I live for the moments in Dirt Rally when the room around me falls away; when I become conscious only of the slip of track I can see through my windscreen. It’s a game that demands intense concentration – a momentary lapse and you can clip the rough edge of a road and spin out, losing seconds that can be the difference between placing in a championship and being demoted.
In Dirt Rally, losing seconds can undo hours of progress.
Those moments where the world around Dirt slip away aren't rare: Codemasters has built a racing game in which everything is crafted to foster that single-mindedness.
There is no map in Dirt Rally. To know what’s ahead you have to read the road and listen to your co-driver. On the natural road surfaces – from mud, to gravel, to snow – you can make out the tread marks of cars that have passed through before you. Each skid hints where to turn, when to brake, when to accelerate. As you learn the game, you also learn to look for those indicators.
On ice particularly, but other surfaces also, the skid marks aren’t just a signpost, they’re also a threat. If you don’t line your wheels up with them then your car won’t grip, it will slip on the fresh, smooth top layer, wasting time in a racing game where a lost second is the difference between first and second place. To pick out these dangerous signposts you have to focus your attention on road ahead. As you stare intently on the road ahead you lose sight of the periphery of your screen.
Your co-driver is your navigator. He announces every turn, every obstacle, every camber in the road. It takes a while to decipher the meaning of his coded calls, strings of commands like “Square left into right four bad camber don’t cut and left six over crest”, but it’s a vocal map of the route beyond the blind turns in the road ahead.
“Be brave,” is one of the few uncoded commands. To edge up the leaderboards you have to be brave, committing to speeds around blind corners and turn apexes based purely on his instruction. Never is this more the case than driving on night tracks in the thick of a snowfall. You can’t see more than five metres ahead of your headlights but to make a competitive time you have to drive fast. Far faster than the indicators you can see will allow. You suppress the sounds outside of the game so you can better focus on his voice: forcing all the sounds of the world outside the game drop away.
Hardest to convey outside of playing the game is the physical sensation of the cars and how they react to different the road surfaces.
I’ve never actually driven a Lancia Stratos but I know it as well as, better even than the car I learned to drive in. When racing down the icy mountain roads of Monte Carlo I can tell the moment my back wheels hit a patch of ice by the way my controller kicks. When taking an acute turn on the gravelly tracks of Powys, Wales, I can tell the from the way the car’s slide slows that enough virtual gravel has built under my wheels to support my acceleration out of the turn. When I speed over a crest and all four wheels lift I can sense the impact of landing back on the road and whether I need to break to keep steady on the track or if I can accelerate the car into a straight line. This palpable physicality comes only after hours of racing but it's the most bizarre sensation: having a feeling of size, weight, and balance for a complex virtual object.
All these separate elements are perfectly tuned to focus the player. I’ve never played a racing game that’s held such sway over my senses. It's easily the best Codemasters game I've played, maybe the best racing game I've played.
As we close out 2015, Keza and Jules are highlighting a few of their favourite games of 2015.