The Colin McRae series started way back in 1998 and has survived changes in technology, gaming platforms, strong competition and even some questionable licensing and gameplay decisions. Two and a half years after the 2005 title, Codemasters uses a different approach and DiRT is quite a surprise.
The first thing that jumps out the screen and grabs you is the phenomenal new graphics engine. DiRT is simply amazing to look at and this impression lasts even after dozens of hours of gameplay. I just couldn’t get enough of the way the dust and water are sprayed out by the wheels, I stopped and stared at the scenery from the top of a mountain and I drove with the camera focused on the front of the car so that I could admire the wonderful work Codemasters have done with the vehicle modeling (even if that meant I was crashing every 3 seconds).
There is one thing in terms of graphics that the serious, hard-core racing fans hate: the game should never be too shiny. This characteristic usually makes them consider it “too polished”, “unrealistic”or even “commercial”. Oh, the dreaded “C”word! Actually, the cars and environments in DiRT are reflecting a bit too much light for its own good, but it’s like a beautiful woman with too much make-up on: one is willing to overlook the excess mascara because her eyes are mesmerizing underneath it. Except the slight over-usage of HDR, the game actually looks almost as good as the screenshots released by the developers.
All this beauty comes at a steep price however, as performance is quite poor while using higher details or resolutions. Trying to use the Ultra settings would initially display an error message referring to the insufficient memory of the video card, something you don’t see every day on a 320 MB 8800GTS. This was later solved through patch 1.1, but the performance increase was not that high. Even so, the game is playable in the sections where you only battle time, but races which have you compete against other racers is where the framerate begins to suffer and lower settings are necessary in order to be able see more than a slideshow. The PC version is, as we are already used to from other titles, a conversion from the Xbox 360. This fact might explain at least in part the performance issues, although even the console has trouble dealing with the start of a race with 9 cars in front of you.
The sound on hand offers mixed results. The engine noise is well captured and it varies nicely depending on the position of the camera as it intensifies in the cockpit, but there are some bugs. For instance, sometimes hitting a road sign will generate a recorded sound that keeps on playing even after 30 seconds and hundreds of meters away from the scene. The voice acting is not bad, but the screenwriters must have been drunk as hell while working on some of the lines. I mean I take time to set up every aspect of my car, I am using a 950 hp/ton wonder of engineering to drive through the toughest terrain and the comment I hear is : “Too cool for school!”? Apart from that, there are few tracks that play while the nice menus are displayed that are quite enjoyable, and do not quickly become repetitive.