In the realms of racing games there has always been a fine line between sim and arcade; between hardcore and casual; and of course between rally and conventional. Codemasters has finally decided to revive their classic Colin McRae franchise complete with a new name and even a new poster boy. Fans of the original series will no doubt be shocked to discover that DiRT has more in common with Rallisport Challenge than with its own roots, which will be disappointing to some, but once you finally lay your hands on the game you will be hard pressed to find a prettier or more enjoyable racer on the 360 to date.
The first thing you will notice straight out of the gate is just how amazing this game looks. The team at Codemasters have constructed a technical marvel in terms of visuals. Damage modeling is incredible, right down to the small details such as broken windshields and doors flailing open around sharp turns. The cars will also collect dirt and mud as they sling around the track creating one of the most realistic experiences in the genre by far. The track design is also worth noting; even though tracks share the same assets each one feels unique thanks to the design of the turns and the placement of different landmarks.
Another subtlety that gives each track life is the surface you are driving on. In most racers driving across gravel, mud, or rain soaked tarmac won’t look or feel much different. In DiRT that all changes as each surface feels distinct and for the first time in a long time I actually had to pay attention to what surface I was on before judging how to take a turn. The environments are also interactive to a point and they are handled very realistically. For example smashing into a guard rail at 70 mph will leave a nice dent while just brushing it at a slower speed will likely just rub some paint off your body work.
All of this beauty does come with a price however. For starters the frame rate will take a hit from time to time especially when there is more than one car on the track. You will also notice a fair amount of vertical tearing during some levels which can be distracting but never game breaking. All of this glory also brings with it some ridiculous load times. Before each race you will be treated to a series of stats based on your driving. While this will seem cool and informative at first you quickly realize it is simply to mask the atrocious load times before each event.
This brings me to my favorite part of the game; it’s presentation. While some games will give you boring menus and complicated navigation options DiRT displays the single greatest front-end of any game ever. The menus are all decked out in what feels like a 3D file system, imagine Windows but with depth. The game is also narrated by extreme sports veteran Travis Pastrana which actually isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. His comments rarely grow tiresome and they aren’t overbearing so you never feel like you are going to miss something if you skip past it. It is cool that he will give you an opinion on your performance such as if you are just annihilating the easy difficulty that you should step it up to the next tier.
Now you may be wondering if there is more to all of this than slick menus and gorgeous visuals. I mean it still is a racing game therefore it has to be fun, thankfully DiRT delivers in this category as well. Most of your time in the single-player will be spent in the career mode where you will climb several tiers each consisting of different types of races. There are six unique types represented here and they include hill climb, rally cross, rally, rally raid, CORR, and crossover. If you have no idea what any or all of these are the game does a great job of easing you into each one with a nice description and even the opportunity to practice any race before setting out on your own.
There are also plenty of difficulty settings that will accommodate any player skill from the ridiculously easy setting to the hardcore setting where one smash into a tree will end the race for you in one fell swoop. This brings a nice balance between sim and arcade and makes the game accessible to just about anyone. Outside of the career mode you also have a collection of rally races you can compete in. These are a nice diversion and even worth some Achievement points if you complete them all.
Of course none of this matters if the game doesn’t get the feel right. For anyone not familiar with rally racing the rules are a bit different, drifting and power sliding are key to victory and it feathering the gas around corners will net you more victories than simply slamming the e-brake. Thankfully DiRT pretty much nails this aspect with just a few minor setbacks. Each vehicle handles different from your standard buggies to even the big rigs and all of them possess a minor floaty feel that will take some time to get used to, but it works. Another nice addition is the plethora of camera angles available in the game. Everything from your standard outside view to the infamous cockpit is present and work flawlessly. You would be amazed how hard it is to simulate the cockpit view until you play so many games that simply do not get it right.
In addition to all of this there is also plenty to see and do in the game. Whether you are traversing the giant pyramid in career mode or trying to earn more money to unlock new cars and liveries, this game will keep you addicted for countless hours due to its amazing amount of content. There are tons of tracks, all of which feel unique, and as I mentioned a diverse stable of vehicles to master. Top all of this with the game’s amazing stat tracking and you have quite possibly the best driving experience currently available on any console.
There is one area though where DiRT really lacks and that is multi-player. With any racer on the 360 you would come to expect some online head-to-head action. Unfortunately with DiRT this is pretty much non-existent. In fact there are only two modes available in the Xbox Live portion of this title, rally and hill climb. For anyone who follows the sport you will recognize that these are solo events that drivers race just to post times. What this boils down to is that up to 100 players can convene in a lobby and then set out on their own track trying to best each others time, and that is it. No online CORR racing, no smashing your buddy over the ledge on a sharp turn, and most disappointing no custom destruction derby action online. While we can understand why this feature is the way it is, it doesn’t make us any less disappointed to see it absent.
Even with a lack of true online multi-player DiRT delivers on so many other levels it more than makes up for it. If you play only to race online this is obviously not where you need to be. For everyone else looking for a great driving experience that strays from the typical neon lights and wet roads that plague most games in the genre I definitely recommend giving this game a test drive. There is more than enough to see and do and I guarantee once you nail down the vehicle handling you will find a rich and vigorous experience that will entertain you for hours on end.