Rally, Dirt and Mud on Linux


Hey, here’s another game genre that gets some kind of revival! Rally games used to be plentiful in my days (Sega Rally in arcades… and on consoles, remember V-Rally, Colin McRae Rally on PS1 ?? Gran Turismo 2 even had a -piss poor- rally mode) yet these days they have almost become extinct. The dinosaurs of another by-gone era. In an age where there’s few developers who care about Rally, the real question is not simply if Dirt Rally is the best rally game available, rather if that’s a good rally game at all. On Linux, that’s the only Rally game you are likely to be able to purchase anyway (at least for a while), unless you want to get into WINE business.


Rally is particularly difficult to get right. The other car simulators where you roam on perfect roads and freshly painted asphalt, are easy in comparison: the physics are well-known, established, proven. Popular circuits have already been mapped to the centimeter many times over. Most serious simulators have been getting the driving right for decades now, it’s hardly surprising anymore. How such games compete these days is rather on the branded cars offering, the choice of circuits you can race on, and customization.

Rally, on the other hand… is much more tricky. It’s still a research field, an ongoing experiment, with empirical answers at best.

It is because it’s as close to real driving as you can get. The basis for such races is imperfect, countryside roads. The kind of roads average Joes drive on everyday on their way to work. The more treacherous curves and blind spots the better. Picture them narrow, bumpy, in poor condition. And your business is not about driving laps around the same circuit like a drone. From start to end, this is never going to be the same curve or the same hill you go though. Because of that complexity, you cannot anticipate what is coming next, and you need a copilot to give you constant heads up as to what is just around the corner. The combination of extreme speed and hostile roads gives drivers very little margin of error. Collisions and mistakes are not an exception, they are pretty common and about every driver finds their limit sooner or later. Add to that unpredictable weather (rain, wind, snow) and in a nutshell you get a real challenge if you are behind the wheel.


So let’s get something clearly out of the way. Most Rally games are NOT realistic. This is not a criticism. It’s just too hard to get all aspects of Rally right. In all fairness you would need a supercomputer to accurately simulate how your car reacts when your wheels are turning on gravel. Rally games use a bunch of models to give you a feeling of how your car would approximately behave in certain conditions, and that’s what you are working with. There are always some very specific aspects a particular rally game excels at. And naturally, others where they lack. Dirt Rally is no exception, while it certainly does get a number of things right.

First, graphics are pretty great in general. While never at the level of being photo-realistic, the landscapes in Greece, Germany, and Monaco are pretty much spot on and look gorgeous especially in replays when you can see far, far away.


The drawing distance is quite amazing, it’s hard to see where the 3D environment actually ends. At the road level details there are numerous details around you, on the side of the road. Forests are not completely there yet (tree density is still a bit too low, and too many trees look like they are cloned) but it’s getting really close to look like the real thing. The most disappointing thing is the spectators, who are pretty much stuck on their looping animations, not reacting much to what is happening. We will come back a little later on that.


Cars are also well rendered, with progressive damage and dirt as you go through gravel, mud and the like. Damage impacts how you drive as well, it’s not just a cosmetic trick. There are even mods to make damage more realistic (and even less forgiving) but honestly the game is already hard enough as it is. There were several times where I punctured my tires.


The driving is at the same time great and… problematic. Look around for reviews about the game and you will probably see everywhere that “this is the most realistic racing game evaaaaaaar” but I guess this is really a matter of point of view. I can’t say that I have tried all the different cars in the game, so I can only talk of a sample of 4 cars that I tested for several hours - all from the 60s and 70s era, since you start the game with older vehicles.

Rally games tend to strike a balance between two aspects of driving:

  • Encourage you to go as fast as possible onto narrow stripes of road
  • Throw you off the road when you make mistakes

In Dirt Rally, I feel the second aspect is a little off-balance. I started with a Renault Alpine from the 60s, and I was stunned by how hard it was to even stay on the road once you reach non-standard surfaces. Even at relatively low speeds, on an uneven road you are thrown off track even now and then. You can certainly adjust the bumpers but the default settings feel really, really inappropriate. Even with another car, the Ford Escort, the tendency to lose control in curves was, I think, exaggerated. And once you get in stages with a bit of snow on the road, well it’s totally game over. It’s one spin after the next.


