Let’s be clear about this: Dirt Rally on PlayStation VR (PSVR) is brilliant. It’s pretty much identical to the Oculus Rift version of the game; a rock solid racer that roots you in the experience, piling on the life-risking rush of putting your foot down and sliding a car through a muddy Welsh forest as if you were intent on smashing into something. It’s one of the few VR experiences that can completely immerse you and makes you forget you’re sitting in your living room.
Its cooperative multiplayer mode, however, is a little different.
This mode is exclusive to PSVR, and makes use of the social screen functionality. In concept, it’s actually rather brilliant; a friend takes on the role of the co-driver and alerts you to incoming turns, bumps and obstructions. Rather than simply reading out commands to the VR user, however, or learning tracks and actually issuing commands as they would in real life, the second player simply hits button prompts in time as they scroll down the screen. It’s a little like Guitar Hero.
Yes, Guitar Hero, that game about being a rock legend on stage, not guiding your friend through a perilous track of death as he catapults you towards the finish line.
In fairness, I can understand what developer Codemasters was going for here. Pressing buttons on time amidst the roar of your car’s engine as the screen travels at 100 mph puts a heavy amount of stress on you, which I can only imagine anyone insane enough to jump into a rally car would experience too. You have to press face buttons, swipe on the DualShock 4’s touchpad, shake the controller and waggle the sticks at different times (I may have had some PTSD-infused Wii flashbacks occasionally). If you miss an input, the player simply won’t get the command and, depending on how much they’re relying on those guidelines, it can disrupt the race.
I can also appreciate that the team has tried to come up with a system that keeps the VR user fully immersed in their surroundings, rather than having their friends voice pulling them out every few seconds. Dirt Rally is at its best with a VR headset on and a pair of headphones over your ears to completely cut you off from the outside world.
At the same time, however, I just can’t help feeling like there’s a better solution than the one here. This feels like a music rhythm game has been awkwardly jammed into an experience where the only rhythm you’ll find is the dip between switching gears and breaking for corners. While you might be helping the player in VR to some degree, your own actions don’t feel related to the Dirt franchise at all.
I wish Codemasters had at least included the option for a second player to actually call out commands rather than pressing these inputs. As non-immersive as it may have been, I suspect it still would have felt closer to the real thing. This could have been the VR racing alternative to Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes but, instead, it’s likely to go unused. I know I’d rather just sit and watch someone play, calling out stuff verbally on my own.
Still, don’t let my words sway you from picking up Dirt Rally on PSVR. I promise you the main game alone is worth the price of entry for anyone with even a passing interest in VR racing games — there’s a reason we awarded it the best VR racing game of 2016. Just don’t expect to be playing it with anyone other than your old Rock Band mates.