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.
And with all the variety in event types, it should pretty much go without saying that you'll be seeing all manner of vehicles as you make your way to rally stardom. The usual spread of Lancers, Subarus and the smaller rally cars of today is a decent start, with plenty of classic rally cars, prototypes, trucks, buggies and more besides all just waiting to be unlocked. Each has its own unique feel and as well as the basic stats that give you a rough idea of which is best for any given job, you can call in an analyst for a more detailed description with a touch of a button. This feature is reprised elsewhere in the game, with assistants being able to talk you through a complex stage or help you work out which aspects of a car to tweak or repair between stages, meaning you can go it alone or have the benefit of expert advice if you so desire.
It isn't just the individual cars that feel different here, though, and as you speed from mud to tarmac or leap across sand dunes, you'll notice a huge change in each surface. The physics model means that most courses require you to adapt several times per circuit as you hit each new surface - fail to react to the fact that a long concrete stretch suddenly branches off into a muddy bend and you can expect to be overtaken as you spin out and do untold damage to your car in the process. Damage modelling too is wonderful and while slight scrapes will certainly make their mark, anything larger will see bodywork twist and buckle before smashing off altogether. Depending on your difficulty level, damage can have anything from a negligible to a catastrophic effect on performance and while you might be able to recover from a big crash on the lower levels, expect to see wheels fly off and engines blow up if you lose it in Pro Am or above. Oddly, though, terminal damage doesn't affect more than the single stage you're racing - rather than blow the whole event, you can simply pop back in time and replay the stage at your leisure until you finally manage to make it over the line with all four wheels.
So we've covered the great tracks, the convincing vehicles and that mind-blowing sense of speed but one thing we haven't really touched upon is the overall look of DiRT. On the whole, the word 'beautiful' is probably the best blanket term we can apply and when you're the only car on the track, everything belts along at a suitably impressive rate. Once you start to add other cars into the equation, though, Codemasters' Neon engine starts to feel the strain a little and the game becomes prone to chugging, especially in the early stages of more complex courses where huge settings and entire grids are having to be rendered. It's never game-breaking, but it does tarnish DiRT's otherwise gleaming polish a little, especially after seeing how sacrificing just a little detail enabled Forza 2 to maintain fluidity. This aside, DiRT is probably among the most visually capable racing games we've seen to date, particularly when you opt for the in-car view (or cut to it during a replay) and see every stunning detail from the driver's point of view, even down to the co-driver reeling off the info on his notepad as you shake him to within an inch of his life with your reckless driving.
Having levelled a fair degree of criticism at certain elements of DiRT earlier on, this is probably as good a time as any to point out that these do little to harm the overall sheen of McRae's latest. All of the more traditional rallying is as good as you could hope or expect and although we didn't feel that the truck-racing did anything for the game, it does add variety to the proceedings and there are bound to be people out there that will swear by it. If nothing else, these slower events really hammer home the breakneck speed of the rest of the game and for that their inclusion is plenty justified. A lengthy and eclectic career mode is just the start of what DiRT offers, with Championship mode allowing for full-length rallies to be played out and Rally World mode letting you play any course that has come up in career mode. The Live side of things is equally bountiful, offering Forza fans and Gotham kids an entirely different prospect by letting up to a hundred players per session vote on a course and car from a given list before all battling it out in a level field time-trial challenge. A wonderful package and a triumphant return to form for Codies, DiRT sets a mean precedent for future rally games to match and really manages to capture the excitement, the fear and the challenge of off-road racing. It's, like, totally sick, dude. Killer.
8 / 10