Off-Roading Bliss

DiRT lives up to the name with tons of different racing types and plenty of kinds of vehicles to enjoy them in, all with plenty o' dust.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: November 4, 2007
PlayStation 3 owners had to wait a few extra months to finally get DiRT (released here in the US sans Colin McRae, which still strikes me as odd considering the man should be post-humusly honored with as many titles as possible), but the extra time spent on the game was more than worth it. Built on Codemasters' Neon Engine with help from Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, it's not surprising that the PS3 version is the definitive one, but what did catch me off guard was how solid the game's six different schools of racing actually are.

Not one of the modes -- which range from massive big rig races to high-powered semi runs up Pike's Peak to the more familiar rally races to circuit-based crossover track where two cars race against each other on separate tracks that switch up midway through the run -- feels lacking compared to the others. Yes, there are more traditional race types like the rally and rallycross (a mix of on- and off-road races), but there's also rally raid (think rally races against other cars rather than the clock), hillclimbs (an uphill run, naturally), and the aforementioned more circuit-like runs.

The easiest way to take all these races in, plus experience the close to four dozen different vehicles in the game is just to jump into the Career Mode, which saddles you with a literal pyramid of varying race types, working your way up to the final Champion of Champions race at the top and experiencing the myriad combinations of vehicle and race types that the game can spit out. Because you can adjust the difficulty per-race (tougher competitors and stricter damage models will net you more cash for wins), the progress up the pyramid can be as easy or difficult as you want, though obviously to unlock the really sweet rides, you're going to have to pocket some serious cash.

There are one-off modes for racing things as you like them, including a dedicated rally mode for the purists out there, but the real meat of the game is in the Career path, and it's also the gateway to the game's worldwide rankings, which are updated constantly as you play through the game. When you finally do hop online, you'll find that the offerings are painfully slim, and despite all the new race types in the game, neither of the two online race types have you up against other cars on the track (though you'll get live updates of their times, which is actually quite thrilling in that "don't mess up or it's over" sense. I personally dug the real-time leaderboards and felt that any screwups were my own problem rather than someone else playing ping-pong off my car and sending me into a ditch, but I can understand gripes about the barebones offering.

Part of the beef with things might be the fact that like all of the Colin McRae games before it, Codemasters built a hell of a damage model into DiRT. While decidedly arcadey in general feel and controls, the physics and deformation in the cars can make for some absolutely insane crashes, leading to mangled hoods, torn car doors, busted axles, and more. Thanks to a decent replay system that lets you pick from pre-selected angles and even allows for push-button slo-mo, half the fun in doing some of the races is just bombing around a corner and seeing how many rolls and flips you can get out of the car. There are some instances of wonky physics (odd popping, miracle saves after running up walls), but for the most part the special kind of gravity that exists in DiRT makes for some fantastic crashes.

It should also be noted that the game runs beautifully on the PS3, with a rock-solid 30fps framerate, tons of detail in the different cars, including some great play of light and shadow, though the bloom effect on some of the tracks can be a little too overblown (which is a little nuts considering the HDR lighting in the game was toned down for the PS3 release). Still, given the texture detail and the modeling of the cars (not to mention a touch of destructibility in the environments from busting through or denting the hell out of guard rails and safety fences), it's damned impressive that the game looks as good as it does while still maintaining a solid framerate and a fantastic sense of speed -- particularly with the later cars.

All the different rides in the game also mean ample opportunity to crank up your speakers and enjoy the absolutely fantastic aural presentation. While the actual music in the game, a mash of ambient and thick, soupy electro-sounding percussion tracks, sounds great, they only really show up during the menus -- which, by the way, are ripped right from the demoscene and have to be seen to fully appreciate. They're simple and clean and easily the coolest I've seen this gen so far. Travis Pastrana acts as narrator for everything, and at any given pre-race set-up, you can get track info from your race partner, but that's about the extent of the audio.

The rest is left up to the combination of engine noise and traction. Despite the game's slightly floaty, arcade feel, the sounds of sliding around are incredibly clear and provide some great aural feedback. It's in the little things with the engine that I was really impressed. Some of the vehicles, like the massive Russian trucks and racing semis, were a little beyond my scope of familiarity, but I can specifically remember a rally cross event where I took my turbo-powered ride around a corner and went from dirt to tarmac. The scream of the turbo hit just the slightest little dip as the tires bit into the pavement, and it perfectly illustrates the kind of attention to detail Codemasters spent with the game's audio.

DiRT manages to do something that few racing games have done. It not only piles on an extensive list of race types in addition to the rally courses Codemasters has become famous for, but heaps on new kinds of vehicles and manages to pull it off with some of the best presentation I've ever seen in a racing game. For a game to take on so much and pull it off with just the right mixture of arcade controls and sim-like attention to detail (I don't even know where to start about all the tweaks you can make to your ride, but the helpful descriptions and side banter make fooling around with things not only fun, but educational -- even if I never did more than tinker), it's a monumental accomplishment. DiRT is a fantastic racing experience, and one that shouldn't be missed.
The Verdict