“Left six over jump (maybe), 100. Right six through dip, 80. Caution left five over jump, 60. Left three, half-long, 100. Left four, continues past junction, opens. And Left five. Right four, tightens to three into immediate turn square right, don’t cut!”
If you have no idea what that means, don’t worry. I didn’t either. The moment the countdown finished and the race began, I was being bombarded with these strange, incomprehensible commands that were supposed to guide me through the path ahead at breakneck speeds. Needless to say, I died a horrible death at least a dozen times before I completed my first rally stage.
Racing in Dirt Rally isn’t like any other racing game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of them. Admittedly, my time with the Dirt series has been limited, and I’ve never so much as completed a stage in the spiritual predecessor of Dirt Rally, Colin McRae Rally, so I may have just been missing out. Ripping up a mountain as fast as you can is a frightening experience in VR. Going over the cliff was almost too much to handle, but when you get it right, the rush is incredible.
The first time that I misjudged my braking point and ran right past a hairpin corner off the edge of a cliff, I burst out into hysterical laughter. I’m pretty sure the laughter was a reaction to my mind realizing that I didn’t just die a horrible death. Going over the edge was a powerful experience.
Jokes about crashing aside, Dirt Rally VR proved to be one of the most enjoyable racing games I’ve ever played and one of the best VR games in general.
Learning your co-pilot’s lingo is the key to not repeatedly traumatizing yourself like I did. If you know what your partner is saying to you, you’ll be much more prepared for the obstacles that lie ahead, and you’ll be far less likely to go careening off the edge. It takes some time to get used to the calls, but once you figure out what some of it means, you’ll notice that you spend a lot more time on the right path and a lot less time in the bushes, ditches and tumbling down the mountainside.
I’ll give you a few hints. "One" through "six" represent how serious the bend ahead is. The higher the value, the less aggressive the turn will be. Some commands are easy to figure out: "Jump, maybe" means be prepared for a jump, but if you’re not moving fast enough, you won’t jump. It’s a helpful indicator to tell if you’re keeping up with the pace that you should be. "Caution" means there’s an obstacle around the bend that you really want to avoid hitting, such as a crowd of people spectating. The final number, usually "60," "80" or "100," represents the distance in meters to the next obstacle.
Navigating The Menus
There’s a lot to consider when building a game for VR, especially if the game is being ported from a 2D screen experience. It may not be obvious if you’ve never tried VR, but how the menu navigation is set up makes a huge difference for VR games. Codemasters was smart about how it handled pre-race menu navigation. Instead of rebuilding the menu system from the ground up and stripping the cut scenes out, the developer incorporated a form of theater mode for every part of the game that isn’t actually racing. If you’re changing a setting (outside of the pause screen), selecting a championship, or watching a pre-rendered cut scene, you will find yourself in a strange gray sphere with the game window hovering in front of your face.
When a race begins, you’ll find yourself sitting inside the cockpit of your car in the first person.
Dirt Rally started off as a game for traditional screens. Before it’s launch, Codemasters said that Dirt Rally would feature VR support, but when the game launched in early access last year, there were no VR HMDs on the market. You could get the game to work on a Rift DK2 for a time, but official Rift support was added just a couple weeks ago. Because the game was built to run on 2D screens, the graphics settings can get quite high. Don’t expect to be running maxed-out settings in VR anytime soon.
We performed our tests on a PC with an Intel Core i5-4570K and 16GB of DDR3 RAM. We tested a small selection of graphics cards, including a Gigabyte GTX 970 G1 Gaming, a Gigabyte GTX 980 Ti Xtreme Gaming, and a Gigabyte GTX 1080 G1 Gaming. We also ran tests with a Sapphire R9 390 Nitro and an XFX R9 Fury. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a GTX 1060, RX 480 or R9 Fury X in this lab for comparison.
Per Oculus' standards, Dirt Rally VR will run on a minimum-spec VR machine, but you will have to settle for “Ultra Low” graphics details to do to that. For the “Ultra Low” preset, virtually every modern visual enhancement is turned down to the minimum, if not disabled. The result is terrain devoid of any kind of details. The ground is a bland washed-out texture, trees can barely be considered 3D, and when you’re barreling through the forest, it’s almost impossible to see upcoming bends and braking points. You really have to pay attention to your navigator when the graphics settings are this low.
Out test system wasn’t even capable of achieving 90fps consistently with the graphics settings increased to “Low.” And Codemasters tried hard to boost performance. The developer even went so far as to remove unnecessary items from the car, such as the wheels and the entire section of the vehicle behind the driver seat, so there are fewer things for the GPU to render.
Even if you have the most badass gaming rig in the world, you still won’t be turning up the graphics that much. Dirt Rally doesn’t have support for VR SLI, and it wasn’t built on AMD’s Liquid VR, so Affinity Multi-GPU isn’t going to work, either.
