Rallying is a motorsport that seems tailor-made for video games, yet its thrilling high speed racing around the most perilous of courses doesn't seem to get as much attention as the Gran Turismos and Ridge Racers of this world. Colin McRae: Dirt combines the precision and concentration of the most hardcore sims, but also the thrills and immediacy of the best arcade racers, with a stunning next-gen engine to boot. Has rallying finally made its move into the mainstream, ready to achieve worldwide success?
Straight away you'll be taken aback by Dirt's exemplary presentation. The menus are fully 3D and as slick as anything you're likely to see, with a crisp rectangle for every game mode and challenge. Their simple design but classy elegance puts the menus in other games to shame and makes you wonder why more next-gen titles haven't made the most of this often overlooked area of a game. Even the loading screens look wonderful, with user stats being delivered as you wait. It's highly polished and gives the perfect first impression.
Where you choose to go from these menus is up to you, but you'll most likely head into the career mode. Here you'll face a series of tiers, each made up of a mixture of rally events. Earning points in each event will unlock new events, with the goal being to reach the very top tier and final event. Event types include classic point to point rallying, circuit-based racing against rival racers, crossover racing, off-road racing against other drivers, truck racing, buggy racing, hill climb and more.
You can choose to tackle each event at whatever difficulty you're happy with, but the harder the setting, the more money you'll earn, which in turn means you can afford to buy the better vehicles and compete more easily at the higher levels. The difficulty level doesn't affect the points you earn though, so no matter your skill, you shouldn't have too many problems playing through the main career mode. If you're not so keen on the non-core rally events such as the buggy racing and truck racing, other game modes are available that focus on the pure point to point rally events, complete with all the damage repair zones that are expected.
There's plenty to do, and thankfully you'll probably want to do it all as the racing is exhilarating stuff. Dirt provides players with numerous views to race from, but I found the external views to give an unsatisfactory sense of the car's speed and connection with the road. Two superb looking in-car views are available, but the bonnet cam gives the best mixture of vision, speed and the essential feeling of tyres on tarmac, dirt, gravel and the like. The twisty, turning nature of every rally course makes the sport a perfect fit for video games and Dirt takes it to the next level, delivering a sense of enclosure that makes even the most simple corner a real danger.
The words of your co-driver are essential, and any slight lapse in concentration will end in disaster, especially if damage is set to its most punishing. One miscalculation in even a soft level 6 corner can see your car careering off the track and straight into a tree. If you're lucky you'll be able to crawl to the finish, but chances are that it'll be race over. Events with opponents on the track aren't as exciting, with more of a MotorStorm feeling to proceedings, but the bumper to bumper racing has its moments.
Dirt is an undeniably stunning looking racing game that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best next-gen systems have to offer, but it's not quite as polished as its stunning presentation would suggest. The environments look beautiful, the use of motion blur is excellent without being overdone and the damage modelling on vehicles is exceptional, but a key part of every racing game is its frame rate and this is where Dirt comes undone.
When racing alone the frame rate is pretty consistent, but not as smooth as Forza 2's silky 60 frames per second. The problems arise when other cars can be seen, as the frame rate stumbles all over the place and tearing can frequently be seen. After a few races you'll see past these blemishes, but considering the game's presentation is on another level to practically every other game available, this lack of polish in such an important area is hugely disappointing.
A special mention has to go to the game's audio, which when running through a 5.1 setup is incredibly immersive; even when racing alone, you get a great sense of moving through a tight course. Music is used sparingly, but menus and replays all feature suitably trendy tunes, and a simple but cool slow-motion mode during replays never grows tiresome, with the audio slowing down and becoming ever so slightly subdued to great effect. Again though, it makes you wonder how such a polished game could have shipped with a terribly erratic frame rate.
Multiplayer modes in racing games are a given nowadays, but Dirt doesn't really make the most of what it has to offer. You're restricted to online and system link multiplayer, and only in rally and hill climb events. Because of this, you never see other drivers on the courses, with each race simply being a live time trial. With the game featuring the likes of the crossover races, which are explicitly designed for two racers to go head to head, it's strange that it's not an option - even split-screen isn't available. While the claim of 100-player races is a great one, in reality you might as well stick to the leaderboards seen throughout the single-player modes.
Achievement points are handled very well, with points coming along at a steady trickle. As well as being awarded for performances in each of the game's main modes, you'll be rewarded for driving a certain amount of miles, reaching a high top speed, racing cleanly and owning a set number of cars. Due to the game's changeable difficulty, most points are easily within reach, even if they'll take some time to earn. It is perhaps a little too tempting to set the difficulty to easy and plough through the game, but the lowered earnings and constantly reminding voiceover man make challenging races the more desired option.
Colin McRae: Dirt is a solid and often spectacular first next-gen effort from Codemasters. The core racing is thrilling yet accessible and the amount of content on offer will keep players enthralled for some time. Some inexplicable frame rate problems and a lacklustre online multiplayer mode prevent this from being a classic, but Dirt is still one of the premier racing titles of 2007.
Virgin Media verdict:
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