The Codemasters Colin McRae rally series has played to a niche racing audience over the years, never quite able to achieve mass appeal other venerable racing franchises have enjoyed. The blame can likely be attributed to America’s ignorance when it comes to rally racing and the Colin McRae name/brand, as well as the sport’s monotonous point-to-point racing style that translates to imminent boredom.
The leap to next generation gaming consoles presented Codemasters” design studio a golden opportunity to re-invent the McRae series to target a broader audience while likewise giving faithful rally diehard fans something new. With DiRT, they’ve done just that. By polishing the presentation, adding new racing types, pumping up the visuals and renaming the series, Codemasters has successfully steered McRae rally racing into uncharted, mass appeal country.
It doesn’t take long for DiRT to reach out and grab new unsuspecting addicts thanks to one of the most simplistic yet engaging and refined menu systems developed to-date. Each level of navigation exists simultaneously within a three-dimensional space with new elements moving forward or backwards when selected. This style isn’t necessarily revolutionary on its own, but it stands out from competitors when combined with a hazy soft glowing background, constant subtle movement of objects, a strong voiceover adding direction where needed, and useful load screens that toss out real-time statistics until a race is ready to run.
Codemasters has marketed DiRT as a gritty racer with stellar visuals which the final build lives up to. The in-game presentation is maybe just a hair shy of MotorStorm on Playstation 3 which is a great position to be in. Spit-shined vehicles get dirty and beat up over the course of a race, and will appear that way in the next race unless you take the time to clean them up. Unfortunately, the Xbox 360 struggles with the game’s information from time-to-time, either throwing back frame-rate delays or, even worse, highly annoying horizontal image disruptions. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming Playstation 3 version is able to handle the visuals more cleanly.
Casual gamers drawn into McRae racing for the first time will find staying on the track much harder than in Forza 2 or MotorStorm. The controls are extremely sensitive to left and right movement on pavement, much less on gravel or dirt with the controller rumbling and vehicle bouncing around. Slower vehicles like big rigs are much easier to handle, while looser and faster dune buggies and sports cars take an incredibly steady hand to master. Oddly enough, it can be harder to drive a perfectly straight line than navigate a tight turn.
Career Mode is where most gameplay time in “DiRT” will be spent as it offers the most challenges and Xbox 360 Achievements to acquire. Entering this mode displays a pyramid laced with over 60 races that must be climbed to reach the ultimate championship. Each race offers five difficulty levels with harder events rewarding winners with larger purses. Finding an easy race and running it on the hardest level over and over would have been an easy way to rack up cash to buy new cars and paint jobs faster, if only Codemasters wasn’t wise to our tricks and greatly reduced purses for each difficulty level once a podium finish is achieved.
Race and car class variety, and of course the pursuit of Achievements, make climbing the pyramid fun for a little bit instead of a laborious chore. The point-to-point races against the clock are still there, but they’re now joined by hill climb events, off-road circuit races against opponents, and crossover races where you race against one opponent on an identical parallel but unconnected track. The newness wears off on the third or fourth tier of the pyramid, but that’s still several hours of finishing first with something decidedly new, instead of faster or better, to look forward to.
Hardcore rally fans looking for the real deal will find it in authentic Championship Events that span the globe, while casual racers not interested in climbing a pyramid can hop onto Xbox Live to race against another player’s time. That’s right; you never have the opportunity to visually race against another player online. It’s you and the open road ahead, a real letdown considering how much fun a circuit race against live opponents could have been.
DiRT will never be put on a plateau alongside the powerhouse Forza and Grand Turismo franchises, but as a re-invention of the niche Colin McRae series, has carved out a much larger audience than it ever enjoyed before. Xbox 360 Achievements play a role in that success, but there’s definitely several hours of fun gameplay to be had before it’s time to move onto something else.
– Dan Bradley