The Colin McRae series of rally games first made their appearance on the original PlayStation console and immediately found an attentive audience with petrol heads and hardcore gamers alike. Preferring to go down the simulation road (no pun intended) instead of the normal arcade style racer, the Colin McRae rally games offered the gamer a new breed of racing games where keeping your foot firmly on the accelerator does not glean the rewards as much as careful and calculated driving would. So now it is the current generation of games consoles that are to showcase the latest in the line of Colin McRae rally series, but the question is whether or not the PlayStation 3’s effort does the Colin McRae name proud.
The very first thing you notice when you start playing Colin McRae DiRT (from now on to be simply known as ‘DiRT’ for reasons that will become apparent) is that the man himself seems to be strangely absent from the whole affair. The closest you’ll ever come to seeing or hearing Colin McRae in this title is to have his decals on the Subaru Impreza. So why the heck have Codemasters put his name on this game!?! I mean, even poor Nicky Grist is missing from this outing to be replaced by an American equivalent co-driver. I can understand if Codemasters want to make the game more universally acceptable State side if they have never heard of Colin (the title’s known only as ‘DiRT’ in the US), but why on Earth put his name on a game he seems to have no involvement with? Anyway, enough with the rant; on to the review proper!
The main crux of the title lies within career mode and it will occupy most of your time. It is set out in a unique pyramid-style structure with numerous ‘easy’ stages at the base which you can use to increase your cash flow and get some much needed practice. Step up a level (after getting the required number of wins in the level below) and there are a few less races to earn money on and the opposition is kicked up a notch. As you may have already guessed the levels become fewer as you progress, but that also means that they become harder and the prestige you get from winning them becomes greater. as does the monetary reward.
You’ll have to participate in many different types of race in the career mode which can vary from the bread and butter Rally to insane Pikes Peak Hill Climb. You remember the Suzuki Pikes Peak car in Gran Turismo with the insane horsepower and a spoiler the size of a small house? Well, it had those for a reason, my friend. The focus has very much shifted from the pure rally focus of previous games in the series and most races have an ‘arcade’ edge to them. This is especially so when racing against computer opponents jostling for first place on the desert tracks – very reminiscent of Motorstorm.
That’s not to say that the traditional rally modes are dead and buried though. Rally purists will be pleased to know that these events still make up the majority of the game, yet participation in the other arcade-style events is mandatory to progress in the single player mode. But like the nice man from Lipton Ice Tea says; "don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it". I used to like the accurate portrayal of the rally ethos in the Colin McRae series, but I am pleased to say that this latest outing has managed to juggle the simulation and arcade elements with ease.
The game’s designers seem to have also tweaked the game’s AI very well indeed. The lowest difficulty sees the opponents driving their vehicles like demented pensioners always seeming to be slower than you and having the turning skill of a pig on ice – without skates. Ideal for the little ones to get in one the action without being subjected to a sound beating every time. Or mums and dads too as we all know they can’t play games very well…
However, kick the difficulty up a notch and the AI gets a new least of life. Clubman difficulty, for example, is challenging enough to test newcomers to the genre without keeping things too easy. The jumps between difficulties are very noticeable and I was well and truly shamed when I attempted Pro mode early on without any real practice. Well at least there is a chance to test drive a track before racing proper.
despite all of the positive aspects the game has, one fatal flaw still remains and it has haunted the series from the very first title: the car turning physics. The game’s physics engine has supposedly been built from scratch and I have been very impressed with the destructible cars, particle effects and interactive track objects, yet the most important flaw still hasn’t been addressed. Each and every car seems to turn from its centre.
That’s right, the most annoying trait of the Colin McRae series sticks around like a bad smell. The cars turn by pivoting on their centre like some turbo charged shopping trolleys and can really kill the realistic nature of the races. Some petrol heads may even consider it blasphemy. Luckily you get used to how the cars turn and can eventually accurately judge how to take the perfect racing line every time. Still, it would have been nice to have made this aspect of the game as realistic as the rest.
