Friday, July 27, 2007

DiRT Review

DiRT, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Career mode with multiple disciplines, outstanding graphical detail with a great damage model, neat menus, an Impreza is on the cover
The Not So Good: Poor unrealistic arcade physics, disappointing multiplayer, blurry graphics, console port artifacts, StarForce
What say you? A dumbed-down off-road racing game that will appeal to a wider audience: 5/8

In my opinion, the best drivers in the world compete in the World Rally Championship. These people are nuts, going way too fast on “roads” that are way too small and dusty. The only people who are possibly more nuts are the fans that stand right next to the out-of-control cars. Unfortunately, rally racing has taken a back seat to NASCAR on TV in the U.S., so most of my rally fix needs to be satisfied by computer gaming. There have been a number of rally games on the PC, mostly notably Richard Burns Rally (my personal favorite and consensus realism winner) and the Colin McRae series, the latest of which (without the Colin, at least in the U.S.) is titled DiRT. This iteration wants to appeal to a wider audience by featuring a more diverse selection of racing disciplines, while still maintaining “sublime” car handling and a “thrillingly accurate” physics model. Does DiRT make the podium, or suffer being a color commentator for TNT?

DiRT features some exceptional detail in its graphics. The car models are spot on, including the interiors. Each of the tracks in the game looks great, from the detailed backgrounds to the numerous objects surrounding each track. The damage model is also well done: small dings appear on your car as you venture off-road, and the damage doesn’t seem to be scripted as heavily as most racing games. When you are driving by yourself, the game performance is about what you would expect for a level of detail. However, if you introduce other cars into the game, you get very inconsistent framerates, even if the other cars are not being actively rendered. There is no option to turn opponent car detail down (it’s “medium” or “high”), so you’ll have to live with the slow performance during multi-car races or turn down the graphics for single events. The graphics do have some problems, as they are too blurry and too shiny. I didn’t realize that dirt is as reflective as a mirror, because you will get occasionally blinded by the shine. Some of the tracks seem to have focus issues as well, as everything outside of the window lacks a crispness. It’s really weird and I’m not sure if the fuzziness is intentional or not. I will mention the cool 3-D menus that display stats while loading a new track. The graphics of DiRT are an odd combination of high detail and questionable clarity. The sound is standard for the genre, with engine sounds that appear to be accurate. The game features some echoing effects when you are driving beside cliffs or under bridges, and I think the volume increase is a bit overdone. The game uses Travis Pastrana as the narrator, and both he and your co-driver are repetitive after a couple of races. I can’t count how many times they have been “stoked.” Like most mass market games, DiRT aims for high production values, and the overall result is more hits than misses, but some misses nevertheless.

The first thing you’re greeted with when play DiRT is our magnificent friend StarForce. Now, I've already done my StarForce rant, so there is no need to repeat the evils of this copy protection scheme. The second thing you’re greeted with is the game’s console roots, in the form of “press enter” prompts, no mouse control, and “save process complete” notices. I don’t care that the save process has completed (a notice that takes four seconds to disappear and can’t be skipped); I just want to drive another race. It’s a good thing the game reminds me “please don’t turn off your PC,” because I was going to right when the game started up. Thanks Codemasters! It takes too many menus to do anything and DiRT does not take advantage of the wonderful invention we call a mouse, as all of the menus must be navigated with the keyboard. Once you get past the fact that this is a console game in PC clothing, you will spend most of your time in the career mode. You’ll encounter around sixty events covering all of the disciplines in the game: rally, multi-car rally, hill climb, rally cross, CORR-style races, and crossover. The different race types are nice, although they boil down either solo events or racing on different surfaces. DiRT features some real-world tracks and events, and all of the tracks are generally well designed. You earn money and points depending on where you finish: money is used to purchase cars that are required for future events, and points unlock additional races and the next tier of events. You don’t need to win or even drive all of the events to “beat” the game, and you can even plow through the game at a low difficulty setting. The physics stay the same, but the opponent skill and damage are changed, along with the prize money. There is no point to do more events in a tier once you have the point for the next tier, except for earning extra money. You can use money to purchase new liveries for a particular car; this is a purely cosmetic change. but shouldn’t sponsors pay you to be on your car, instead of the other way around? Once you are done with the career, you can used unlocked cars to tackle a rally championship, or drive on any unlocked track in rally world. And then there is multiplayer.

DiRT advertises 100-player online matches, and my immediate thought was “how?” Well, it’s because multiplayer only features solo events like rally and hill climb. That’s right, you won’t actually see another human player in any of the multiplayer modes, as you’ll just be racing against their times. This wouldn’t be an issue in a rally-only title, but for a game that features multi-car races, this is a very big disappointment. I guess somebody didn’t want to do good net code. Also, you can only join quick matches as there is no multiplayer browser. The quick match utility does a terrible job finding matches: most of the games I enter either have eight minutes left until the next race or one other player. And, without a browser, you can't find popular matches, so it's all up to the crappy matching software. I have yet to find any matches approaching the 100-player extravaganzas advertised, the most I've found is against 2-8 people. I can do the same thing using a third party program for Richard Burns Rally. It’s sad that a community download for a three–year-old game has more features (a browser, ghost cars) than a new title with a huge budget. There is also rampant cheating (or bugs) with uploaded scores in the game: 0.03 seconds for a complete race? Yeah, right. There is so much potential for long-term enjoyment in DiRT, but the lack of comprehensive multiplayer features is devastating.

Thankfully, the AI drivers provide good enough competition. Their skill is about right for solo events at each difficulty setting, but they are absolute beasts at multi-car events. Maybe I’m just better at rallies than races, but I had a whale of a time defeating the AI in multi-car events when compared to single-car events at the same difficulty setting. The AI cars are too close together in either type of race: every driver is given the same skill set it seems, so races involve huge packs of cars and first to last can be less than three seconds in rally events. The AI just goes faster at higher difficulty levels.

The press information I received with DiRT states that “the physics system is thrillingly accurate.” Nothing could be further from the truth. DiRT features arcade physics with two fundamental problems that prevents the title from even approaching simulation status: brakes and grip. The brakes are really powerful: you can go from 80 miles per hour to a stop in about a second in any vehicle, and I don’t remember ever sliding the tires, even on loose surfaces. I think the problem lies with incorrect weights. Every car in the game, even the gigantic semis, drives like a Formula One car: your grip is too good, as you can corner at speeds that defy real driving conventions. There is a place for arcade racing games, but if a game advertises itself as realistic, than it better be realistic. I had to adjust skills learned from pretty much every simulation game I’ve played; I’m sorry, but braking two carlengths before a corner to slow down sixty miles per hour does not indicate a “thrillingly accurate” physics system.

If you’re looking for an arcade racing game, then DiRT is pretty entertaining. However, the game does not deliver on its promise of realism, so simulation fans (like myself) will be very disappointed. There is a good selection of racing disciplines here, and some types of racing highlighted here are rarely simulated. The career mode is lengthy enough, although you can skip a lot of the races and the novelty of each event wears on. The multiplayer features are supremely unacceptable, something that could have injected some longevity into the title. While the AI is decent, all of the vehicles in the game drive like they have the mass of a Formula One car. Sure, it makes the game easy to drive and friendly to beginners, but “thrillingly accurate” it is not. I’d rather just play Richard Burns Rally for my authentic rally needs. DiRT shows what happens when a game is marketed for the console crowd: simplified controls and pretty pictures to amuse all of the eight-year-olds.