Codemasters' DiRT franchise, which has roots in its historic Colin McRae series, has gone through a few changes. It's swerved between flashy, casual-friendly racing and straight-laced, hardcore simulation a couple of times now, and with the release of DiRT Rally 2.0, we're back on the latter. The last game, DiRT 4, took the foundations of the brilliant rally sim that came before it and bolted on a host of features to lower the barrier to entry, but all that has been ripped out, leaving us once again with a no-frills, high intensity racer.
And man, intense is the word. Fans of the original DiRT Rally needn't worry -- the sequel recaptures the thrilling point-to-point action the first game established, and it's as excellent as ever. Careening along twisting dirt roads, always a hair's breadth away from catastrophe, will shred your nerves to ribbons. The knife-edge action the sim is known for is back in fine form here.
In fact, so hardcore is the game that tutorials are nowhere to be seen. This is one incredibly lean package; there are numerous modes of play, but there's no fluff whatsoever. Once you've created your profile, you're left to discover what the game has to offer, with little explanation. This is a game primarily aimed at fans of the previous DiRT Rally, so the lack of hand-holding makes some sense, but it could be off-putting for newcomers.
You get the sense that Codemasters isn't messing around; almost all assists are turned off by default, throwing you straight in at the deep end. Luckily, the handling is on point. Once you've got a feel for it, you'll never want to turn on any of the driving aids. They're there if you need them though, and enabling them does reduce the difficulty of throwing around your car of choice, but either way, DiRT Rally 2.0 is no pushover.
It puts equal emphasis on rally and Rallycross, which is officially licensed again for this outing. Both are well executed, but the A to B rallying is the star of the show. Racing through (mostly) off-road courses as fast as possible is nail-biting stuff, because one false move can ruin your entire run. You need to master your car's handling - they all feel unique - and listen to your co-driver's calls to stand a chance at getting on the podium -- or even just make it to the finish in one piece.
Between stages, you'll also need to think about the state of the vehicle and its tyres. You can make repairs within a limited amount of time, and swap your worn tyres for new ones, or opt for a different type to suit the conditions. It's a simple yet effective strategic wrinkle to proceedings that'll have you weighing up whether to mend your dodgy radiator or the off-kilter wheel calibration. You can tinker with your cars outside of events too, with simple upgrades to buy and in-depth fine tuning that allows you to fundamentally change a vehicle's behaviour.
Repairs and upgrades also apply to your Rallycross cars. This closed circuit take on rally has become a mainstay of the series, and it's a fun alternative to the twitchy point-to-point races. Though the handling can be just as unforgiving in Rallycross, you're still able to throw your weight around a bit more, making these cars a lot of fun to drive. In a sport that has you racing the same course over and over again to qualify, that certainly helps.
The two career modes are where you'll earn most of your credits, which you'll need to purchase new cars and upgrades as well as hire and train crew members. Upgrading your team can have knock on effects too, with benefits like reducing the time taken to make certain repairs, or lowering the time penalty when you have to reset after sliding off the track.
There are plenty of other ways to play outside of the careers, of course. Daily and weekly events are always on the go, paying out decent prize money if you do well. Then there's Freeplay, which houses a raft of other game modes. You can drive iconic rally vehicles in the Historic events, or choose a Rallycross driver and lead them to victory in the FIA World Rallycross Championship. You also have time trials, and the option to create your own events and play online. Sadly, DiRT 4's randomly generated stages are missing, but there are plenty of rally courses to master across six locations, and more on the way as Codies promises lots of post-launch content.
It's a comprehensive package, and as you'd expect, it's presented wonderfully to boot. Visually the game looks decent, with well-modelled cars and environments that look the part, even if they aren't always incredibly detailed. Still, it's hard to argue with the rock solid performance -- we didn't notice a single dropped frame, which is a great strength for such a fast, twitchy game. The sound is similarly impressive; engines are suitably aggressive, and clever audio cues can provide feedback on your car's condition and the surface beneath you.
Following on from its predecessor, DiRT Rally 2.0 is the pinnacle of rally on PlayStation 4. The simulation handling is brutal, but a lot of fun to learn and brilliantly satisfying to conquer. The raw driving experience is highly intense as you travel at insane speeds, always verging on disaster. While it's missing some of the more casual-friendly features of DiRT 4, the suite of modes and options will keep any rally fan going for a long time. Even if the sim label puts you off, we'd encourage you to take this for a test drive; it's easily one of the most thrilling racing games in recent years.