Reviewed: July 18, 2007
Released: June 19, 2007
Back when I first started reviewing games for GCM there were two popular off-road racing franchises, Colin McRae by Codemasters and RalliSport Challenge by Microsoft. Colin was the undisputed king of simulation while RSC paved the way for ultra-realistic graphics and accessible fun. Now, four years later these two giants meet, at least in theory, in a totally re-envisioned and renamed Colin McRae title.
DiRT is just about everything anybody could want in a rally racing game. It blinds you with dazzling visuals, blows you away with realistic physics and handling, and shatters the boundaries between arcade and simulation with impeccable damage models. It then serves up all of this racing action in a massive Career and Championship series that will take even the most dedicated of racers a solid month to complete.
DiRT does everything right starting with the ingenious menu system, a misty white void where your options float around and finally materialize as selections. It is here where you will begin your journey, either in Career, Championship, Quick Race, or head online to compete with up to 100 other racers. More on that deceptive number later.
You’ll experience considerable freedom when it comes to your racing. You can change the difficulty of your Career on the fly, so if a certain race is too hard, back it down a notch, or if you find yourself winning by double digits, you might want to boost the ranking and your potential earnings. There are no penalties for moving through the various difficulties, just various degrees of cash that you’ll need to bankroll in order to buy better cars or cars of other classes that will open up new types of racing.
DiRT covers six disciplines of off-road racing that will take you around the globe visiting countries like Spain, Germany, Australia, Japan, Italy, and the UK. In Rally racing you will engage in the traditional point-to-point races where it is you against the clocks of the other racers. There are no other cars to distract you – it’s just you, your co-pilot, and the open road. If you crave on-track opposition you can head to the USA for the Rally Raid competition.
Crossover events are some of my favorite and these have you racing one other opponent on a split-lane circuit. Each racer makes one lap on their path then they crossover and do a second lap on their opponent’s path. Often these paths intertwine making for some intense moments when you can see the other car just on the other side of the guardrail or passing under a bridge you are driving across.
Rallycross is another great mode that combines dirt and paved elements making up multi-lap circuits. You then have CORR (Championship Off-Road Racing) that utilizes Super Buggies, and Pro-4 trucks and it all comes to a head with the 850hp monsters you’ll be driving in the Hill Climb events. Hill Climbs are much like the point-to-point rallies only you’ll be driving on treacherously narrow switchbacks where one wrong move can send you over the side of a cliff.
As with any racing game, it is only as good as the controls, and DiRT delivers a solid control scheme whether you choose to use the controller or the 360 racing wheel. The wheel will certainly offer a greater sense of realism, especially with the force feedback which allows you to feel each and every bump in the road. The gamepad mimics these rumbles well enough, but it’s not the same as real force feedback that is yanking the wheel out of your hands.
Hand in hand with control are physics, and DiRT once again gets it right with a wide variety of vehicles, each with their own unique handling, weight, and momentum characteristics. Switching between the big trucks and the ultra light buggies can really serve as a wake-up call for mastering all types of vehicles. This all plays into learning each and every turn and bump on the dozens of tracks in this game, because you can be sure that the moment you go airborne off that bump in the road there will be a sharp turn to the left and guess what – you can’t steer a car in the air.
The tracks are amazing with intricate designs based on realistic locations and they become characters within the game. A small top-down map insert will show you what lies ahead but chances are you won’t want to take your eyes off the road so you can rely on your co-pilot who will call out every turn, bump, and hazard that lies ahead. It’s standard "rally speak" that anyone who has played any other rally racer will understand – usually a direction followed by a number from 1-6 with the smaller numbers indicating the sharper turns.
While learning the tracks and driving clean races will put you in the winner’s circle almost every time there is something to be said for the occasionally wreck, especially the big ones. The designers have spared no piece of metal, plastic, or glass from denting, breaking, shattering, or exploding from the frame of the car. Driving from the cockpit or hood view might spare you some of the gory details, but when you watch the replays you will see how your careless driving can turn a hundred thousand dollar race machine into a smoking piece of scrap metal.
During some of the longer racing series you will have the opportunity to repair your car. This is handled quite cleverly by giving you 60 minutes and a list of damaged systems, each one requiring a portion of that hour in the garage. Obviously things like engine, cooling, and suspension have priority over body work and a fresh car wash, but the options are yours and sometimes the decisions can make the difference between winning and losing the next event.
Damage goes beyond visual representation. If any system goes below 25% you will lose the benefit of that system. On one race I had wrecked my front end so bad the car could almost drive itself in a circle, so I had to complete the race while fighting an extreme pull to the right. It made right turns a breeze but sharp lefts were nearly impossible. And yes, you can wreck your car hard enough to cause “terminal damage” and add an embarrassing DNF to your stats.
Wrench monkeys will enjoy the detailed pre-race setup screens that allow you to tweak numerous settings on your car for acceleration, top speed, braking, etc. and then save those setups. I had specific setups for almost each of the disciplines so I could quickly load them up and configure my car for optimum performance.
