Version tested: Xbox 360
We've only just noticed this, but there hasn't been a good rally game since Rallisport Challenge 2 on the good ol' Xbox. That's pretty shocking really, especially when you consider that before that, you'd see a new off-road racing game every few months. Then again, perhaps that's precisely what killed off developer enthusiasm for the genre - as the market filled with uninspiring rally titles like Rally Fusion and Richard Burns Rally, the world just seemed to lose interest. Who better, then, to breathe new life into this ailing sub-genre than Codemasters, the guys who first showed us how well consoles and rally racing could coexist back in the early years of the PSone? And with the very same series that showed us just how exciting real rallying could be the first time around, no less. C-Mac in the house, y'all.
After a lavish introductory sequence, DiRT stumbles for the first time as it's introduced not by Mr McRae but by American counterpart Travis Pastrana. This in itself is no shortcoming, sure, but Pastrana's X-Games past starts to come out as he congratulates you for victories with suitably unexpected terms such as 'wicked'. We'd expect that from Neversoft or even EA but Codies? Nope, didn't see that one coming. Even your co-driver indulges in similarly gnarly skate speak, often commenting on how totally stoked he is or celebrating a race victory like a loudmouthed jock might celebrate a touchdown. All this is somewhat jarring, especially given the wonderfully clean and mature presentation of the game. We can safely say that we've never had a rally game address us as 'dude' before.
This Americanisation is even carried over into the core of the game itself, which now encompasses a variety of CORR off-road events from the States. From remarkably nippy dirt buggies to hulking big rigs, there's plenty of variety here but just not a lot of entertainment. Perhaps that's not entirely fair - the buggies are a speedy and suitably different challenge but the problem is that once you get into anything bigger than an Impreza, things get so sluggish and messy that you'll be left longing for the next traditional rally race. Career mode pulls of a major coup using the relative weakness of these new elements, as starting out with a fairly tiresome CORR event makes the rally stage that follows it feel shockingly fast, exceptionally tight and almost like it just fell out of a totally different game. But as things go on, you'll quickly learn that the rallying masterpiece that shone through during that second career race isn't a different game at all. DiRT is, for the most part, an impeccable rally title, let down only by a fistful of dodgy events and the odd technical hiccup. Allow us to digress.
Like the sublime Forza 2, DiRT is able to strike an incredible balance between realism and playability. Again, gearheads can tune their car and set it up for each stage to absolutely wreck course records while beginners can knock the difficulty down and race with the default set-up and still attain victory. Career mode eases you in wonderfully, starting off with the slower FWD cars while still giving you an impressive sense of speed and showing off the wide spread of racing disciplines that DiRT covers. Rally events are your traditional time trial challenges, Rallycross races the same only with your rivals on the course at the same time and Crossover courses are your usual rally finale, pitting two racers against one another on an intertwined track. On top of these basic three, you've got complex Hill Climb courses to navigate as well as the slightly less enjoyable Rally Raid events and inconsistent CORR competitions. Things start off pretty basic in the lower tiers of career but as you work your way up, the single-stage events and basic courses of the introductory period give way to fearsome and gruelling multi-stage challenges that will mean looking after your car for more than just the usual quartet of checkpoints.
Modelled on actual roads and, in some cases, total real world circuits, the tracks of DiRT are on the whole pretty spectacular. Emerging from dense forest to career through a quaint little village is a hell of a thrill while the Crossover courses encourage a kind of competitive nature that one mightn't usually associate with rallying. From muddy English country roads to the Australian outback, settings and course design are equally resplendent and while one track might not require you to visit Mr Brake Pedal all that often, the next may have four or five tricky hairpin corners in succession. You really never know what's coming next with DiRT, and given just how much of the game is so very, very good, this element of surprise is more than welcome.