The first time you slip DiRT into your Xbox 360, you may just crap your pants. The environments are lush, the lighting superb and the damage modeling incredible. DiRT is gorgeous. And the spectacular visuals are matched by the most impressive user interface to ever bless a console. Once the rush of the inspired visuals and eye-popping menus passes, you'll find a very solid rally racer. Though it's not the best of the Colin McRae series, DiRT is perhaps the most accessible. It's not perfect, but it's damned pretty -- and a whole lot of fun.
Great rally racers find a way to mix sim aspects with an arcade spirit. The sport, by its nature, features a lot of power sliding around narrow corners in rustic settings, creating a sense that you're somehow defying the laws of physics. But that's true rally racing. DiRT does a great job of offering both an arcade experience (for those who are faint of heart) and a hardcore challenge (for those with balls of stone). The default difficulty keeps the challenge fairly lax. Crank up the difficulty setting and suddenly every fast turn becomes risky and any crash can prove fatal. Few games offer two different sets of experiences, but DiRT does it better than most. So whether you are just a casual racing fan or a Colin McRae nut, you can have fun racing across the beautiful wilderness vistas of DiRT.
The bulk of the single-player experience is placed in the career mode -- an epic pyramid of increasingly difficult racing challenges. Six different rally events are spread across the career mode: Rally, Crossover, Rallycross, Rally Raid, CORR and Hill Climb. These are equally distributed throughout career, meaning that those who love time-trial rally racing will find considerably fewer of these events than in previous CM games. While that might be reason to complain, the multi-car races fit perfectly into the grittier attitude of DiRT. The healthy variety of race types keeps the career mode interesting from the bottom of the event pyramid up to the top.
The framerate sometimes suffers with six-to-ten cars trading paint on a dirt track, but it's a worthwhile trade-off for some of the exhilarating moments that come from these events. On the Croft race track in the UK, there are tires bordering most of the track. Within 30 seconds of the start of a race, tires are flying everywhere. It's hilarious fun. And while sim fans may feel their stomachs churning a bit at the thought of flying rubber in a serious race, it's just one of those arcade touches that adds some extra flair to DiRT. The good news is that the AI of your competitors just matches the difficulty setting. If you choose Clubman -- meant for those who can't tell the brake from the clutch -- you'll see the AI cars understeer through turns or even spin out. Select Pro and competitors make cleaner lines and are fierce to the finish.
Brilliant drivers have the bragging rights for driving clean races and competing to top the World Record on any track. But they may also miss out on one of DiRT's greatest achievements: damage modeling. DiRT's damage can be as dramatic (and thrilling) as Burnout. You'll see some amazing destruction if you understeer on corners and smack into a tree or misjudge the racing lane and drive into a median. These awesome crashes shatter windshields, rip off doors and can break your car nearly in two. I've seen my carburetor fly out of my car and had my spoiler spin off after a wreck. In many respects, the damage to cars is far more detailed and amazing than the actual racing.
All that damage isn't just for show. DiRT has a detailed damage system that covers nine different areas of the car -- from the engine to the gearbox to the bodywork. Fully wrecking any of these will cause terminal damage and end your race. But reduce any area to below 25% and your car will seriously suffer. Wreck the cooling system and slowly your engine will overheat. This becomes particularly important in later events where you need to run two and three rally races. As the damage mounts, the threat of your car's demise makes every scrape against a fence that much more stressful.
I should mention that the damage modeling isn't limited to the cars. You will ravage your ride, but also tear up the environment. Hit a wood fence and it splinters. Drive through a yield sign and it may get stuck in your hood. Brush against a small tree and the braches bend against your car. For a true visual and visceral treat, switch to the helmet-cam view. This camera mode gives you a complete view of the fully-rendered dashboard with the ability to turn your head and survey your surroundings. You can watch your navigator read from his notes or watch as your door falls off. Best camera ever? Oh yes.
For those with more racing experience, there are in-depth tuning options. These can make a big difference, particularly if you pay attention to the terrain you're going to be racing on. If you are inexperienced in this area, fear not. Every tuning option has a help menu with narration from dirt bike phenom and rally racing newcomer Travis Pastrana. In fact, Pastrana is featured heavily in all the menus, explaining race modes and even detailing the benefits and drawbacks of every single car in DiRT.
For all of DiRT's excellence, there are several things that do hold it back from true greatness (and keep it from being the best of the Colin McRae series). It's easy to get sucked in by the visuals and presentation, which are truly among the best on Xbox 360, but looking past that, some of the flaws show strongly. The cars in DiRT -- be it a Lancer Evo or a garbage truck -- turn on a central pivot. Even bicycles don't turn on a central pivot. With realistic racers such as Forza 2 on the market, the central pivot feels especially unnatural.
On a whole, the cars don't feel grounded. Of course they are going to slip and slide, but it often feels like you're driving on a cloud rather than a dirt road. There's no sense of weight to the cars. Sure, it's still cool to swing the backend of your car as you slide through a corner, but you don't really feel the weight shift. DiRT does so much right, it's a shame that Codemasters couldn't nail the final touches on such important aspects of a racer. Again, that doesn't mean it isn't incredibly fun, but for a next-gen racer it's a bit disappointing not to have the complete package.
The biggest letdown, however, is the multiplayer. Up to 100 gamers can race together online -- sort of. See, there are no options to race with multiple cars on the track. Instead, you run either a rally race or a hill climb at the same time as everyone else. You never see another car (or anyone else's replay), and I had considerable issues getting voice chat to work with others online. Still, this could have been a decent online alternative if Codemasters hadn't completely dropped the ball on the set-up.
When you enter a room, you can vote for one of seven tracks -- each with one specific car that everyone must race. The problem is that when setting up your own race, you can't choose which tracks or cars are voted on. It's always random. And by the same token, you can't search for a race with a specific track or with type of car. And you can't stop the countdown clock. So if you start a room and no one joins in one minute, you will load a solo race. And if everyone wants to take a pee break after the end of a race, they'll have to relieve themselves in less than 60 seconds or the next race will start without them.
Racing games offer online multiplayer with at least six cars. That's pretty much standard nowadays. DiRT delivers only narrowly. It's unlikely many will bother with the multiplayer after the first few races. Fortunately, the single-player is deep enough that it easily makes DiRT worth every penny of its $60 cover charge.
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