Fans of Codemasters' Colin McRae rally racing series are in for a surprise with the publisher's newest title, DiRT. DiRT has more in common with Digital Illusions' Rallisport Challenge series than the Colin McRae games of old, putting a greater emphasis on a variety of off-road racing disciplines, as opposed to sticking hard and fast to traditional rally racing. That's not to say that rally fans will be disappointed with the game. DiRT veers a good bit further into arcade territory than earlier games in the series, but it is still a blast to drive, and absolutely stunning to look at.
Let's just address that elephant in the room right off. There have been plenty of driving games of late that have been visually impressive, but very few live up to the visual fidelity displayed by DiRT. This game is a technical achievement in car design, track design, and damage modeling. To begin with, the cars are beautifully rendered, highly detailed models that are as fantastic to look at as they are to destroy. Damage modeling is one of the most impressive aspects of the game; you can lose bumpers or doors, break glass, tear up the paintjob, and roll your ride into a crushed, deformed mess. Tracks are equally beautiful and destructible. From the rain-slick tarmac tracks of Japan and the dusty backroads of Italy to the muddy, gravelly countryside of the UK, DiRT nails every environment wonderfully. The game also uses lighting to fantastic effect, not just to emphasize how shiny and reflective the cars are, but to give each track an individual atmosphere. Driving around desert mountains in the washed-out haze of late day is an amazing sight to behold, for sure. And if you feel like tearing up these tracks, you can bust through fences, barriers, bushes, and anything else not held to the ground with concrete. All the while, dirt, mud, or gravel will kick up against and often stick to your car, making the game's namesake seem entirely appropriate.
As amazing as the game looks, all that detail comes at a bit of a price. Performance is not always up to snuff, especially in races with multiple cars on the track. The frame rate is a little choppy during single-car rallies, but once you get a group of other cars racing with you, the game practically turns into stop-motion animation, especially if all the other cars happen to be bunched up with you. This is more of a consistent issue on the 360 version, though the PC version is highly taxing even on high-end hardware, so you're likely to run into some performance problems unless you're running a top of the line machine. Longer-than-average load times also tend to rear their ugly head (primarily in the 360 version). Even still, the game never becomes unplayable because of the crummy frame rate or lengthy loads, and at worst, these are merely annoyances.
The quality of the presentation doesn't begin and end with the in-game graphics either. Even the menu system is immaculately built. It's hard to describe it, except to call it a bunch of floating boxes with selectable options that zoom in and out as you select them. Even the loading screens are cool because they display real-time statistics on your game, such as your favorite tracks or vehicles, your average speed, and even your favorite driving surface. Menus are usually a forgotten element of a game unless they're specifically bad, so the fact that DiRT's are notable for how good they are says something.
Audio is not quite as immediately impressive as the visuals, but it is great all the same. Engine noise is probably the best aspect because each car has a definitive and unique sound to it that feels just right. Crashes and other racing effects are also excellently produced. The soundtrack isn't licensed, but the instrumentals that play over the various menus and replays are quite solid. The only damper on the category is your codriver, an obnoxious, bro-sounding dolt whose dialogue sounds like it was written by a nonnative English speaker and whose only reference for the language was reruns of Saved By the Bell. Lines like "Smooth and steady; I'm Mr. Smooth, and you're Mr. Steady," and "Yeah! We won the championship! I'm so stoked!" are funny once, but then they're annoying from there on out. At least he gives you some good info on the tracks before you race.
Once you've snapped out of the trance that DiRT's fantastic presentation tends to lull you into, you might remember that this is a racing game and that you do actually have to play it. It's a good thing it's a fun one. The game includes six different racing disciplines, which consist of rally, rallycross, hillclimb, CORR, crossover, and rally raid varieties. If you don't know what half of those are, don't fret. The game does a good job of easing you into the game's style of racing, with both some rather simple early races, as well as an explanatory narration by extreme sports maven and current Rally America champion Travis Pastrana.