As many British pop stars will attest, it's not easy to break America. Alongside the likes of Oasis and The Spice Girls should be Colin McRae, whose rally games have never really interested the biggest games market in the world, which perhaps explains why, in the US, Codemasters' latest rally game (DIRT: Colin McRae Off-Road for those in Europe) doesn't feature his name at all. DIRT, as we'll be referring to it to prevent any confusion, is making a conscious effort to court people outside the core rally fan demographic by including other off-road events such as buggy racing. We sat down with an advanced build of the Xbox 360 version of the game on a recent visit to Codemasters to see if this new direction looks likely to pay off.
First off, the basics: DIRT is still a rally game at heart, and unlike Sega Rally, its preference is for simulation rather than arcade-style thrills. The majority of races are held against the clock with no other on-track opposition, although there are hill climbs, head-to-head races, and competitive races as well. Your chosen difficulty level has an impact on the amount of time you have to finish each race, as well as the level of damage that your car will take. No matter how many crashes you subject your car to on the rookie level, your vehicle will always be able to finish the race. The main modes of play are the career and championship modes, but there will be a multiplayer mode and a host of unlockable features to hold your interest as well.
Before we get into the game itself, though, we simply have to tell you about the interface. Yes, we know it's unusual to mention a game's menu system in a preview, but DIRT's interface is looking so good that it deserves special attention. It's clean, sophisticated, and easy to use. A graphics student would probably tell you it adheres to a huge list of fancy design rules, but the main thing is that it seems to work well.
As you start the game, you're presented with a simple white expanse, and the main menu buttons float tantalisingly at the front. Options are presented clearly, while American pro race champion Travis Pastrana explains each of them concisely. If your first inclination is to dip into the career mode, the camera flies through the space to a pyramid-shaped events list. This organisation means that there are more races at the easy level and fewer at the harder difficulty. Once you've chosen your event, information on the race type and vehicles can be flicked through like a virtual Rolodex, allowing you to see if you have the money and experience to enter. Finally, in a slightly pointless but characteristically classy touch of design, you can use the right analogue stick to pivot the camera around the 3D menu system as it adapts with all the depth-of-field visual effects we've come to expect these days.
If the menu was a hint at the attention to detail that Codemasters has gone to, then thankfully it's also been realised in-game. While the handling on the version we played still needed some fine-tuning, and the frame rate frequently stuttered, DIRT seems set to deliver a truly next-generation experience. After taking a few highly enjoyable spins around the courses, we were shown a demonstration of the damage models that affect both car and terrain. After intentionally giving the car a good beating, one of the designers entered the debug mode to show off the inside of the car. When it's at a standstill, you can see the engine making subtle vibrations within the bonnet, and when it's at speed, you can see the drive shafts spinning the highly detailed wheels. Even if you have no idea how cars work, it's a safe bet that you could figure it out just looking at the modelling work that Codemasters has put into this game.
The modelling of trackside details is just as spectacular. Instead of the static models used in previous games, barriers now bend and buckle just as much as the cars themselves. Likewise, tyre walls now collapse realistically to reveal individually modelled tyres, while flimsy tape barriers tear if you career through them. Perhaps the nicest touch, and one we wouldn't even have noticed unless told about it, is that the broken tape will gently flicker in the wind, which doesn't really matter if you're spending most of the race at over 80mph, but you certainly have to admire the attention to detail.
The focus of DIRT is still very much on rallying, and Codemasters went on record to say that you could complete the career mode with this style of racing alone. However, there are still plenty of options in the other categories, and you could probably get through 70 percent of the career mode by doing the hill climbs instead. The main point of the career mode is to gather money, which will consequently allow you to buy the cars needed to enter the different races. The other incentive is that you'll be competing against Colin and Travis towards the end of your career in the game's most challenging events. Aside from the career mode there are more-traditional championships, which are separated into European and international categories. These will offer a progression of racing conditions. For instance, the morning legs are often subject to fog, while the last legs take place later and need to be floodlit. The final mode is the rally world, where you can create your own events from around the globe.
DIRT's multiplayer element is one of the last features to still be undergoing extensive checking, and it hasn't been tested at its full 100-player level at this stage. While 100-player races sound spectacular, they come with rather one large caveat--players are not all on the same track simultaneously. The system is set up so that players can compete on their own on the same track, while live time and position updates are fed to competitors onscreen. This means that there won't be any bumper-to-bumper action, but you will be able to see exactly how many places each crash costs you.
As you'd expect, some tweaks to the lobby system had to be made to accommodate this new style of play. The servers will work on a rolling basis, filling up to 100 players before a new game is made available. Then, a random selection of track and game modes will be made available for players to vote on, until those with the most votes go through to be played. The menu system gives live updates via a ticker tape so you can see world-record-breaking times as they happen.
It all sounds rather novel, but it certainly has the potential to split opinion. Some people may be excited about the prospect of so many players, but others will be disappointed at the lack of on-track competition or even ghost cars. On the day we saw the game, a 60-player test was scheduled across PartnerNet, Microsoft's private version of Xbox Live. Codemasters has invited GameSpot to participate in a 100-player beta test, so we should be able to bring you our impressions in due course.
DIRT will have a tough job matching up to the previous entries in the series, but from what we've seen, Codemasters seems more than up to the challenge. The new race modes and vehicles make a welcome diversion from straight rallying while also staying true to the series' rally roots. The game also has plenty of new ideas to bring to multiplayer, and while this mode may well split fans down the middle, we can't wait to test our skills against so many people. DIRT is set for release in June on the Xbox 360 and PC, with the PlayStation 3 version to follow a few months afterwards.