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Is Richard Burns Rally still the king of rally sims?

Is Richard Burns Rally still the king of rally sims?

For those not up to speed, Richard Burns Rally (RBR) is a rally sim originally released for PlayStation 2, Xbox and Windows PC in 2004 followed by, of all things, a Gizmondo version in 2005. It was developed by Warthog – a small and passionate team of rally enthusiasts, now sadly defunct – with input from the 2001 World Rally Champion (WRC) Richard Burns, who leant his name to the title.

Around the time of its release, Richard Burns Rally was competing with the likes of V-Rally 3, Gran Turismo 4, Colin McRae Rally 2005 and the official WRC games in the rally genre, with only Colin McRae Rally coming close to offering a true simulation of rallying.

Many reviewers at the time were put off by the extreme difficulty presented by RBR, as it featured realistic narrow stages, seriously simulated rally physics, alongside a detailed damage model.

Subaru vs ford! Chirdonhead II, one of the many real-life stages in Richard Burns Rally
Subaru vs ford! Chirdonhead II, one of the many real-life stages in Richard Burns Rally

The realism was enhanced by a Driving School section narrated by late, great, Burns himself, that took you through the basics of rally driving. Only once you’ve passed this introduction are you allowed to take to the stages properly – although making it past this point is no mean feat in of itself.

Such was the impact RBR made it’s played religiously by a hardcore group of fans to this day, but can it still compete with modern rivals such as DiRT Rally 2.0 and WRC 9? How do the visuals and sounds compare? Does it suffer without the official WRC license?

Most importantly, how do the physics stack up after all these years?

Sounds

The audio experience in RBR can only be described as ‘dated’ nowadays. In fact, even by the period’s standards, the car engine sounds aren’t exactly fantastic when compared to Colin McRae 2005.

It’s not easy to differentiate between the distinctive flat-four Subaru engine and the other four-cylinder engine sounds such as the Toyota, Mitsubishi, Citroen, Peugeot and Hyundai. However, the sounds of the cars sliding on gravel are pretty good, even immersive, and so are one or two of the ambient crowd sounds. Let’s not talk about the horrible tyre-screeching cacophony that will offend your eardrums when switching to tarmac driving though…

My winner: DiRT Rally 2.0

Mitsubishi Evo VII on Prospect Ridge, USA, Richard Burns Rally
Mitsubishi Evo VII on Prospect Ridge, USA

The co-driver

The co-driver in RBR – Richard Burns’ real-life co-driver Robert Reid – offers a decent guide for those new to the rally genre, but int forgoes the standard pacenote numbering system, opting instead for call-outs such as ‘fast left, ‘medium right’ and ‘K-left’, which aren’t quite as approachable as simply calling out the gear number that many rally crews’ favour. A ‘1 right’ would denote a very tight hairpin bend requiring 1st gear, for example. It was, however, a system akin to that used by Burns and Reid in real life.

DiRT Rally 2.0 on the other hand, uses a more accessible system. 2003 World Rally Champion Petter Solberg’s co-driver – Phil Mills – offers his services calling out the pace notes. WRC 9 offers an acceptable alternative, but unfortunately, the co-driver isn’t as familiar as Robert Reid or Phil Mills, which breaks the immersion for die-hard rally fans.

My winner: Comparing default co-drivers, DiRT Rally 2.0 wins hands down. But more on why it’s not quite so clear cut later…

Graphics

Much like my looks, time hasn’t been kind to RBR. Without a doubt, DiRT Rally 2.0 is the prettier game, with WRC 9 close behind – especially on the latest console hardware. I don’t think there’s much point dwelling on this fact; RBR just can’t compete with sims that have had the benefit of fifteen years’ worth of graphical improvements.

My winner: DiRT Rally 2.0

The stuff dreams are made of, Rally of Gateshead, Richard Burns Rally
The stuff dreams are made of…

Features

RBR is a rather sparse experience when compared to DiRT Rally 2.0 & WRC 9. There’s no RPG-like career, online clubs, weekly challenges, co-op co-driver mode, rallycross and there’s certainly no online esports competition.

