September 14, 2007 // 7:50 pm
- The game already looks phenomenal, but when you combine that with a smooth frame rate, you've got something special.
There have been plenty of driving games of late that have been visually impressive, but very few live up to the visual fidelity displayed by DiRT. This game is a technical achievement in car design, track design, and damage modeling. To begin with, the cars are beautifully rendered, highly detailed models that are as fantastic to look at as they are to destroy. Damage modeling is one of the most impressive aspects of the game; you can lose bumpers or doors, break glass, tear up the paintjob, and roll your ride into a crushed, deformed mess. Tracks are equally beautiful and destructible. From the rain-slick tarmac tracks of Japan and the dusty backroads of Italy to the muddy, gravelly countryside of the UK, DiRT nails every environment wonderfully.
The game also uses lighting to fantastic effect, not just to emphasize how shiny and reflective the cars are, but to give each track an individual atmosphere. Driving around desert mountains in the washed-out haze of late day is an amazing sight to behold, for sure. And if you feel like tearing up these tracks, you can bust through fences, barriers, bushes, and anything else not held to the ground with concrete. All the while, dirt, mud, or gravel will kick up against and often stick to your car, making the game's namesake seem entirely appropriate.
One of the big complaints about DiRT on the 360 and PC was that it simply didn't perform very well. The PC version looked choppy on a near-constant basis, and the 360 version had a tendency to tank pretty badly during multicar races. On the other hand, the PlayStation 3 version is nearly flawless in this regard. The game maintains a steady 30-frames-per-second rate for the vast bulk of the game, and the few scattered dips in performance are very brief and hardly noticeable. The extra time between releases seems to have benefited this version a great deal.
The quality of the presentation doesn't begin and end with the in-game graphics either. Even the menu system is immaculately built. It's hard to describe it, except to call it a bunch of floating boxes with selectable options that zoom in and out as you select them. Even the loading screens are cool because they display real-time statistics on your game, such as your favorite tracks or vehicles, your average speed, and even your favorite driving surface. Menus are usually a forgotten element of a game unless they're specifically bad, so the fact that DiRT's are notable for how good they are says something.
Audio is not quite as immediately impressive as the visuals, but it is great all the same. Engine noise is probably the best aspect because each car has a definitive and unique sound to it that feels just right. Crashes and other racing effects are also excellently produced. The soundtrack isn't licensed, but the instrumentals that play over the various menus and replays are quite solid. The only damper on the category is your codriver, an obnoxious, bro-sounding dolt whose dialogue sounds like it was written by a nonnative English speaker and whose only reference for the language was reruns of Saved By the Bell. Lines like "Smooth and steady; I'm Mr. Smooth, and you're Mr. Steady," and "Yeah! We won the championship! I'm so stoked!" are funny once, but then they're annoying from there on out. At least he gives you some good info on the tracks before you race.
Once you've snapped out of the trance that DiRT's fantastic presentation tends to lull you into, you might remember that this is a racing game and that you do actually have to play it. It's a good thing it's a fun one. The game includes six different racing disciplines, which consist of rally, rallycross, hillclimb, CORR, crossover, and rally raid varieties. If you don't know what half of those are, don't fret. The game does a good job of easing you into the game's style of racing, with both some rather simple early races, as well as an explanatory narration by extreme sports maven and current Rally America champion Travis Pastrana.
Granted, even if you've never jumped into a CORR race in your life, DiRT isn't exactly a difficult game to grasp. You're racing down a course by yourself, trying to get the best time possible, or racing against other cars, buggies, or trucks on dirt and tarmac tracks. Most of the differences in gameplay come from how the various vehicles handle. There is obviously a big difference between driving a speedy Mitsubishi FTO and a massive racing big rig (yes, they actually have those).
But even with all the differences among disciplines, the racing is always easy to pick up and play. DiRT has a decidedly arcade-driving sensibility that makes all the vehicles relatively easy to race with from the outset. Once you've gotten a feel for how all the different cars and tracks feel, you can simply crank up the difficulty, which in turn makes your opponent racers much more adept, and also leaves your car far more open to terminal damage. On the highest setting, all it takes is one good front-end collision to send you packing.
As realistic as the damage incurrence can be, the rest of the game definitely maintains an arcade mentality. Nearly all the vehicles have a decidedly floaty feel to them, one that seems to overcompensate for nearly every minute turn of the analog stick. It's not unmanageable or anything, but it's far from realistic. By the same token, the game's physics are often a bit silly, especially in wrecks. That's not an insult by any means because the exaggerated physics lead to some absolutely spectacular wrecks in many cases. But there are some eye-roll-worthy moments where you'll see a car tilt from lying on its side all the way back upright for no good reason or drive sideways up a cliff to land back on four wheels.
Floaty feel and wonky physics aside, DiRT is still a great deal of fun to play. Once you get a feel for the controls and up the difficulty a bit, the racing can be intensely challenging, addictive, and immersive. It's especially immersive if you happen to take in one of the game's two exceptionally good cockpit camera views. There's a zoomed-in view and a view that's a bit further back. Both views give you a great sense of being in the driver's seat, even going so far as to let you look around inside the car via the right analog stick. Not enough racers do the cockpit camera that well, and DiRT is worth lauding for doing it especially well.
As fun as the racing can be, it wouldn't be worth much if DiRT didn't offer up plenty of ways to experience it. Fortunately, it does the job. Apart from being able to take part in single races and events, as well as a series of championships, consisting of multiple races each, DiRT also has a lengthy, involving career mode that has you working your way up a literal pyramid of events. Winning races earns you points, which unlock new tiers of the career mode and cash, which you can use to buy new vehicles or liveries for said vehicles. With more than 60 career events, nearly 50 vehicles to unlock, and more than 180 liveries to buy for those vehicles, that ought to keep you busy.
The one feature that DiRT skimps badly on is multiplayer support. There is multiplayer, but just barely. Only two disciplines--rally and hillclimb--are available to play in multiplayer. But wait, aren't those the two disciplines that don't have you competing directly against other cars? You bet. Essentially, you're dumped into a lobby with potentially dozens of other players, and from there, you vote on which track you want to play. The available list to vote on is always random, and there's no option to pick a different car or even search for a lobby with specific cars/tracks available.
Once you're in a race, it's merely a time trial against all the other players. You can see how you're doing in the real-time standings, but that's all. While the Colin McRae series has never been known for great multiplayer support, the total lack of online racing in a game that debuts several wheel-to-wheel racing types is a gigantic tease and really disappointing.
That said, the multiplayer support is really the only thing about DiRT you can call truly disappointing. On every other front, DiRT delivers a racing experience that's a lot of fun to play, as well as visuals that are an absolute joy to watch. The PS3 version's inclusion of a steadier frame rate, slightly better audio quality, and support for the Logitech G25 force feedback steering wheel helps define it as the best of the bunch. If you already picked up one of the previous releases of the game, there's not enough new content here to make this version worth your while. But for those who missed out on DiRT the first time around, this is the definitive version to get.