I think there are several factors at play that interfere in my experience of Dirt Rally:

  • Playing with a controller
  • My brain being too used to non-rally racing games physics
  • Controller sensitivity settings
  • Car settings that influence grip and bumpiness
  • The game’s car physics

So, I don’t want to blame the game as the only factor here. I am pretty sure that if I spend more time to try and tweak things around, I will find proper settings that work for me that don’t seem completely off. But as far as default settings go, they are imperfect to say the least. Compared to other rally games I have played before (the Colin McRae series, or even Richard Burns Rally), Dirt Rally is much harder to pick up and play. I have also realized that, while I could fight with the controller to make it work for this game, Dirt: Rally would probably shine with a proper wheel instead. Drifting and Spinning could be way more easily avoided with precise, minute steering and proper pedals for acceleration and brakes. I don’t own a wheel at the time, but it’s certainly one more factor to consider buying one now. There are impressive videos on youtube of folks driving at incredible speed with such wheels, as you can see below.

The same kind of precision cannot be reached with a gamepad. I know that my driving sucks, but you can see below what happens when I try to drive a Lancia Stratos. Yeah, it’s as hard as it seems.

Just to compare, With a Ford, in the Germany season, it was much easier and much better to stay in control of the car.

Note that the workshop is full of user-created car settings that supposedly should make it easier to drive in certain environments, so there is always that. You can of course create your own setups, using a bunch of sliders for the different attributes of your car. That’s just a single screen. It feels very unpolished compared to what other simulators usually have - there is no visualization of how the changes impact your car, and the only way you can get a feel for what you did is to enter the shakedown mode at the start of an event to get a sample of the race and try your new settings out.


Collisions are very much hit and miss. And that’s pretty bad, since they can have a huge impact on how the race turns out. A bad hit will make you lose a good amount of time, damage your car, and a bad hit with the wrong angle will send you flying in barrel rolls - in the worst case you will destroy your car completely, and you will be disqualified for that event - making it much less likely you can even “win” in that season. Sometimes barrel rolls feel deserved, but there’s a HUGE problem with physics, when your car does like 10 rolls on itself after hitting something at non-crazy speeds.


It’s like the car has the weight of a shoe box or something. And you still get the nonsensical case of signs-are-stronger-than-your-car-at-100mph once in a while (thankfully that’s not the case with the most simple elements like fence posts). To be honest there are very few games out there doing a proper job at this, except **Flatout **(much more arcady, but with actual environment destruction and interaction). Going completely off track because of an accident will get you a 15 seconds penalty, on top of the time you wasted - usually this means you can never get back to the first spot for that event. More problematic is the case of going off-road, then being stuck in an awkward spot (your wheels having no traction anymore) and then it’s obvious you can’t do anything, yet the game can take another 5 seconds or so before giving you the option of “recovering your car”. That’s like getting a triple-penalty in effect, and that aspect should clearly be improved. And you can forget about rewinding a few seconds back to take that turn again. In Dirt Rally, you have to take responsibility for all of your mistakes. The closest thing you can do is restart an event, but that takes 1000 Credits from your bank every time. I have to admit, I am glad they took that approach of being unforgiving, because that’s what Rally is all about - but there are certain cases where things feel a bit unfair. Damage carries over to the next event in the season, and you only get to repair your car somewhat only once in mid-season (i.e. after 2 races), for a duration of 30 minutes of repair at the most. This is where the game’s mechanics of team management kicks in. As you gain experience you can hire more crew members in your support team, such as engineers who have specific skills when it comes to particular parts (brakes, gearbox, etc…). This will affect how much and how well they can repair each part after you accumulate damage. I don’t feel this addition was particularly useful - it feels like yet another way to make you grind in the game, as hiring better engineers cost more credits.


Coming back on the driving experience, there’s a good amount of environmental feedback when your car moves around. Be it the engine or how your wheels interact with the ground. You can usually hear it when you are a little too close to the side and need to adjust your trajectory. Same thing goes for damages, they impact how your engine sounds and you will feel that something is wrong. It’s pretty good, while all a little too quiet. You can see it the replays. If you have ever seen any actual rally event live, or even on TV, you will see that Dirt Rally does not feel loud enough. In a real event, when a car comes around accelerating, you just can’t hear anything else - it’s deafening! Sound is actually half the fun of watching a rally event (the other half is seeing the drifts and crashes): just hearing engines roar like mad is an exhilarating experience for the driver and for spectators.

