Version tested: PlayStation 3
It's fair to say that being a PlayStation 3 owner has, to date, demanded the sort of patience that would test even the most hardened Sony apologist. If the European launch delay wasn't enough of a bitter pill to swallow, this year has seen all manner of top-tier titles launch weeks - if not months - later on PS3. By the time games like GRAW 2, FEAR, Rainbow Six Vegas, Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Oblivion turned up on the Sony system, they were already old news. And the trend has continued recently, with a succession of irritating delays to highly regarded titles like The Darkness, Skate, Stranglehold, Medal of Honor Airborne, and Colin McRae DIRT.
We've taken the unusual step of re-reviewing the latter title for a few reasons. Firstly, PS3 owners might not necessarily appreciate just how good this game is - by their very nature, tardy ports tend to go under the radar, with hard-pressed publications likely to prioritise new stuff ahead of a conversion that's likely to be functionally identical. But DIRT deserves an extra push, partly because it's largely excellent, but also because it got unfairly overlooked when it was originally released on Xbox 360 June. Unfathomably released alongside the juggernaut that was Forza Motorsport 2, it didn't quite get the attention it perhaps deserved.
Aside from all the scheduling recriminations, it's a game which deserves to be hailed as one of the best racing games of the year on PS3, and certainly up there - if not better than - Motorstorm in many respects. Needless to say, Colin McRae's untimely passing the day after its release on PS3 also grants it a special significance. His enthusiastic input, inspiration and influence on this excellent series is something worth celebrating.
Insert 'Midnight TOCA' gag here
As you may know from its release on PC and 360, it's a long way from the Colin McRae Rally titles of old. Taking several cues from Codemasters' hugely admired TOCA Race Driver series, it's a driving game packed with variety - most of which comes off extremely well, and a small proportion which definitely does not, but more of that later.
Without needlessly trawling through a long list of features (all of which are more than adequately tackled in our original review) the general gist is you find yourself racing in a variety of off-road disciplines. Sure, traditional point-to-point Rally's in there, and is as authentic and exciting as it's ever been, but the whole thing's embellished and fleshed out with all sorts of other racing styles that contribute towards making DIRT such a great all-round package. For a start, there are a few rally spin-offs, such as Crossover events (where you race head-to-head in a two-lane circuit) Rallycross (again, circuit-based, but combining off road and on-road elements), Rally Raid (off-road circuits, US-style), CORR (Championship Off-Road Racing, throwing buggies and Pro-4 trucks into the mix), and "the most extreme discipline" Hill Climb.
In the game's main Career mode, you're presented with a tiered pyramid of events, with the eventual aim to earn enough points in each race to unlock the next one - not to mention enough prize money to buy progressively better vehicles to aid you in your quest. The order in which you race them is relatively loose, giving you a degree of freedom over how you approach the game, and as long as you meet the point requirements, you could feasibly skip entire events if you have a particular aversion to one or more of the racing disciplines.
Like totally stoked
But the most striking thing about the game initially isn't necessarily the freshness and variety, but the terrifyingly irritating input of Travis Pastrana. Not since the Americanisation of Burnout 3 has a game benefited least from the supposedly 'cool' lingo heaped upon the early part of Colin McRae DIRT. Within seconds of starting the career mode, Pastrana comes out with such gems as 'sweet', 'gnarly', 'wicked' and the kind of cringeworthy 'pumped' utterances more befitting a 'totally stoked' skateboarding title. We can only assume it's some kind of cynical attempt to break the all-important North American market, but, to our poor fragile English ears (regularly subjected to more jock speak than we can take) it's the sound of serrated fingernails down blackboards. Mercifully, most of the really nauseating stuff is crammed into the intro, so you can mostly just get on with the racing, but now and then such eye-rollers as "Smooth and steady - I'm Mr Smooth and you're Mr Steady" come at you just when you think you're safe from a prescription from Dr. Cheese. That said, even the main game has some vocal irritations too, with the pace notes read by a Yank. It simply doesn't feel 'right' that the notes are no longer read by Nicky Grist. That was always an integral part of a McRae game's appeal. Couldn't Codies have, you know, localised it properly?