It has a rudimentary rally season mode where you can tackle events based in exotic locations such as Australia, Finland, France, USA, Japan and … Gateshead. Okay, so not having a WRC license limits the glamour a little, but winning the ‘Rally of Gateshead’ is still some achievement considering the difficulty of mastering RBR’s precise handling and tricky stages!

My winner: WRC 9

Physics

For many sim racing aficionados, physics after often the main draw. How the car delivers feedback is the reason you want to come back for more, and I think RBR has the finest physics engine of any rally sim – or rally game – ever made.

The first time you throw a car into a cambered compression at insane speeds through Chirdonhead is a feeling that sticks with you for a long time and it’s addictive. The cars behave convincingly, requiring a careful hand to negotiate the real-life stages, and pushing too hard will almost always result in a massive accident.

Jumps, potholes, water hazards, bridges and tree stumps are real hazards to be avoided and slowed down for – just as they are in real-life – and will quite easily end your rally if you are unlucky enough to stray half a metre off-line.

I’m just demonstrating the suspension travel, dear reader, I'm not about to crash. Honest.
I’m just demonstrating the suspension travel, dear reader, I’m not about to crash. Honest.

All those frustrating crashes and rally-ending visits to the scenery suddenly fade from memory when you caress your car through a high-speed section of corners, Scandi-flicking it through a tight hairpin bend, emerging to set your first fastest stage time, before binning it on the way to the time control…

Watching the replay back, you can really see the physics engine in action; the wheels and suspension dip and dive based on the terrain they’re navigating, displaying the weighty feeling you get behind the wheel, convincing you utterly that this is what it feels like to drive a rally car for real.

In comparison, when I’m driving in DiRT Rally 2.0, I just don’t have the same feeling. The cars feel like they’re floating on top of the road rather than being part of it. The same goes for WRC 9, despite its gargantuan step forward over WRC 8.

The suspension physics in RBR were over-engineered to such an extent that no one has ever tried to replicate them since. Just imagine DiRT Rally 2.0 with RBR physics. The phrase “take my money now” was invented for such occasions!

My winner: Richard Burns Rally

Is Richard Burns Rally still the leading rally sim?

Yes. The end.

What? I need to justify this opinion? Okay, here goes…

The physics engine Warthog developed for RBR has proven to be timeless. Long after the sim essentially became abandonware it gained a second wind in the form of the PC modding community. Nowadays you can play a modified version of RBR replete with FMOD sounds, various graphical improvements and other bug fixes that improve and streamline the overall RBR experience.

Porsche 911 group B challenger heading through Diamond Creek Richard Burns Rally
Porsche 911 group B challenger heading through Diamond Creek

You can also compete with RBR players around the world using the fully developed online tournaments plugin, which even gives you live split times from other drivers during the stages.

New cars and stages are also available, all created by communities of passionate rally fans. Want to have a blast with Colin McRae’s 1995 championship-winning Subaru Impreza through Sweet Lamb with Derek Ringer reading the pacenotes? You can with a modified version of RBR.

It really is extraordinary what has been done with the base game by a community of loyalists. This is just the tip of the iceberg – new HUD’s, headlight mods, telemetry recording and VR have also been implemented in one form or another.

Audi S1 Quattro on Humulamaki, not original Richard Burns Rally content
Audi S1 Quattro on Humulamaki, not original Richard Burns Rally content

RBR’s main weaknesses were graphics and sounds, and these have been majorly addressed through the mod scene. However, its physics have also been tinkered with, unlocking the enormous potential of Warthog’s original work to create the supreme rally car-handling experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve sunk 150+ hours into DiRT Rally and its sequel, but once I’d finished them I always dipped back into RBR, as it offers one of the purest and most enjoyable rally experiences.

Sure, the original game is showing its age a little, but when modified it will remain the gold standard for rally sims for many years to come. It’s a massive shame that an officially endorsed sequel, or even spiritual successor, wasn’t created by the original development team, because that would have been something to savour.

My winner: Richard Burns Rally. Always.

For a short comparison for fun, here’s me playing DiRT Rally 2.0 and a modified version of Richard Burns Rally in a Subaru Impreza across the Sweet Lamb complex in Wales.

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