Colin McRae DiRT
Like most genres in videogames, the motor sport of rallying saw a boom in popularity on the last generation of consoles, particularly Sony’s Playstation 2. We saw the third incarnation of the multiplayer favourite, V-Rally, locked in a fierce battle to provide a bizarre storyline experience against Codemasters’ Colin McRae and TOCA franchises. Sony itself launched the disappointing World Rally Championship series, which quickly sped to 5 titles that every time seemed to have what it took to be the ultimate rally title, only to be let down by glaring errors. For me, the absolute pinnacle came in the sequel to Rallisport Challenge. With the best visual effects at the time, incredible handling and enough variety to shake a very big stick at, Microsoft had their trump card. How fitting then that DiRT, the latest in the long line of the Colin McRae Rally series, touches down first on Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
Codemasters hit the nail on the head with the first title in the series back on the PlayStation, and since then it seems to have struggled to offer anything new to the gamer other than varied courses and the latest updated cars and roster lists. From the days of SEGA Rally, itself a masterpiece, came like a bolt out of the blue, quite literally in fact. A rally driver going by the name of Colin McRae was winning pretty much everything put in front of him, and his popularity rose not just because of his skill, but with the iconic blue Subaru Impreza. Suddenly everyone wanted to be Colin in his blue Impreza, and Codemasters quickly snapped up the rights and built a game around him and his co-driver, Nicky Grist.
But they did so much more than simply buying the rights; they created what I firmly believe to be the first “proper” rally title. No more arcade-style 4 car races over dirt tracks, now we had just the clock to race against. What made it so great was the element of being so close to danger; flying around tracks with barely any grip on the road, sliding the car around bends, muck flying everywhere and narrowly avoiding trackside obstacles down claustrophobic and twisty backroads. Rallying had arrived. Of course, there were the crashes; the windscreen could be cracked and even totally removed, as could the other windows; bonnets would fly off, bodywork crumple; hell, the car could even be rolled over multiple times. You even had a co-driver, voiced by Colin’s real life counterpart Nicky Grist, guiding you around each course, and besides it adding to the experience, his directions were actually accurate, and you could find your way around by simply listening to him rather than the on-screen displays.
Since then, the series seemed to lose its way, perhaps a victim of too much, too young. There was even the bizarre battle against V-Rally 3 to provide a senseless storyline career mode that was affecting a few other racing games at the time. At one point, it seemed as if the next generation would be too much for Colin, but if there was any one thing to thank for inspiration, it would Codemasters other long running racing series; ToCA. In a bid to give gamers a taste of all the aspects of racing, ToCA featured rally, sprint, circuit and other obscure forms of racing, and it’s this diversity that has breathed new life into Colin McRae Rally.
DiRT is more than the bog standard rally game that others may pump out, it’s a collection of the different classes of rally from around the world. There’s the rally events that all us Europeans will be familiar to in addition to hill climbs, rally cross, multi-vehicle rally raids and the outstanding truck racing. You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a truck around sharp mountain turns, inches from sheer drops. All the cars are here, from Citroen’s to Vauxhall’s, Subaru’s to Mitsubushi’s, all available to purchase with money gained from podium finishes, all with a number of paint jobs to buy too. The amount of money you gain is based on the difficulty you choose before each event, with the hardest paying out the most. Thanks to a huge 11-tiered pyramid full of career races and events, there’s ample opportunity for cash, and you can go back to previous hunting grounds either for more money or to improve your standing, earning more career points to unlock the next tier.
The career mode sends you all around the world, as you’d expect a rally driver to experience, racing in many different events and classes. Like Stuntman had players performing tricks back at the oval, you sometimes feel as you’re taking a break between championships to indulge in a little buggy or truck racing. And it’s not a smooth transition either, as the career in DiRT throws you around as much as the tracks you’ll be racing on. Practice in rallying certainly makes near perfect, so you’ll be getting sliding round the narrow country roads of the UK down to a fine art before heading off to the US to go flying round a dirt course in a buggy, where the trick is to watch your speed over bumps to ensure a good landing and turning before you reach a corner to slide straight around it. Away from the career mode are various championships and time trial events as well as an online mode that boasts 100 player races. It sounds better than it really is, because you’ll find 100 players in a lobby each racing on their own, with the fastest around the track being declared the winner, rather than 100 cars going hell for leather at each other all at once.
