game) on real world stages, not just the WRC-ones. Compared to the stages in WRC 7 it's easy to tell the difference. Codemasters new content in Dirt Rally 2.0 is as good as the versions that Kylotonn Games so carefully re-created in their underappreciated gem of a game, even if there are some great ones here.
For example, we feel that the New Zealand and US stages in Dirt Rally 2.0 are too slow in terms of sense of speed, this due to the narrowness and the sheer amount of hard corners they feature. It just feels like we're driving with the handbrake fully activated in many of these stages, trying to navigate the car around bends made for a golf cart.
One of the talking points in the marketing of this game has been the weather and the fact that the routes change while driving on them, creating a more realistic type of racing. This is not really true. It sounds really good on paper, though. The weather effects are, as you'd expect, neatly designed from a graphical standpoint (although the rain-covered mud during the New Zealand stages looks more like liquid metal) but don't really add any more challenge thanks to the added "realism". It doesn't really mask the fact that there's not enough new content in this game.
Regarding car physics, Codemasters has not changed much from the first game. The tyres have a little less grip this time, generally speaking. Slightly less bite towards the ground means that the cars slide a little more, which compared to real-world rally and how it primarily works with today's technology does not really rhyme with "increased realism". However, there were parts of the predecessor that absolutely felt a little too "grippy" given how friction works on, for example, fine gravel. Codemasters have used parts of Dirt 4 here and that's exactly the parts of this sequel that we don't like all that much. It feels to some extent as if the car steers with the rear wheels which makes us more unsteady and a little more nervous when we drive into a long, easy corner than what was the case with Dirt Rally. The problem with the car handling that feels as if it floats a little above the ground when driving on asphalt also remains and strangely feels more problematic here than in the first game.
As for the car selection, the studio has put in more cars, more classic veteran cars, and a whole lot of new (official) rallycross cars and sprinkled with the type of cars that Dirt 4 was full of, unfortunately. Here are Aston Martins, Mustangs, Camaros (not Corvettes as originally stated), and other sports cars/muscle cars that feel very out of place in a game like this. We wish Codemasters had instead focused appropriate additions, more real rally cars. The rallycross section has taken an even greater role here and considering we only really play these two games for the sake of the traditional rally experience, this is also something that we look upon as a negative shift.
Graphically, it has been polished and looks really nice minus some rain effects and the Forza Horizon-inspired arcade racing HUD. This also applies to the highly experienced rally veteran Phil Mills (who was the co-driver for Petter Solberg for many years and participated in and won several championships) whose map notes are mostly reminiscent of those from a calm and collected accountant. The notes never sound as if they were coming from the inside of a loud rally car without insulation, but more like they were actually recorded in a warm, quiet, calm studio without any sense of urgency.
The fact that Dirt Rally 2.0 does not come across as extremely beautiful, truly realistic, varied, or that Sweden, Finland, Greece, and Monte Carlo are completely missing - means we cannot help but call this a disappointment even if it's still pretty good in the grand scheme of things. The support for our steering wheel (Thrustmaster Sparco 310) is just plain bad and seems to misread the inputs and turn-angle and doesn't provide feedback and weak force feedback. There is also isn't any VR support in Dirt Rally 2.0. That said, we're confident some of these technical issues will be fixed later this year.
It's still really fun driving the 18-year-old WRX STi in Poland and hear the skillfully mapped gravel sounds against the undercarriage, and the physics are really good for the most part, but given that Codemasters had almost four years to build on the first game, we can't help but feel just a little bit disappointed.