As far as presentation, the Career mode is a huge multi-tiered pyramid of races, and as you work your way across each level of the pyramid you will unlock new events and new tiers until you reach the top. This mode alone can take several weeks of casual racing or a solid week of non-stop gameplay, especially if you venture into Pro-Am or higher difficulties, which is what you’ll need to do if you want enough cash to buy qualifying cars and trucks for the more advanced events. There were a few times where I actually got stuck without enough cash to continue and had to go back and re-race previous events on higher skill settings. That's what I get for buying fancy paint jobs (liveries) instead of saving my money.
And then we having multiplayer, which looks great on the back of the box. 100 players…WOW! Oh wait, that’s not at the same time…bummer. Actually, it is at the same time but you won’t see anybody else. You will join an event and everybody races in their own private world and then times are compared at the end. You are also fairly powerless when setting up your own race events as everything is randomly chosen. When you join a race you at least get to vote on a track and a corresponding car for that track, but you can’t actively seek out a specific track, discipline, or car type.
While online racing might not be a shining moment for DiRT, I have to tip my hat to their fantastic leaderboards that are only rivaled by those in PGR3. After each race you can track and compare your times with the rest of the world or just filter the leaderboards for your own group of friends. Times and stats are logged for each step of the career and championship series.
On a final note, the game does have some lengthy load times, but these are totally forgivable for two very important reasons. The first is that while you are waiting you are being blown away with stat after stat after floating stat. Everything that can be counted or timed is tracked and shown in the most clever of ways during the load screens. The second reason is just wait until you see what the game is loading…
The first time I saw gameplay footage of DiRT I was certain somebody was trying to pass off pre-rendered cinematics as gameplay, but after about 50 hours of racing I can testify to the awesomeness and total reality that DiRT brings to the Xbox 360. If this game were any more real I’d need mud flaps on my console.
We can start with the car models which are so intricate and precise I challenge you to find a straight line on any of the bodies. These powerful racing machines glisten with polished wax surfaces that will quickly collect dust and dirt, dent, crumple, and even fall off. Driving from the cockpit view reveals detailed interiors, complete functioning dashboard, and you can even move your head to look in mirrors, out side windows, or watch your co-pilot paging through his notebook of directions.
Tracks are so gorgeous I’m pretty sure I can cancel any plans I had to visit any of the countries featured in this game. This is as close to being there as it gets whether you are driving through dusty deserts, rain soaked hillsides, or winding a path through dense forests. I was slightly disappointed there was no actual driving during bad weather. You will get to drive on wet post-rain tracks, but there isn’t a lot of slop or thick muddy pits to wallow through.
Special effects are off the charts, especially things like dust and the lighting effects that can literally blind you. Having the sun reflect off the dirt track or tarmac can become white hot and blow out the surrounding visuals, while driving through an overcast German landscape is just as depressing as it sounds. Subtle details like animating the engine torque, even when you can only barely see it through the slits in the hood, are just icing on the cake.
And once again, I have to mention the menus and load screens that are always in motion. This game never sits still for an instant. It has an energy about it that is quite infectious and it becomes increasingly more difficult to stop playing DiRT the longer you race.
There are a dozen licensed music tracks that make up the pulse-pounding techno-rock beats you’ll hear during the replays, but during the races it is just you, your co-pilot, the engine, and the sounds of the environment. There is also one piece of music that boosts the sound score an entire point – the load music. I’m not sure if this song is one of the licensed bits or just some riff the sound guys came up with, but if my life were able to have a soundtrack this would be the music I would choose. I can quite literally listen to this infectious and repetitious beat non-stop.
The cars, trucks, and buggies all whine with appropriate power as noted by their horsepower rating. In the races with multiple vehicles things can get quite loud, especially at the starting line when everyone is clumped together. There are all sorts of realistic impact and smashing sounds for metal and shattering glass.
Travis Pastrana lends his voice to the game as greeter and consultant for explaining the various race modes and setup screens. He’ll even encourage you to try out the harder skill levels if the game thinks you are winning too easily, too often.
DiRT has an impressive list of achievements, 49 in all, and while most will be earned while normally progressing through the game, some, like driving more than 1000 miles will take extended effort since a single pass through the Career pyramid will only get you between 500 and 600 miles. Then there are clever achievements like winning a race while driving a manual transmission or catching 20m or more of air. Oddly enough, the designers must have realized the game’s online shortcomings, as there are only three online achievement goals.
Not to worry – the solo game will test your endurance while giving you weeks and months of challenging entertainment. DiRT is the perfect mix of simulation and accessible driving action, while avoiding the pitfalls of becoming an arcade racer. The fact that you can change your skill setting for each race, even in mid-series is a great feature, as is the ability to restart a race if you find yourself loosing.
It’s been a long time since I played a Colin McRae game, but DiRT was certainly worth that wait. This is by far the best looking, best playing racing game, on or off the road, I have played this year. DiRT taps the power of the 360 and immerses you in the spectacle of rally racing, in all its disciplines and in all the famed locations from around the globe. It’s also the single best reason for owning the Microsoft Force Feedback Wheel.
If you enjoy intense racing, against the clock or against other cars, realistic scenery, and the occasional fender bender, you won’t find a better racing game than DiRT. Rally racing has been reborn…welcome to the next generation.