Talking about spectators, I feel there are way too few of them scattered around, and they tend to be always in the same position, standing. And they don’t do anything, immobile. Rally spectators actually can be a lot more crazy than that, jumping in front of one car to take a picture (Richard Buns Rally actually had that!) or being WAY too close to the curve where cars are supposed to land. And I’m not even talking about the craziest ones who have a death wish or something.


But in all fairness, in some spots in each event there should be crowds of them.


This is often the cause for injuries and fatalities in Rally events, and Dirt Rally only offers a black screen when you happen to run over someone who was super far away from the road in the first place. It’s a shame they treat spectators like trees or something. It did not have to go to the extreme of a Flatout or Carmageddon using humans as targets, but accidents could have shown what happens to spectators hit by a car (using rag dolls physics) to show how dangerous a car actually is. And even if you don’t want to go that far, simply having spectators taking their distance when your car comes in too close, would be a great addition. That’s basically what you see anyway on TV when such close-calls are filmed.


One additional thing that always bothers me in Rally games. You pretty much see only yourself driving, and competitors are nothing but names on a list with times attached to them. Can’t we do a little better? In actual Rally events, you are actually racing one after the other, with some lapse of time in between, and whenever the car ahead has an accident, you end up overtaking them, just like in the example below from the Lyon-Charbonnieres Rally event.


That would be a great addition to make the other drivers look real and tangible. Too bad we still do not see that kind of happenstance in games these days. It would not even have to happen every single time, but if it occurred in, let’s say, one of every ten races or so, you would think that developers have really thought of everything. Or maybe we should be content that games remain games and do not try to mimic real racing events? There are pros and cons, and it’s all a matter of developer time in the end, but I am a big believer that details matter, even if they are barely noticeable. The driving experience is a huge part of it feeling real, but there are a bunch of other things that do matter.

For example, why did they even include Rallycross-style events is beyond me. Such events bring very little to the game, end up being kind of boring. If you actually like this kind of thing, there’s actually already a game for that, it’s called Dirt: Showdown, and it’s on Linux too. It really was not necessary.

It’s too bad they spent so much time on Rallycross while they could have worked on many other things, including the multiplayer aspect. Right now the multiplayer scope is fairly limited, with only so many events you can choose from (not as many as single-player career mode) and that’s basically Rallycross again. The other online mode is having daily challenges on particular tracks, and global leader boards. There are also leagues where you can add your friends, and compete within that group of people. All in all, the multiplayer game modes do not feel very original nor very exciting.


So, what do i think about Dirt: Rally ? It’s certainly an impressive game all things considered. It feels a bit raw in some ways (there is a great selection of cars, but not so much to do apart from the career), the environments are great, it feels well designed and the driving is certainly… challenging, that’s the least I can say, especially with a controller. Is this the best rally game ever ? Well, in modern gaming history, there’s probably very little that can compete with it. It’s certainly closer to a simulator than anything else, and that may or may not be fun depending on where you come from, and how much you are willing to invest in time to master it.

Did I forget to mention the quality of the port? Well, you guessed why if you reached that far - I have been focusing on the game and not on the port, because there is nothing wrong about the port. In fact, on my hardware (i5 3.4 Ghz, GTX970, 8GB RAM) it runs beautifully, most of the time at a very steady 60fps rate in 1080p in Ultra details. The only time where my framerate drops visibly is in Rallycross challenges - when there’s a lot of dust flying around because of the other cars racing along you. In typical solo, career mode, such dips in FPS never happen. No crashes, no particular issues. My Steam Controller was detected and properly mapped by default. It’s flawless as far as I can tell. Feral did a very good job once again, and even in the private beta leading to the release it was pretty much in that state - my guess is that they have been working on it for a long time, as it feels very polished. While I don’t have a wheel, Feral is apparently supporting most typical ones (SDL2 compatibility) even with force feedback, so you should be in for a treat if you have such peripheral.

In any case, this is a great addition to the Linux games library. We need more titles like that, and car simulators are always welcome. Codemasters is apparently planning to release Dirt 4 in June 2017, so if we are lucky we may get a port at some point as well. I guess Feral is aware.

Note: All videos and screenshots related to Dirt: Rally in this article are captured from the Linux game (except the crazy multi screen setup). The videos were captured with OBS with NVENC, and while they are visually representative of the actual game on Linux, actual framerate is higher when OBS is not recording.