Genre: Rally Racing
Release Date: June 19, 2007
Down and DiRTy, Colin McRae-style…
Rally racing is the opposite of what Americans conceptualize as "racing." Rally racing is a team sport, and not in the sense that a team or crew supports a car and fields a driver; instead, each car is crewed by a team of two people, a driver and a co-driver. The driver does his thing while the co-driver keeps the wheelman apprised of what turns are coming, and which gear the car should be in and what sorts of hazards are approaching. Codemasters has been building and refining a rally racing game under the brand name of Colin McRae for several iterations now, named after the Scotsman who was one of the most popular rally car drivers of the late '90s and early 2000s. McRae was the only driver in the World Rally Championship (the premiere rally car driving circuit) to have his own game.
What Codemasters has done this year is an attempt to extend the Colin McRae brand beyond its traditional constituency. The first and most obvious move is the name change.
DiRT is the name of the game now, and whereas Colin McRae was the face of the franchise, the new name is conspicuously American. Travis Pastrana is better known for his motocross exploits, but since he conquered the motocross scene, he has moved on from two wheels to four. Travis is the voice that guides you through the DiRT experience, and he certainly has the zeal and charisma to do so.
The first thing the player encounters in DiRT is the front-end menu system, which takes some time to load and transition. The look and feel is not only one of the slickest front ends in a modern racing game, but also intuitive and useful. It seems like a minor detail, but the spit and polish in the menus' finish shows a great attention to detail in how it looks and functions as a user interface. Bad menus and a clunky front end can hamper a game, and DiRT manages this hurdle with style and substance. If only Xbox Live had the same menu system and execution….
At the very core of DiRT is the Championship mode, which consists of several tiers, ranging from domestic to international events (Sports Car Club of America and WRC, respectively) across just about every continent short of Antarctica. The format of the Championship mode works in a disappointingly straightforward manner; across the various circuits, each tier is ranked according to difficulty, and the player has to rank up each tier in order to unlock higher tiers. It would have been a little more satisfying if each series unfolded campaign-style, leading from one event to another, almost like a season of racing. However, Codemasters' design decision is understandable, considering how much variety is offered across the board. To criticize this decision is more or less along stylistic grounds rather than substantive.
The game itself, once all of the menus are navigated and an event chosen, looks breathtaking; on a good high-definition monitor, the tracks are full of detail, action and nice ambient details. The filters make the game look appropriately hazy when the tracks are on sand or in the desert, and the lighting in various European tracks hides the road well enough to make the game realistically difficult.
There are various views to employ, but the cockpit view is perhaps the most immersive. Every car is modeled from the inside, so when you are placed in the driver's seat, your point of view is realistically hampered by the A pillar and dashboard, and the right analog stick allow you to pan your view when appropriate. The only other racing game that nailed this feature is Project Gotham Racing, but the visceral feeling of this first-person perspective is very effective in conveying speed and makes the game subtly more challenging. The cockpits can be dark at times, and the various details along the dashboard seem muted, but there are functional warning lights that indicate gear changes.
The gameplay reflects the nature of rally racing, and it is here where gamers will be won or lost. Rally racing is more of an art than a science. Using the handbrake, gear shifts and accelerator creates the drifting turn action that makes rally racing so cool. While the game takes place mostly on loose surfaces like dirt or gravel, the feeling is not so responsive and tight, as may be expected by those who are used to Gran Turismo or Forza. DiRT may feel very loose and muddy to most, and perhaps even broken to a few. The loose and unforgiving nature of every turn you take, even if it's on asphalt, can be frustrating to someone who wants to be able to correct his line in the middle of a turn. The player must understand that in rally racing, once you commit to a turn, you're in it until you exit it; correcting the turn at the apex simply isn't going to happen, nor should it.
The only real complaint that can be leveled against the gameplay mechanics is the automated braking and acceleration that function in the default difficulty. The looseness from the physics that affect the line around a turn seems to play very much into the tires, which actually makes the game more forgiving than it ought to be. Giving the car too much gas should cause it to oversteer, and hammering the brakes should either send the car off the track or kill the speed going through the turn. The difference in response from flooring the car through an entire turn or easing off the gas and standing on the brakes are not very drastic, which can pose a problem. Given that DiRT doesn't offer a computer-simulated line to follow as Forza does, gauging how much gas and brake to use in each turn is more frustrating than difficult. All that matters is that the car is in the proper gear, and even that doesn't seem to matter all that much.
This leads to DiRT's biggest shortcoming: its confused identity. If DiRT were a straightforward arcade racer, then its mechanics make sense. If DiRT were a more nuanced racing simulator, then the mechanics are way too mushy. You can modify just about every setting within a given car, and the tracks and events are modeled after real-life counterparts. This leads one to believe that Codemasters wants this title to be a hardcore racing sim, but the design decisions were aimed at making it more appealing to a wider audience that may or may not consist of rally racing enthusiasts. This identity crisis hamstrings DiRT's potential greatness, as does the fact that racing online is largely limited to best lap times. Granted, rally racing is all about posted times, but not being able to actively race against a field of live opponents is disappointing, to say the least. There are other events where you can race live against a human opponent, but not all of them are like this.
All in all, DiRT is a worthy follow-up to the last Colin McRae game, but while it's competent and looks fantastic, it leaves a little something to be desired in a few key areas. The new clothes in which Codemasters dressed this franchise suit it well, and the effectiveness of the rendering engine is impressive; there is simply no other racing game on the X360 that is as moody or graphically pleasing as this one. Managing the damage and repairs is engrossing, and the cockpit view serves up a great, immersive experience. DiRT falls short in not knowing itself well enough to deliver a stellar title. Had the driving mechanics been more consistent, DiRT could easily rival Forza as the preeminent racing game on the 360. The lack of a fully fledged adversarial multiplayer mode on Xbox Live also seriously dampens the game's depth and longevity. For fans of the rally racing sub-genre, it doesn't get much better than DiRT, but for everyone else, this can be range from being a really fun time to an exercise in frustration.
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