In Europe, Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally series has been enjoying both critical and commercial success since it debuted on the PC and the PlayStation in 1998. But it's a different story across the pond, where the titular Scottish rally-driving legend is largely unknown, and the games that carry his name, although great, rarely sell well even with budget price tags. With the sixth game in the series, DIRT (DIRT: Colin McRae Off-Road in Europe), Codemasters is looking to broaden the appeal of the series through different territorial branding and with the introduction of additional off-road racing disciplines from North America. We got our first look at the Xbox 360 version of DIRT during a recent meeting with Codemasters, and we're pleased to report that it's looking very promising indeed.
Previous games in the Colin McRae series have focused solely on point-to-point rally racing, in which winners are decided simply by comparing times. DIRT, on the other hand, will introduce a number of more fiercely competitive events to the mix, including rally raid, rally cross, crossover, hill climb, and CORR (Championship Off-Road Racing) competitions. Different off-road disciplines are contested on different types of courses, and DIRT will feature no fewer than 55 different tracks on which to test your off-road driving skills. Each and every one of them will be based on a real-world location, and a number of them are officially licensed re-creations of tracks currently hosting off-road competitions. Licensed tracks that have been confirmed for inclusion in DIRT to date include California's Chula Vista Raceway, England's Croft Circuit, and France's Circuit de Ducs, among others. But perhaps the most exciting is Colorado's Pikes Peak, where you'll be able to attempt the 20 kilometer International Hill Climb event that's affectionately known as The Race to the Clouds.
In keeping with the number of off-road disciplines in the game, DIRT will also feature more licensed cars than any of its predecessors--more than 45 of them, in fact. Divided up into 12 distinct classes and categories, the game's garage will include super buggies, pro 4 trucks, and a plethora of rally cars that includes everything from such classic favorites as the '70s Lancia Stratos to Colin McRae's new all-wheel drive R4 prototype. Further authenticity will come courtesy of more than 180 classic and current liveries, including those used by McRae and the American favorite Travis Pastrana at the 2006 Summer X Games. Every vehicle in the game will also purportedly offer unique and realistic handling. After witnessing more than a few spectacular crashes during our demo, we can vouch for the fact that they sustain damage that's at least as realistic as anything that we've seen previously. Damage in DIRT will invariably have an adverse effect on your vehicle's handling, and if you crash once too often or manage to wrap your car around a tree (yes, that will be possible), your race may end prematurely. We're told that even the detailed car interiors will deteriorate quite noticeably after collisions, but we didn't get to see any busted speedometers for ourselves on this occasion.
Because DIRT is being developed by the same studio responsible for the Race Driver series, it came as no surprise to us that the opponents on the track appeared to be driving realistically and, at times, aggressively. We never witnessed more than six cars racing simultaneously, but the competition was so fierce that we were still afforded plenty of opportunities to witness the vehicle damage model in full effect (light scratches and mud buildup at first, smashed glass and crumpled bodywork later) and to notice how significant a role environment objects played on occasion. Every object in DIRT's environments has its own physics, and if you ever find the time to take in the scenery (perhaps during a slow-motion replay), you'll notice that flags, foliage, and even exhaust smoke react to simulated wind systems. But how your vehicle will react to collisions with different objects is more relevant to gameplay. We can report that even small, seemingly innocuous rocks and half-buried tires can prove devastating if you hit them at the wrong speed and in the wrong vehicle. However, flimsier items, such as advertising boards, young trees, and road signs, will generally come off worse if you decide to hit them.
There's no doubting that DIRT will offer plenty of realism, but the game's design--right down to its slick, animated menus--also appears to place an emphasis on accessibility. You'll find that no fewer than five difficulty settings are available, and when playing through the lengthy career mode, you'll have the option to change the difficulty level at any time. The more experienced rally drivers among you might choose to tinker with more than 30 separate tuning options for your car before driving it competitively, while those of you who are intimidated by such phrases as "gear ratios" and "damper settings" will have the option to bypass that process completely. Your "rally mentor" will offer advice as you progress through the game, with Colin McRae reprising his role in the European version and Travis Pastrana providing voice work for the North America version.
DIRT's career mode comprises some 66 events, and each of those events comprises up to seven races. The events are arranged in a pyramidlike formation, which has been designed in such a way that it gives you the freedom to choose the route you want to take (that is, which events you want to compete in) to the final championship. Other modes of play will include short and long versions of championships from around the world, time trials, single races and events, and what appears to be somewhat limited online multiplayer support. Rather than let you go head-to-head with other players, DIRT will employ a lobby system that pits groups of up to 100 players against each other simply by comparing their times in hill climb and rally events. You'll be able to see how your current time stacks up against the competition every time you pass through a checkpoint, but while that sounds like fun, it's hardly a substitute for being able to slam opponents into trees or T-bone them on crossover tracks.
The work-in-progress version of DIRT that we saw showed off the graphical prowess of Codemasters' new Neon engine to great effect, with huge draw distances and impressive lighting effects being among the most memorable of its features. The highly detailed car models were also very impressive, although the only time we were ever really able to fully appreciate them was when we were treated to slow-motion replays. We rarely noticed any drops in the frame rate during the demo and were assured that the finished game will be locked at 50 frames per second. And, for those of you who prefer not to drive using an analog stick or a directional pad, we're told that force-feedback steering wheels will be supported. We look forward to bringing you more information on DIRT as soon as it becomes available.