Available on the Oculus Store today (and via an update for the existing Steam version), DiRT Rally is the latest driving game to receive a VR makeover with Oculus Rift support. Originally drifting its way onto PC in April 2015, developer Codemasters took the plunge into rally simulation for the first time. The Early Access beta, which itself was unusual for the studio, resulted in plenty of community engagement and saw some experimentation, including early VR support for the Rift DK2, hence the huge anticipation for the official release supporting the consumer Rift ‘CV1’ headset. Launching into what looks like a giant grey sphere with a tyre tread pattern, it’s a promisingly polished start.
Dirt Rally VR Details:
“Samir, you’re breaking the car!” A phrase that often runs through my head as I fail to listen to my co-driver and wrap myself around a tree. Dirt Rally is hard.
One of the ultimate driving challenges, rallying is an intoxicating sport, captured by Codemasters better than ever before. Previous titles in the series leaned heavily on the ‘arcade’ side of the fence, being pick-up-and-play, gamepad-focused affairs. While that accessibility is not totally lost, this is a much more serious attempt at reproducing an authentic rally experience. First and foremost, this is due to the overhauled physics engine, which includes a brand new tyre and surface model.
Traditional rally takes centre stage, with a straightforward career mode where you earn credits to purchase new cars, working your way through several classes of rally, including the unique Pikes Peak hillclimb event. You won’t find any Gymkhana here, but Rallycross is featured, using the official FIA licence, which makes for a compelling multiplayer component and welcome relief from the gruelling rally events.
While the depth of the handling is best enjoyed with a force-feedback wheel and pedals, don’t be discouraged if you’re stuck with a gamepad. The game still works well, with several driving assists available in the preferences menu, and you can select alternative cameras if cockpit view isn’t your thing.
The excellent set of tutorial videos explaining the importance of weight transfer and car control is the best place for newcomers to start, but no amount of preparation can save you from the inevitable. One mistake and it could be all over. Persevere, and the sense of achievement is hugely satisfying. If you just want to dip in and out, the Custom Event mode allows you to drive a quick stage in any car—a great way to showcase the game to friends without having to work your way through the career mode to unlock the best cars.
For those who want to compare themselves to the very best, the pressure of the one-shot ‘Dirt Daily’ race is a great challenge, alongside other regular online events and the league system.
Firstly the good news: the HUD-less dream is here. Circuit racing without key information provided by a head-up display is a tough sell, but in rallying—which is essentially you versus the elements—it’s not a problem. You can enable the HUD if you must, but driving a sim without a HUD and not feeling compromised is a rare treat.
All cockpit-based simulation is a natural fit for VR, but having spent countless hours in circuit-focused titles like Assetto Corsa and iRacing, the novelty of feeling like I’m really in a car is no longer as exciting as it once was. Dirt Rally offers a much-needed alternative. Rallying is one of the most raw and dangerous forms of motorsport; the demands on the car and driver are far more varied than any circuit-based discipline, and the extreme environments in which the stages take place lend themselves perfectly to immersive VR.
Heart-in-mouth moments are commonplace with the Rift. Thanks to the near-perfect representation of depth and scale, the stages come to life in a way that is simply not possible on a traditional display. Dirt Rally never got triple-monitor support right, so simply experiencing the game again with a proper field of view is a pleasure; as if I’m seeing everything with fresh eyes.
On a practical level, I can judge braking distances and place the car more accurately than ever before, and I seem to be able to read the camber of the road more naturally. Peering over the sheer drops to the side of the road highlights the madness of the classic Pikes Peak hillclimb better than one could ever describe, and the huge jumps of the Finnish stages are eye-opening to say the least. While the visuals lack the cutting-edge effects of other racing games like Project CARS and even Codemasters’ own F1 2015, Dirt Rally in VR still manages to impress due to the realism and scale of the environments. The audio deserves a special mention, being absolutely superb, and a key component in the experience.
A damn shame then, that this wonderful immersion has an Achilles heel: the animation of both driver and steering wheel. For a start, the driver animation only steers through 180 degrees, i.e. a quarter turn to the left and a quarter turn to the right. In a game where some cars have 900 degree steering locks and beyond, this doesn’t make sense unless you are totally disconnected from the cockpit experience, i.e. with a gamepad. If you’re using a wheel, your own hand and arm motions rarely line up with what you’re seeing in the headset which can be unnerving.
The game offers a ‘wheel only’ option as a potential solution, which removes the avatar body entirely and leaves the wheel, which can then rotate the correct amount. Unfortunately, it seems to be tied to a separate animation system, which not only bounces around with a significant amount of elasticity, it also runs at a lower framerate from the rest of the scene. Unlike the majority of driving sims, where the virtual wheel represents a direct, 1-to-1 input of the controller, Dirt Rally’s virtual steering wheel has a life of its own, a reminder of the series’ gamepad-focused, arcade roots. As such, I have no choice but to drive with both virtual body and steering wheel disabled, as the animation is so distracting. This was acceptable on a monitor—I always disable the arms and wheel as I can see my own—but in VR I need at least a virtual wheel as a reliable, responsive reference, and Dirt Rally fails to deliver here.
A new warning screen on startup describes ‘comfort ratings’: Comfortable, Moderate and Intense, the very same ones used by Oculus in their store. Codemasters have applied these ratings to every rally stage in the game; those with fewer bumps and elevation changes—such as the smooth asphalt of Monte Carlo—are rated Comfortable, whereas every stage in Finland is marked as Intense. An interesting idea, and useful for Custom Event mode, but if you’re going to play the career, you have to be prepared to deal with all three comfort ratings immediately. For me, any cockpit-based game is comfortable enough in VR, and Dirt Rally is no exception. The stages with massive jumps only increase the thrill, but I can appreciate that it might be tough to stomach for some; the Finnish stages can feel more like a rollercoaster than a road at times!
Dirt Rally offers five graphics presets, along with an automatic option which should select the most appropriate preset for your hardware, but it seems to be a touch ambitious. If the effects of Asynchronous Time Warp don’t really bother you, then it might not be an issue, but I only feel fully comfortable in VR when the framerate dips no lower than the recommended 90fps, particularly in driving sims. On my system (i7 4790K, GTX 980), it selected the ‘High’ preset, and this definitely does not hold 90fps consistently on the Rift. Selecting ‘Medium’ instead was much better, but at the expense of a huge drop in graphical quality, which was due to the ‘Shader Quality’ option dropping to ‘Ultra Low’. You’ll likely need to spend some time in the ‘Advanced Options’ in order to find the sweet spot for your system. It’s good to see MSAA being present and functional too. 4xMSAA is a huge win for VR image quality.
The giant tyre tread sphere with floating menu is a comfortable place to sit between races. The game wasn’t built for VR from the ground up, so anything that isn’t in a cockpit renders on a flat, floating screen in the middle of the sphere. This means the main menus, tutorial videos and replays all look correct (if not immersive); nothing is distorted or difficult to read. In the HUD menu, you can enable a few potentially nausea-inducing options, including ‘dynamic replays’, where the replays are presented in full VR rather than on a virtual screen. One essential option is ‘Vehicle Camera Motion’, which I have set to On, as it affects the cockpit movement relative to the world. I would have preferred this to be a slider, rather than a toggle.
We partnered with AVA Direct to create the Exemplar Ultimate, our high-end VR hardware reference point against which we perform our tests and reviews. Exemplar is designed to push virtual reality experiences above and beyond what’s possible with systems built to lesser recommended VR specifications.