Aside from these rather petty moans, DIRT basically combines the best bits of the Rally games with the Race Driver titles, throws the whole thing into a spanking new engine and comes up with something quite special. It's been said enough times before, but the visuals are such a gigantic leap up from Codies rather underwhelming efforts with the last generation of CMR titles that it totally scratches off the main complaints we used to have. As you many recall, top-notch visuals were the missing link of the previous three Colin McRae titles, so to see the three year break put to such stunning use is genuinely heart-warming. Previously, the handling, damage model and driving physics were up there with the very best, and for all that good work to be retained and refined alongside stunningly detailed tracks, glorious particle and lighting effect and beautifully rendered vehicles is the sign of a studio really pulling out all the stops and listening to feedback.
Codies has also been careful not to stray too far towards arcade or simulation. Just as it has managed so expertly with the three TOCA Race Driver titles, it manages to straddle both areas perfectly, offering authenticity without making it inaccessible to mere mortals. Yet if you poke around in the menus, the ability to tweak set-ups still lurks for anyone who wants to tinker, so the option remains there if you believe you can eke a little bit extra performance out of your ride.
Just truck off
But in the same way as certain elements of Race Driver games don't quite come off, the same holds true for DIRT. For whatever reason, Codies decided to shoehorn truck racing into this game as well, and they stick out like a particularly sore thumb. Racing in bouncy 4x4s isn't the best fun, either, but these unwieldy monstrosities are nothing compared to the lumbering, oafish trucks which are about as fun to race in as caravans. Not a single person I've ever met who has played this game has had fun with them, and, at worst, you may end up being forced to play these events just unlock later sections of the game. Admittedly, the bite-sized nature of the races means they don't outstay their welcome to any great degree, but after enduring two or three of these events, you really won't relish having to play any more of them.
Another point (which went unchallenged in the original review) is the slightly borked online implementation. The claim of 100 player online mode all sounds incredibly promising, doesn't it, but the truth of the matter is far from that. All the '100' figure actually means is up to 100 people can all vote on and race the same Rally or Hill Climb stage, with the 'winner' being the one to post the fastest time. You don't actually race against them in the manner you might expect - as in they don't physically appear on your screen. It's just a dynamic leaderboard system, and a bit of a fudge by Codemasters, if we're being blunt. Having recently enjoyed the true online racing in SEGA Rally, this really is no substitute in that respect. (And while we're talking about SEGA Rally, this game's crying out for track deformation - but maybe next time, eh?)
In terms of the obvious 360 to PS3 comparisons, this fares as well as can be expected. The colour palette appears slightly warmer on PS3, and the visuals are, in general, just slightly softer than the 360 version we were battle hardened by. But in terms of how it ran, the differences were nigh on imperceptible, with the same solid, breakneck sense of speed that makes bumper cam racing such an essential part of playing DIRT. On a point of preference, the lack of rumble was a tad jarring, but, then again, DIRT doesn't make especially innovative use of rumble anyway, generally kicking into life during gear changes rather than reflecting every nuance of the track in the way SEGA Rally does on 360. If anything, it's the gigantic PS3 triggers that we still have trouble getting used to, but that's possibly down to not having played too many racing games on the platform to date than anything.
All round, Colin McRae DIRT is fine game which mixes just the right amount of depth with the kind of accessibility that should open up the brand to the kind of audience it always deserved. Sure, some of Codies tactics in 'going mainstream' are a tad irksome, but in the main the game succeeds by not only being exceptionally good fun to play, but being unquestionably one of the finest looking racing games on the market too. With only an undercooked online element and pointless truck racing detracting from the package, it more than makes up for these aberrations elsewhere. Codemasters did Colin proud.
8 / 10