DiRT: Colin McRae Off-Road

July 13, 2007

The Colin McRae Rally series has become one of the premier rally racing simulators since 1998. It may not have the Scottish racer’s name on it, but DiRT is the latest entry into the series, and it continues to excel at rally racing. What’s more, DiRT is one of the best looking racers to hit the Xbox 360 and possibly rivals the visuals of flagship title Gears of War. Unfortuantely, some issues keep DiRT from being all that it could have been, including one of the most poorly thought-out multiplayer components on the system. Still, fans of the series, and even newcomers, will find a lot to go wild about.

DiRT offers up a pretty slick overall presentation. Aside from the realistic (or at least, mostly realistic; more on that further down) rally racing that the McRae series has been providing for over five games now, DiRT has some of the most impressive menu interfaces I’ve ever seen. Travis Pastrana makes a voice-appearance and guides you through the game, and other voice-overs help explain track layouts and strategy. A large selection of tracks, realistic engine sounds, and pleasing visuals help make DiRT one of the most polished racers alongside Forza 2 and PGR 3. Clearly one of the factors that pushes DiRT into this category is the amazing visuals.

The biggest achievement that DiRT can hand to itself is its gorgeous graphics. While other racers like Forza and PGR present some impressive looks, DiRT goes above and beyond on the graphical front. Tracks are beautifully rendered with lush trees, great textures, and dirt and grit flying everywhere. Driver seat cameras, especially the interior camera that features the dashboard, help make DiRT look all the better. Probably the most impressive aspect, however, comes from the game’s collision system. Driving into walls, poles, and otherwise dangerous objects to run into can really end up totaling your car in the long run, and the system even detects each separate element of the car, from the wheels to the cooling intake. Slamming into something hard enough can even immobilize your car and put you out of the race for good. Also worth mentioning is that unlike many racers, DiRT has managed to gain permission to have cars rollover and take all kinds of abuse. For that reason, replays can be immensely entertaining.

As for the meat of the game, DiRT offers up a pretty diverse set of racing options. The main attraction here is career mode, which has you progressing through a tiered series of races to reach the top and final race. As you progress, you’ll come across the standard rally race through off road territory, but in addition, there are several other types of races to mix things up. Hillclimbs, rallycrosses, CORR races, crossover events, and more make up the bulk of career mode, with each having detailed explanations given by Pastrana. There are a lot of variations on these racing types, even going so far as to add in semi-truck races, so you’ll find a lot to do in career mode. In addition to career mode, there are also other modes such as championship, but for the money, career mode is where you’ll spend most of your time.

There may be some that find rally racing a tad complicated. This will probably only be bolstered by the psychobabble that your co-driver spews throughout the game. Rest assured that DiRT is accessible to all audiences. It isn’t all that difficult to pick up and play a race, even if you’ve never even seen a rally race on television. While there are discernable differences between the handling of cars, it is simple to adapt and take the wins in stride. That said, with the five difficulty modes offered, rally enthusiasts are in for a challenge on Pro Am and beyond. With DiRT, there’s pretty much something for all skill levels.

With all the praise given to DiRT so far, there are some unfortunate downsides, starting with the game physics. The Colin McRae series has been known for a realistic approach to rally racing, and DiRT doesn’t seem to be an exception. Yet, cars don’t seem to feel as natural as they should and don’t grip the road quite like you would think a rally car would. This doesn’t make for an impossible-to-control game, but taking corners and braking seem much easier than you would think. With this taken into consideration, DiRT almost seems to stray away from realism a bit and shows a little of its arcade side. It has been said that the Xbox 360 Wireless Steering Wheel feels much more in-tune with the cars than the game pad (something I was unfortunately unable to verify), but even with physics issues, DiRT can still be a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, while control issues can be excused in light of DiRT‘s great performance, the online play doesn’t get off so easily. The PGR, Forza, and Need for Speed series’ have been providing ample online support for quite some time now, but DiRT does not. Instead, you can have up to 100 other players join into a lobby and race separately on the same track to try and make the best time. This isn’t a bad idea, but as the sole online option in the game, it makes for a bit of a disappointment. Rally Raids and Corr races are great fun offline, and, though probably ridiculously chaotic, would produce the same results online. It isn’t enough that there is only a single mode to choose from, but also your options between picking tracks are also hindered by a voting system. The single player is good, long fun, but some better multiplayer options would have really put DiRT over-the-top. For now, it seems like the developers just stopped short.

With physics errors and online disappointments aside, DiRT is among some of the best racers on the Xbox 360, and is certainly the premier rally racer on the console. While PGR and Forza offer up slick visuals, DiRT will truly blow you away with its amazing graphics, and the damage modeling is something all racing titles should strive for. With a long and fulfilling career mode, the game also packs a lot into its offline options. It’s just too bad that the developers had to skimp on the online functions. Even so, DiRT is highly recommended and lives up to the standards of the Colin McRae Rally series.

Score: 4/5

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