Multiplayer. Oh dear. One of the game’s weakest points is the distinct lack of multiplayer modes and options. With a game like this your would be forgiven for expecting an online multiplayer mode a la Motorstorm where you battle it out with various other players on the dirt tracks encountered in single player. After all, you get to do it against computer opponents in the single player game, why not against other human players? Why not, indeed…
It makes you wonder whether or not the game’s programmers have ever played multiplayer games online because all of the bog-standard features you would expect seem to be missing. The option to host your own races where you can specify all of the race criteria? Nope. Everyone has to confirm that they are ready for the race to begin and/or that they are ready for the next race when the last one has finished? Nope. Well, at you can race at least four human-controlled cars against each other at one can’t you? Ha! Yes! Up to one hundred players can all race each other at the same time! Oh wait, you mean four cars on the screen at the same time? Er, no…
Yes, you heard correctly. Although you can race up to one hundred players at once on a single race, this is done via time only and you never get to see the players’ cars on your screen. Not even ‘ghost cars’. In fact the only indication that you are actually racing against other drivers at the same time is the ability to chat via a USB or Bluetooth headset. Well that makes it all okay then. *sigh*
Now this is what next-gen graphics are all about! Detailed tracks and scenery, accurately modelled vehicles, realistic damage and particle effects to name a few of the game’s impressive visuals. With a lot of the elevated tracks you can even see the later parts of the track in the distance. A unique touch that I feel shows off the hardware’s capabilities nicely. It’s not just the races themselves that boast good looks; the menus also have a polished and intuitive interface where one can easily navigate between modes and/or options and be treated to slick transitions as they do so. Heck, even the usually tiresome loading screens have the thoughtfulness to display your career statistics in a novel way whilst the current level is loading (and boy does this game load)!
I’ve already discussed car damage earlier on, but what I neglected to tell you is how good it actually looks on screen. To many people the sight of seeing a pristine rally car smashed to bits would make them cry, yet the same smashed car makes me weep with joy. Realistic chassis damage, random bits of the car falling off, cracked and smashed windscreens are just some of the sights you are rewarded with for sloppy driving. There’s no better feeling than limping over the finish line after a difficult rally section whilst the car is barely holding together. If you unlucky (or sadistic) enough to go full pelt into a tree or similar obstacle, you’ll laugh yourself silly as a couple of wheels go flying off into the distance and you’re sat there with no way to finish the race.
Another great feature is the ability to alter your camera angle when racing. There’s the traditional third-person camera that sits above and behind you car so you can see what’s going on ahead, but to truly experience rally racing as it was intended you can also switch to helmet cam and get the adrenaline rush drivers must get when they are racing. The sense of speed truly is increased in this viewpoint (as is the urgency as well!) and also adds a new dimension to the way the game is played.
Although we no longer get to hear the reassuring tones of Nicky Grist telling us that we have a ‘sharp left, widening’ turn coming up. His American replacement still gets the job done admirably. However, his over-enthusiastic celebratory remarks do get tiresome after he exclaims that we should ‘crack open the champagne!’ for the umpteenth time. There’s also a guide of sorts, someone who introduces you to what each mode is about as you’re setting up on the menus and someone who also gently reminds you that you may want to bump up the difficulty a notch if you are totally steaming through the levels with ease.
It’s not just in the menus where the games sounds good though; the races themselves showcase some impressive audio in the form of the car engines and general ambience. You can really get a sense of the car’s raw power as you rev the engine at the start line and you physically cringe whenever you wrap a car around a tree. You can almost feel it.
DiRT is fantastically fun to play and manages to get the balance between simulation and arcade just about right. Single player will keep most people occupied for a long while and the harder difficulties are challenging enough for even the most hardened of racing veterans. It’s just a shame that the physics are a bit ‘off’ and that the multiplayer mode was not better conceived. Overall, it is solid driving title as it is, but could have benefited from just a little bit more work…