I can't start off writing this review without mentioning the tragic loss that the rally world was struck with last week. Rally legend Colin McRae and his five year old son passed away as their helicopter crashed. McRae has been regarded as one of the greatest drivers in the world, and his longtime association with Codemasters and their Colin McRae games (including DiRT) has made him an even larger icon. Thankfully, DiRT doesn't desecrate McRae's namesake (the game is titled Colin McRae: DiRT overseas) and continues to live up to the legacy of the man himself, and the series.
Codemasters has long been a pioneer in rally racers with the McRae franchise. DiRT has been available for the Xbox 360 and PC for about two months now, and has received some fairly decent reviews. Though the game did have issues, such as a pesky framerate and overly dramatic bloom-lighting. Codemasters has said that the PlayStation 3 game is the version that fixes most of what ailed the others. Is that true?
If you run both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of DiRT side-by-side, you will notice that the absurdly bright bloom lighting has been toned down to a much more acceptable level. You won't be blinded by a burst of orange and yellow reflecting off the surface, rendering your judgment of the road ahead impaired...not as much, at least. You see, even though Codemasters toned down the bloom, making things a little easier on the eyes, it's still overdone. Some cars will literally be engulfed by this layer of light, and the effect is just so cheesy. It's almost as if the cars are hot enough to have an egg cooked on. In some of the stages, it looks like the race takes place ten feet from the sun. Thankfully, not all of the stages suffer from this.
With that rant out of the way, it should be clarified that DiRT is a solid looking game. It sports some good texture work in the environments. The grass and road look pretty convincing, but once the game's blur-filter kicks-in when you increase speeds, their details won't be very noticeable. What's impressive about the engine is that it doesn't load a single object in the environment when you're racing, and that means not a single pop-up to be seen. Now, there seems to be some draw-in with the road, as the road texture sharpens up a few feet in front of your car. The mip-mapping effect is hardly noticeable, but it is there.
As far as the framerate goes, it can get pretty annoying. I've noticed it bog when there's a full grid of cars displayed on one screen. And worst off, it can consistently stutter in certain tracks, making for an eye-sore after extensive play. Keen eyes will notice the framerate issues, for sure. I also witnessed some screen-tearing in the Maebashi track. But the overall performance of the game is still better than the Xbox 360 version - but not by much. Furthermore, Car detail is pretty solid, albeit a bit washed out by the overexposed lighting. More importantly, the deformation of each car is pretty cool. I've yet to wrap my car around a pole, but I'm working on it. Lastly, according to Codemasters, wind-wakes from the speed of the car is supposed to disturb the swaying of grass, but I've seen no such thing yet. Chalk it up to hyperbole? Yup.
Visuals aside, it's all about well the game plays. Unlike previous Colin McRae games where the controls were overly sensitive, DiRT seems to have nailed the controls right on the head. Turning in and out doesn't feel like you're dancing on ice anymore. Instead, road feedback is tight and the cars behave accordingly. Of course, if you damage your car's suspension, expect play in your steering. In other words, if you bend a control arm, your car will begin pulling towards whichever side was damaged, so exercise caution.
Difficulty levels in the game don't just up the artificial intelligence, but also raises the consequences of damage. So if you choose Rookie, damage will be turned off; select Clubman and damage will be present, but it'll take a lot of hits to total your car. Now if you choose Pro Am or Pro, you can wreck your car in as little as one serious collision. I'd have liked to have a custom level setting that would allow me to configure damage difficulty and A.I. difficulty separately. Although, I have been playing the game primarily using Pro Am for races, and Pro for time-trials and such.
There are a number of modes to play in DiRT, they include: Crossover, Rally Raid, Rally, Rally Cross, Hill Climb, and Championship Off-Road Racing (CORR). Each class of vehicles control differently, so don't expect the same grip you get from an AWD car when using a 2WD vehicle. But do expect a plethora of different cars between race modes. Before the start of each race, you'll be able to customize an assortment of specifications of your car, such as wheel camber & toe-in, spring settings, damping settings, transmission, brakes, differentials, downforce, and anti-roll settings.
When you're not playing quick pick-up sessions and are looking to dive into something and haul along, the game has a terrifically deep career mode for you to pave through. And the more progress you make in the game, the more things you unlock. Initially you aren't offered a whole lot, and those of you looking to jump into your prized EVOs and STis will be sorely disappointed. So start chugging away at the career, and before you know it, you'll have an enormous range of vehicles to choose from.
Lastly, online isn't something to be excited about. Instead of racing other physical cars, you instead are forced to race against ghosts. Well, ghosts would imply you could see your opponents, and in DiRT you can't. So basically, you're just racing against a clock that tells you how far behind you are and a grid that tells you your position. When you're not playing online, you're still connected to DiRT, as there are also live leaderboards that track the progress of thousands of other players. The leaderboards will pop up when you've completed a race or track.
Audio is the standard rally affair. There is no drum and bass soundtrack to be heard of, minus the main-menu tune. The only soundtrack you'll hear is that off all kinds of engine and exhaust notes. So if you're the type of gamer who mutes the music in most racing games, like I do, you'll appreciate the purrs, hums, screams, and rumbles of a vast variety of different really machines. Sound effects such as crashing, tire squealing, and so forth, all sound fine and dandy. Best of all, the directions read by the co-pilot come off crystal clear.
When it comes down to it all, DiRT is the rally game hardcore enthusiasts have been waiting for. It's not a game I'd recommend to the casual Need for Speed fan, but it certainly is something fans of the sport and of the Colin McRae franchise will enjoy greatly. DiRT is plenty deep, and has a bevy of race modes, tons of tracks, good replay value, in addition to some pretty solid car customization. Not all is super, though; as the online experience is lacking, the visuals have some sore spots here and there, and gamers will have to dig a bit in order to obtain the cars they really want to roll around with. Other than that, DiRT is still a fine example of a proper rally game.
9/25/2007 Arnold Katayev