The best possible experience right now will be with Nvidia’s soon-to-be dethroned king, the GTX 1080. Our test system was able to handle the game at the “Medium” preset, which is a vast improvement visually over “Ultra Low,” but it’s still a far cry from the highest preset available. The “High” preset is playable, but probably not recommended. The frame rate often dipped well below the desired 90fps threshold. Our CPU may have played a role in those dips, though. An X99 or Skylake CPU might fare better than the older i5 in our test system, but it probably isn't enough to increase the graphics settings any higher. We expect you’ll need an even more powerful GPU, such as the freshly announced Pascal Titan X to push Dirt Rally to the High preset and above.
The AMD cards that we tested didn’t perform any better. With the R9 Fury installed, Dirt Rally automatically set the graphics settings to the High preset, but this proved to be unplayable in VR. The frame rate regularly dipped far below the necessary 90fps threshold. By dropping the graphics preset to medium, the performance stabilized. For the R9 390, Dirt Rally chose the Medium preset. I didn’t have to dial the settings back with this card at all.
I would suggest adding a racing wheel to your setup to complete the experience. Playing with a controller works, but if you really want to feel like you’re there in the driver’s seat, you’ll need the tactile feedback that wheel peripheral provides.
Like any racing game, Dirt Rally can be played with the Xbox One gamepad that comes with your Oculus Rift. Being that Dirt Rally started off as a desktop PC game, it also supports keyboard input if you prefer, but you will need the gamepad on either way because of the Oculus software’s hardware checks. If you have a copy of the game through Steam, you may not be subject to this nuisance, but if you bought it through Oculus Home, you always need a gamepad connected.
Dirt Rally supports the Xbox One controller without any additional configuration. Just fire up the game and start playing. The profile is already preconfigured correctly for the gamepad.
If you want to use a racing wheel, though, be careful. I have two racing wheel peripherals at my disposal: A Logitech G27 and a Logitech G920. The G27 has been around for several years and is a fairly common accessory among racing game fans. As such, you’d expect that Dirt Rally would have native support for this common peripheral.
When I originally set up the G27, the game detected that there was a Logitech wheel installed, but it was detected as a Driving Force wheel, not a G27. (Per the update at the bottom of this article, an astute reader correctly ascertained that it was probably a driver issue. He was right. After reinstalling the driver, the game correctly detected the G27.)
Hours And Hours Of Racing
Dirt Rally is a game built for racing fans, not for casual racers. The championships are long and grueling, and once you start one, you’re locked into until the end. The first championship consists of six races, with four to six stages in each race. Each stage features a new path to follow, and each race will have different terrains, such as snow, soft mud or hard dirt. In the first championship, each stage usually takes between four and six minutes to complete. It takes well over two hours to complete the first championship.
The cars from the first championship are all from the ‘60s. Each class moves up through the years and features the best rally cars of the era. The second championship features cars from the ‘70s, such as the Lancia Delta Integrale. There are also championships featuring iconic rally cars from the '80s, '90s, early '00s and into the modern day. Each championship is of similar length to the first one, so Dirt Rally will provide tens of hours of gameplay in the championships alone, but there are even more options.
Codemasters added hill climb to the roster of events available to you, but you’ll have to earn your way into these advanced races. Hill climb requires some of the most expensive cars the game offers, so you’ll have to complete a few championships to work your way up to those events. The cheapest hill climb car will set you back $175,000. By contrast, the first championship car will cost you $37,000 and even after placing third, I didn’t earn enough money to unlock the first hill climb car in my first championship.
You can also try your luck with online challenges. Rally racing is about beating the clock, not competing directly with another opponent in a live race, so these aren’t really played online. Instead, you get one chance to put down your best time in daily, weekly and monthly challenges, which will be ranked globally so you can compete for bragging rights.
Dirt Rally isn’t just about solo racing, though. The game also features a Rallycross tournament. Rallycross is more like a traditional race where you race against other cars, except it takes place on a dirt track with jumps. Each track has two routes. The quick way, which you will take most of the time, and a longer route called the Joker Lap, which everyone has to take once per race. It’s up to you to decide when to take the Joker, but you can’t skip it.
Rallycross is open to each class of rally car, so once you’ve started a championship and have a car in your garage, you can play these races.
You Should Try This Game
Dirt Rally VR is definitely an experience worth trying out. I give high praise to Codemasters for the excellent job porting Dirt Rally from 2D screens to VR HMDs. Racing up a mountainside road at breakneck speeds in virtual reality is a visceral experience. If racing games are your jam, don’t pass this one up. Dirt Rally VR is available through the Oculus Home Store. The Steam version of the game is also VR-compatible, but only with an Oculus Rift. HTC Vive is not supported at this time.
Update, July 24, 2016, 6:00pm PT: The original version of this article misstated a driver issue concerning the Logitech G27 racing wheel. One of our astute readers pointed out that Dirt Rally works fine with his G27 racing wheel and suggested that it may be a driver issue. Although I was sure I had reinstalled the driver before reporting on it, either my installation file was corrupt, or I actually forgot to reinstall the Logitech Gaming Software.
After the reader reached out, I reinstalled Logitech Gaming Software 5.10, and to my surprise the game detected the G27 wheel correctly. Furthermore, the G27 didn’t require any further tweaking or tuning to get it to work. The game found the wheel, and once the preset was selected, all of the inputs, including the gas and brake pedal, worked as they should. We have changed the article to reflect the above.