Where DiRT shines is the sheer beauty of it all. Racing down an embankment before sunset, twitching the steering left and right to navigate through the trees, you’d swear that you’d be watching TV. Cars have a realistic edge to them without the shiny bodywork that litters many games and have full damage models, so you’ll know when you’ve just driven at 60 mph straight into a telegraph pole. Before starting off, the camera will flick around the car, showing off the intricate details of engines, hub caps, interior design and sponsorship labels. It looks so fantastic and swank. But the real beauty is saved for the courses, which are rich in detail wherever you look. Like in Project Gotham 3, the lighting effects are top notch. One minute you’ll driving into the glaring sun before turning into a canopy of trees, whereby it takes a second or two to re-adjust to the darkness, and then you’ll race back out where the sunlight will shoot between the branches to really confuse you. Sometimes you find yourself driving against the elements as well as course itself. For once, tracks aren’t as smooth as a baby’s backside, as the rumbles on the controller will tell you. The car really does take a good battering, thrown around the course by the bumps and bobbles that it races over which makes you feel as if the car really is burning rubber.
Speaking of which, the sense of speed is incredible. There’s really nothing like absolutely hammering it down a road, flicking the car around slight turns before putting the car into a slide round a tight bend, narrowly missing the obstacles on the side of the track. The adrenaline rush you receive when going full pelt over a jump only to find the road disappear to the left, leaving you helplessly heading towards a clump of trees, is something I haven’t experienced from a videogame in a long time. It’s the thought of being so close to danger that makes rallying so damn fun; the amount of trees and rocks at the sides of tracks just waiting to rip out your undercarriage, send you into a spin or have you flying in the air is harrowing, yet we still feel obliged to push the car to its limits. Even better are the destructible barriers, so sliding the back end into a railing will cause it to collapse, likewise hitting one on the edge of a cliff will see you sliding straight through it and down the sheer drop. Oh yes, no more of this bouncing barriers lark.
The sound also helps tremendously in the experience, with the car grunting away through the gears, the co driver trying to give directions, cheers of crowds along the track and the sound of the tyres desperately trying to keep you on the road. I have my Xbox 360 hooked up to my stereo, so I get surround sound in every game, and more times than not I was convinced that I really was driving around a rally course. It’s when a game really grabs you by the balls that you realise what you’ve been missing all these years.
There is a complaint, however, and that lies with the AI of opponents, which is quite frankly dire in every respect. They seem to stick to the same racing line and love to bump you off the track at every opportunity, which means you’re often left trying to get ahead as soon as possible to avoid the carnage, or sitting back to pick them off one by one. Corr buggy events are usually the worst for this as all the vehicles start in one big line rather than a grid fashion, so on the way to the first corner you’ll find cars cutting in and taking you out, again and again and again. I found myself hanging back and then trying to cut the corner to avoid being taken out. Thankfully, races against opponents are few and far between, and the lower difficulties ensure an easier win so you can move back to the beauty of time trial events.
It’s nice to see the Colin McRae series back in the big time, as it was the first game to offer the closest experience to rally driving as possible back on the PlayStation, and on the Xbox 360 Codemasters has delivered a title that should sit proudly on most gamers shelves for many months to come. The graphics are some of, if not the, best I’ve seen on the system, and the variety of racing available ensures that you’ll never be bored or wanting more.
Nine out of ten
- Exceptional graphics, arguably the best currently on the system
- Fast and frantic gameplay
- Brilliant handling that adds to the sense of speed
- Online rather dull and drab
- Very poor opponent AI