Trust me when I say there is nothing like standing at the side of a rally stage and watching a turbocharged, four-wheel-drive, monster being thrashed by someone from France or Scandinavia. It’s always worth the 4 am walk through a muddy forest in the dark. Honest.
While those of us who are into racing video games like to think they’d be pretty handy down the local go-karting circuit, I know for certain that I wouldn’t be successful at rallying. Professional drivers and co-drivers are a different breed. Another level.
Which is why I enjoy a good virtual rally session – it’s the closest I’ll ever get.
For me, a ‘rally game’ must include point-to-point racing against the clock to count. Other dirt-racing, such as rallycross, is acceptable, but if ‘stage rally’ isn’t included too, then it’s not a rally game to me. Based on this ruleset, games that have off-road racing such as Forza Horizon 4 or DIRT 5 do not count.
Without further ado then, here’s our definitive list of great rally games. In no particular order…
Colin McRae Rally and Colin McRae Rally 2.0
You cannot start a rally game feature without mentioning these two seminal titles. The original CMR, released on PC and PlayStation in 1998, is dear to me because it was my very first console video game. I won’t be alone with that scenario.
Played in 2021, the graphics are blocky, the handling imprecise and the jelly-based cheat code is still funny. It makes this list as it was an important moment. Colin McRae Rally brought the sport to the masses. You didn’t need to be a rally fan to enjoy this game.
Two years later, CMR 2.0 refined the formula and dramatically improved the game’s visuals to deliver a better all-round package. Also, there was a mode where you could fire flaming balls at competitors and that’s always a win.
While rally games existed before Colin McRae and Codemasters’ efforts, none captured the imagination of the gaming public quite like these, and that opened the door for future rally franchises to emerge.
Richard Burns Rally
Would the late, great, 2001 World Rally Champion leant his name to a video game if Colin McRae had not done so first? I suppose we’ll never know, but I doubt it.
Among the sim racing fraternity, RBR is still considered the best rally game of all time. With good reason too, it absolutely nails the vehicle handling. Some may argue that it’s still the best in this regard even now, 17 years later.
Part of the reason for the game’s enduring fanbase has been the ability to mod on PC. If only it sold enough copies originally to warrant a proper sequel though. A shame, but there’s an appetite out there still should anyone want to invest in the hardest of hardcore rally sims.
As a teenager, I distinctly remember getting to the end of a stage on the PS2 version as a victory in itself.
Network Q RAC Rally Championship and Mobil 1 Rally Championship
In a pre-Colin McRae universe, one of the first credible rally games was Network Q RAC Rally from 1996 on PC, developed by Magnetic Fields. The game series started in 1988, but this was the first to capture my imagination. Most likely, this was down to Tony Mason doing the pace notes and being able to drive a Škoda Felicia Kit Car. My younger brother used to pull up on the grass to have a ‘picnic break’. Those were the days…
One of the follow-up games, Mobil 1 Rally Championship from 1999, took things to a whole new level. Unlike its predecessor, it wasn’t simulating one rally but multiple rallies across the British Rally Championship and each event had a clear and unique character. For the era, with stages lasting up to 20 minutes, this was as realistic as it got.
This is a tough call. In many ways Colin McRae: DiRT 2 is often remembered as a more fun experience, but DiRT 3 edges ahead in this particular compendium because the core rallying is an improvement over the prior release. The Finnish rally stages in particular were spectacular and still stand up today.
The game even had official WRC cars such as the Mini, Ford Fiesta and Citroën C4 of the time. Online, DiRT 3 took things to the next level, with competitive stage rally and fun modes such as Cat N’ Mouse ramping up the smile factor. The varied career mode and pumping soundtrack were the cherries on top.
The year is 2002 and for every market apart from the USA, it’s the launch year for the first Xbox. Needing to bolster the initial line-up of games, Microsoft Game Studios turns to Digital Illusions CE – you may have heard of them, better known as EA’s DICE – to create a racing game. RalliSport Challenge, and later a sequel, is what they came up with.
What made this game special was its variety. You had modern all-wheel-drive rally cars such as the Subaru Impreza, but also fearsome Group B rally cars of the 1980s alongside curios such as an ice-racing Nissan Micra, the Suzuki Pikes Peak car and motorsport legend Per Eklund’s Saab rallycross steed. There were enjoyable stages set in Africa akin to the Safari rally and even the bonus of rallycross and hillclimb events too. An often over-looked gem.
