Heralded by fans and critics alike for delivering exciting rally racing for the past nine years, the Colin McRae Rally series has finally arrived to next-gen platforms, sans McRae’s name in North America. Renamed “DiRT”, this sixth entry in the series continues the tradition set forth by its predecessors with its offering of a slew of rally racing action backed by a rock-solid game engine, while raising the bar for the series in general. In DiRT, Codemasters has delivered the 360’s most beautiful racing game to date, and one of its most visually-stunning games, period. They’ve also provided me with the most enjoyable rally-based racing experience I’ve had since Rallisport Challenge 2 (and before that, Sega Rally Championship).
Aside from single event and championship-winning modes, an extensive career mode is available that showcases just about everything that makes DiRT an exceptional game - its wide variety of racing modes (rally cross, hill climb), an impressive car selection (48 in total, with 4 different skins for each), its tough AI that offers up thrilling races even on the lower difficulty settings, and won’t shy away from bumping you right off the road into a ditch, and refined gameplay that makes each of those modes come alive.
It takes place via an 11-tiered pyramid, which is structured to give you a high amount of low-level races at the beginning (11 races are on the lowest tier), and then caps off with a single incredibly-tough race the highest tier. In that time, you’ll be forced to compete in every race type available in the game, which may sound daunting, but isn’t as terrifying as it may seem since you have the ability to practice a course before racing on it.
Before a race, you can also buy a car if a specific one is needed for a particular kind of race, fix damage accumulated in previous races, adjust the abilities of the car to tweak it so it works better on the game’s dirt and tarmac surfaces, while also tailoring it to your specific racing style. Each of those surfaces has their own effect on your driving, with the hard tarmac giving you the most reliable steering and car maneuvering (except when it‘s raining), while the dirt gives you the loosest steering, and tens to be the surfaces where the most exciting racing occurs, as the slightest mistake on your part or nudge from a foe can send you careening off course.
For that reason, I recommend that players start the game on the easiest setting, then work their way up to the higher settings, as enemies on lower settings don‘t send you off the course as often. This gives you a chance to not only figure out how the cars react to the different driving surfaces, but gives you a chance to face AI opponents, and learn the layout of the track at the same time, which makes it slightly more preferable than just using the traditional practice mode. I found that mode to be quite handy when it came to getting used to some of the false turns on the more tracks, where it looks like you’ve got two turn options available, but only one is valid. It’s also helpful on tracks with a lot of tight turns, and as a general rule, I recommend only using it for complex tracks, as it isn’t really needed on the simpler ones, where a trial by fire style of learning will suffice.
Since all of DiRT’s racing mode are represented in the career mode, I found it to be the best showcase for its gameplay, and the game’s most rewarding mode, as there’s nothing quite like winning a hill climb, then a rally cross, and then a 4WD challenge against a handful of foes back-to-back. In every mode, you can expect nearly-flawless controls to make each race a blast to play. Keep in mind that there is a learning curve to the game due to the loose driving caused by the dirt tracks, but don’t chalk that up to poor controls, since over time, you’ll learn to handle your vehicles on that slick dirt just as skillfully as on the tarmac.
Visually, DiRT stands out as one of the 360’s most memorable games for many reasons. Nearly everything from the tracks and cars to the menus looks top-notch. The cars are among the most detailed I’ve ever seen in my 20 years of gaming - and not due to their exteriors, but their interiors. With one of the game’s camera options, you can take yourself inside the car and look around it in real-time, where you’ll not only see individual parts of the windshield shatter due to a crash, but also see parts of the interior shaking violently as you land after a jump, and if you’ve got a partner alongside you, you’ll see him jot down notes (or a maybe a will, due to those landings), and raise his arms in celebration. It’s something I’ve never seen before in a game, and while it is incredible to witness, I don’t recommend doing too often outside of practice mode, as it’s easy to become distracted as a result of just trying to take all the visual splendor in at once.
DiRT’s menu system also stands out, as its one of the sleekest I’ve ever seen, and is basically what the Xbox Live blade system would be if it was represented in a series of white 3D screens with red trim. Like the blades, a quick flick of the d-pad gets you anywhere you need to go quickly, but with a much cleaner layout, that is even interactive, as you can rotate the selected square on a menu screen with the right analog stick. It’s a small feature, but one that also helps the menu system remain memorable.
The menus’ audio guides are another thing that help to accomplish that goal, as you’re coached through the intricacies of the game by Collin, and unlike some games that seemingly talk down to players with these audio guides, or games (like the recent Burnouts) that just blurt out facts so fast and loud that they’re impossible to decipher, here, everything is stated in a calm, educational manner, and stated in such a way that everyone can understand. This execution adds a sense of class to the proceedings that I’d like to see more games follow suit with.
Unfortunately, while the gameplay and menu systems are phenomenal most of the time, they’re not flawless. In the case of the gameplay, it’s hurt slightly by a track reset option that places you back on the track after going off course. In some games, this is done with a simple button press, which can result in abuse of the feature. Here, it’s done when you’re off course past an unspecified point, which can lead to you getting stuck at a time when you desperately need to be reset back onto the track, like after the aggressive AI knocks you into a steep ditch that doesn’t trigger the reset feature, but leaves you stuck and forced to lose.
As great as it is, the menu system is hurt by its sleek functionality being used to attempt to mask the game’s extensive load times. Real-time stat tracking is used to show you how many races you’ve what, what your average finishing position is, what your most-used vehicle is, how many times you didn’t finish, and a plethora of other stats. While I certainly enjoy seeing stats rattled off when they’re good , I don’t enjoy seeing them accompany the game’s numerous loading screens and seemingly never-ending loading times, which seem to follow every major and most minor occurrence. Long loading times aren’t usually something that bug me, but when they prevent me from playing a superb game in an efficient manner, I get upset about them.
Despite its slight gameplay and extensive loading problems, DiRT still delivers the most exciting and rewarding racing action I’ve experienced on the 360, and the finest rally racing experience I’ve ever had in a game. After falling in love with Rallisport Challenge 2 a few years ago, I didn’t think anything could top it, but this extraordinary effort from Codemasters does just that, and has given me a new favorite racing series. If you’re new to it, or rally racing games, I recommend checking out the free Xbox Live demo, which can also be used for folks that are tentative due to the learning curve, as it’ll give you a chance to learn the mechanics of the gameplay without any pressure or cost. Long-time fans of the series, or rally racing games in general, can safely snag this without concern, as this is the genre’s finest offering to date.