Dirt Rally Is a formidable thrillride, even better on console

We go hands-on with the PS4 and Xbox One versions of Codemasters' hit PC rally sim.

It's quite daunting sitting in front of Dirt Rally. At the outset, I was concerned about how the game would look and feel if ported to PS4 and Xbox One. As I started playing, such concerns were quickly overtaken by embarrassment at my ability. For those expecting any kind of easier ride than the PC version, or some kind of lowered difficulty for the more casual market, you're out of luck.

That's not a bad thing, though. Right now, when it comes to racing titles, the industry is more fixated on decidedly arcade-style pursuits. DriveClub and Forza Horizon are the best examples of this, and although simulations such as Project Cars and Forza Motorsport offer racing simulations for consoles, they lack a certain character.

Dirt as a series has always tried to balance race sim mechanics with arcade hijinks, but Dirt Rally Scandinavian flicks into the fun, slamming you into the precise steering correction that's needed from a seasoned player, throwing you out of a corner at the best speed possible while a wave pride runs through you.

Being cocky, I approached Dirt Rally by playing with a steering wheel. An automatic gearbox setting was the default selection, so I was in a full squirt-and-go mindset, and quite rightly, I was mercilessly punished by the game for not tempering my steering to my overexuberant acceleration and erratic braking. I repented by switching to the DualShock 4 pad, which gave me a much better idea of how the cars handled. This is no accident.

PC gamers tend to be a dedicated bunch, and Dirt's community has been vocal and helpful in perfecting the game's controls with their feedback. That has helped the transition to console as well. "It's safe to say that our force feedback is the best it's been on any of the games that we've ever made," the game's designer, Paul Coleman, told me.

"I think the new controllers the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have introduced are huge improvements on their predecessors, and they give the player a lot more fidelity. And that kind of haptic feedback that they offer is really important to us."

It's not an empty boast, either. Both console controllers can accurately tell you where your driving is going wrong with this improved haptic feedback, even more so than the PC version in some cases. You can tell which part of your car is losing its grip by the way the motors are vibrating in your pad, and in the case of the Xbox One, the triggers can give you feedback on wheelspin and brake lock-ups, the latter being something that Codemasters was unable to implement with the PC build.

After getting to grips with the pad, I returned to the wheel and got a bit daring, switching my gear changes from automatic to manual sequential. It worked. Being able to play with the throttle without the game automatically changing the gears up and down gave me much better control of the car -- especially in how I was taking corners -- and provided a smoother, more rapid response to sliding and drifting. I wasn't winning any marks for the fastest runs, but I wasn't barrel-rolling into a bank of trees or incurring penalties with multiple puncture repairs either. So I consider that a marked improvement.

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Codemasters

Another key test for Dirt Rally's transition to consoles is in how the game looks. For racing games in particular, advanced players need smoothness and reliability to be able to react to what's in front of them. You need to be able to tell how fast you're going and will often see the accident you're about to have a good few hundred meters or a few corners before it happens. Dirt Rally's graphical fidelity and consistent frame rate are key to this experience.

The game is aiming for 60fps on both consoles with a 1080p resolution on PS4, and a 1080p dynamic resolution on the Xbox One that will sometimes shift to 900p to keep the frame rate stable. From what I saw, it definitely keeps to that 60fps rate across the board, which is essential when hurtling between the trees and dangling off the side of a cliff at breakneck speed. Coleman says he's actually quite thankful that the consoles have aided this optimisation compared with the complexities of catering for various PC builds.

"We've had more console experience than we've had PC, and the biggest challenge we had in [Steam] Early Access was getting to grips with the fact that everyone playing at home was playing on a slightly different machine," he explained.

"So going back to consoles has given us a bit of a respite, as we've been able to be very confident that everyone's playing on the same machine and they're getting the same experience. That allows us to zero in on some of the performance stuff."

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Codemasters says Dirt Rally runs at 1080p60 on both PS4 and Xbox One, though on the latter system it sometimes drops to 900p to keep the frame rate up.

Codemasters

The outcome is a game that's currently faster and smoother than most of its market contemporaries, much more unforgiving in its realistic handling and course design, and an experience that makes you want to get better at tackling its nuances rather than hiring an Uber.

There are two types of racing games; those that give you rewards on a plate and those that demand you learn the fundamentals. Dirt Rally is most definitely the latter, but at the same time, it doesn't want you to forget the joys of the former.

Rarely is there an escapism as exhilarating as hurtling down a snow-laden track, pulling your handbrake, and hanging on for dear life as you opposite lock your steering. PC users have had access to this since last April and have helped the development of this game during Early Access, with Codemasters acting on some of the feedback it has received. That process of fine-tuning continue, with Codemasters taking its time to build a console version that is just as delicate, tricky and rewarding as its desktop counterpart.

Dirt Rally Ships on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One from April 5.

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