DiRT Rally 2.0
The third entry by Codemasters on this list, but forgive us seeing as it has released 11 rally-themed games across the last 23 years. In 2015, DiRT Rally was released via Early Access as a bare-bones, back to basics, rally sim. No crazy online modes or gymkhana here. Just some stages and a small selection of classic rally cars.
Over time it evolved and was released as a finished game in 2016 for PC or console. Thankfully, the game was a success and filled the rally simulator niche. DiRT Rally 2.0 is the title to make this list though, as even though it re-used – arguably far too many – cars and stages form the first game, the step-up in visual fidelity and rear-wheel-drive car handling are too good to ignore.
In a move that circles back to the first Codemasters rally game, the final DLC for DiRT Rally 2.0 was a tribute to the late Colin McRae. It included fast and flowing Scottish stages and the best sounding rally car ever – no arguments – the Subaru Legacy.
WRC II Extreme and WRC: Rally Evolved
During the PlayStation 2 era, Sony had exclusive rights to the FIA World Rally Championship and assigned Evolution Studios to make the yearly sports title for the PS2. In total, five were produced although sadly one made it outside of the PAL region. The team would later move on to create Motorstorm and Driveclub, while the WRC licence went to Milestone and became multiplatform.
The second and final releases of this series stand out to me the most. WRC II Extreme managed to capture a golden era of the WRC with seven manufacturer teams and names such as Mäkinen, Grönholm and Sainz. Colin McRae wasn’t in this game, as he had a rival title, but his brother Alister was. This game made you feel like you were watching a WRC TV broadcast thanks to a voice-over by Jeremy Hart, authentic driver likenesses and music by The Chemical Brothers.
Three years later, and WRC: Rally Evolved covered the 2005 season. By this point, the series had integrated online play and in the single-player, you would often come across rivals mid-stage after they had crashed or broken down. The handling was razor-sharp, perhaps even skittish at times. Some of the character that was found in WRC II was missing, but Rally Evolved was a worthy way of saying goodbye nonetheless.
After the Sony era, the WRC licence floundered for well over a decade. In 2015, Kylotonn took over the reins and faced with having to create a brand-new rally game in a short amount of time, initially struggled to make headway.
But, in 2020 with WRC 9 the Parisian developer broke through with a game that, with a wheel, handled superbly. You can get into a flow once you have built up your experience and soon even 15-minute-long stages will fly by. WRC 9 is a serious game that appeases rally fans, but hopefully, those who haven’t tried a rally game for a while will dip into the lengthy career, robust online systems and handling that rewards a maximum-attack style.
Sega Rally and Sega Rally 2… ish
I asked myself, how could I have a list of the greatest rally games without including Sega Rally?
“It’s not a ‘proper’ rally game,” I replied out loud to myself in a fit of madness.
There are off-road courses, iconic rally cars such as the Toyota Celica ST205 and Lancia Delta Integrale, pace notes and a clock. The word ‘rally’ is even in the title, for crying out loud. But, most of the time you are racing against a checkpoint system and not for the quickest time again rivals. That’s not strictly rallying.
So the Sega Rally releases aren’t officially on this list. You didn’t read this.
I’ll take off my bobble hat for a minute though and conceded that these were two great games that I wasted many hours and all of my pocket money on playing at seaside resorts.
There are some other rally games that don’t quite make this list, chief among them the Colin McRae games from the PlayStation 2 era. They were all great, but by then the official WRC games were making headway with a different take on the formula. A recent release, the loveable ‘art of rally’ offers a unique twist on the genre that pulls at your nostalgia glands and very nearly made the cut.
One game that wasn’t great, but could have been, was Sébastien Loeb Rally Evo. Developed by Milestone once it had lost the official WRC licence, this was an authentic rally game that was close to delivering a best-in-class driving experience. Ultimately, it was let down by some iffy graphics, unstable framerates and a pre-release demo that wasn’t entirely representative of the final product. But, if there was just an extra layer of polish, this could have made the list.
Do you think we’ve missed a rally game from this list? Please let us via social media and don’t forget to our podcast episode about what makes a great rally game.