DiRT Review

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Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Codemasters

Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Codemasters has transformed the Colin McRae series into its new flagship racing game, DiRT. Below, we have the literal DiRT on what happened to the Colin McRae series.

Kevin Rice

More than seven years ago, Codemasters brought the Colin McRae series of games to the racing circuit, offering an accurate portrayal rally racing, a sport that only a minority of state-side people even knew existed. Instead of powering your way around the tarmac making one long left turn, or drifting your way through city streets in souped-up rice burners, rally racing is just you, your car, and the great outdoors. Yes, there's a road, but it's a dirt road. Or a muddy road. Or a muddy, dirty road.

The original Colin McRae series, while successful, stuck pretty much to the simulation side of things when it came to recreating rally racing. Microsoft's Rallisport Challenge (developed by DICE, the people who went on to make the Battlefield series) was a nice entry, but leaned heavily to the arcade side of racing. Codemaster's latest entry, DiRT, is essentially a re-envisioning of the Colin McRae series, and it achieves a near Zen-like balance between arcade and simulation driving. A single shortcoming keeps the game from greatness, but pound for pound, this is one of the best racing games available on any platform.

Beautiful DiRT

Like it or not, people judge a game by is its looks. When it comes to looks, DiRT delivers the bells, whistles, and shiny objects. There may even be a kitchen sink in there. The Xbox 360 version is one of the prettiest games to date on the system. (Note to PC gamers: DiRT is a monster on even the most powerful rigs, and you'll want a gamepad or steering wheel.) Not only are the tracks and environments lovingly rendered, the cars themselves are minutely detailed. The driver cam viewpoint feels like you're actually in the car. Windshields crack, hoods (and doors and bumpers) fly off realistically (more on that later), and even the glare of the sun can temporarily obscure your vision.

A beautiful backdrop alone doesn't make for fun gameplay, but DiRT comes through with fun in flying colors. The environments, while beautiful, are unforgiving. Yes, stacks of tires on some tracks will go flying and rolling around if you hit them, and other destructible objects behave as expected. You can even get lost in the tall grass if you veer too far off course. However, like a real race, some barriers are meant to be restraints, and they do just that. You'll almost fall out of your seat the first time you hit a barrier and go from 80 MPH to 0 instantaneously. The damage modeling is dead-on as well. Depending on the level to which you've set the game, just one of those head-on barrier collisions can knock you entirely out of the race. As various parts get damaged, your vehicle's performance deteriorates and will need repair between races.

An Old Dog With New Tricks

While the Colin McRae series started strictly as a rally racing simulator, in DiRT, concessions have been made and new racing styles added. Each vehicle still feels distinctly different. (The difference is even more pronounced when switching between cars, trucks, and buggies.) However, you no longer have to be Colin McRae himself to beat the game at the upper difficulty levels. There's more forgiveness for taking a turn wide, landing a jump incorrectly, and so on. This is still not a game where you can just floor it and steer through the tracks a la Burnout, but it's much more accessible than previous entries in the series.

In addition to traditional rally racing styles, DiRT now includes head-to-head Rally Raids, Rallycross, Championship Off-Road Racing (CORR), and Crossover events. For the first time, the series will put several cars on the track at once when appropriate (in CORR and Crossover events, for example), making for some hectic wheeling. The traditional modes still include your co-pilot, who basically tells you about upcoming turns on the course as you go, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road instead of the map.

All the racing styles help make Career Mode, the meat of the game, fun and refreshing to play. Throughout 66 races, tiered like a pyramid with 11 races at the bottom and one race at the top, you'll play through each type of race using different vehicles, many of which are unlocked along the way. None of the races take more than 5-10 minutes, so the moment you tire of one type, another is available. To keep you playing, everything is tracked online, meaning that your local top score may just be middle-of-the-road when compared to the world records. There are also several liveries (custom paint jobs) available for each car, although I should mention that you cannot customize these, and they do nothing for your performance.

All in the Details

I usually wouldn't spend extra time on menu systems and replays, but they're done so well here that they deserve special mention. The replays support standard play/rewind/fast-forward controls, and also allow for pausing, slow motion, and multiple camera angles. While none of this is particularly new, the look of these replays is astounding. Many of them could be mistaken for actual race footage. They really look that good. If you opt to not race from the helmet-cam viewpoint (it does make things difficult), at least watch a replay from that perspective. It's something else.

Normally, menus are meant to get you into the game and that's it. However, the menu system in DiRT is so unique and easy to navigate that it should be a model for other games. It's a bit like how you might picture computers working in science-fiction movies. Everything is floating in it's own window, and simple visual cues tell you where to go. Menus with multiple "windows" navigate much like Windows Vista's "Aero" page-flipping interface. And, thankfully, for every option you don't understand, there's a help topic associated with it. This is one of the best menu navigation systems to date.

The Achilles Heel

For all of the blood, sweat and tears that clearly went into making the core game, it seems as though very little effort went into making the multiplayer game friendly or fun. None of the modes that have multiple cars on the track at once made it in, and when you race against other players, you still don't see your opponents. Instead, you're dumped into a lobby until, eventually, you race against 100 other people (!), each on your own screen. You get updates on other racer's times, and at the end, you learn your finishing position. That's it. There's no customization, and you can't even pick specific maps or vehicle types. This is the definition of after-thought. It's really a shame that Codemasters couldn't keep this in development for a few more months. Rally racing online with an game engine this good with be like giving $20 to a crack addict.

Overlooking that multiplayer oversight, DiRT is perhaps the best racing game available today. It's got enough gear ratios and differentials to keep the gear heads happy, and it's also pick up and playable enough to satiate those new to the series. The graphics are pure eye candy, and there are enough styles of racing and vehicles types to keep you racing long into the evening. DiRT is a racing game that deserves a place in any racing fan's library. Let's just hope the inevitable sequel corrects the essentially missing multiplayer mode.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 16, 2007 8:08 PM.

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