Australian developer Ratbag is best known for its work on Powerslide. Released in the final weeks of 1998, the game featured fun-to-drive cars and inventive tracks riddled with sharp banks, tall drops, and long jumps. Powerslide was defined by its tracks, as they served to set it apart from the glut of racing games that clogged the genre during the early part of 1999. However, there was one track in the game that was simply dull and uninspired by comparison: the oval. While this straightforward track was meant to familiarize you with the feel of the car and the general play mechanics of the game, it lacked any depth or substance. With Dirt Track Racing, Ratbag has focused an entire game around the simple concept of racing around this same small, oval track.
The tracks in Dirt Track Racing can be characterized in three words: oval, dirt, and small. They range in variety from regular ovals, to D-ovals, to the occasional figure eight. All said, the game has approximately 30 of these unimaginative racetracks scattered across a number of states throughout the US. And while the nature of dirt-track racing (this motorsport actually exists) calls for these sorts of uneventful tracks, translating them into a computer game makes them lose whatever real-life appeal they might have.
However, once you get past this glaring shortcoming, Dirt Track Racing actually becomes a robust racing game, complete with a functional money system, accurate car-handling characteristics, varying traction, and a variety of customizable cars. The game's career mode is split up into stock, pro-stock, and late-model car classes. You start out in the stock class with $1,000 in your account to buy your first car and pay entry fees for your first series, which is a set of racing events aimed at one of the three car classes. The events in each series are in turn made up of practice, qualifying, heat, and main races. To gain prize money and corporate sponsors for necessary car upgrades, repairs, and event entry fees, you must successfully work your way through these series, ultimately earning enough money to buy a car in a higher class and making you eligible to compete in successively tougher series.
The cars' physics are overexaggerated to maximize the effects of powersliding, oversteering, and countersteering that define Dirt Track Racing's gameplay. The basic premise is to "slide" through turns in order to keep the speed of your car and engine revolutions as high as possible when coming out of that turn. As stock cars gain horsepower through engine modifications, this powersliding technique becomes even more exaggerated, leaving little room for error. With power topping over 800hp, pro stock and late model cars require an even steadier hand during cornering. Thankfully, the game lets you tweak and upgrade your suspension setup to your liking, making the cars a bit more forgiving. Just like Powerslide before it, Dirt Track Racing takes some getting used to, but you'll be able to take the cars to their limits once you get acquainted with the game's handling dynamics.
Dirt Track Racing is also the first game to mimic the development of the "groove" effect associated with the sport. Before the start of each event, the track is watered down to give the dirt better traction. As the cars start to run laps around the track, a groove forms along the best driving line, causing that part of the track to become drier than the parts not worn down by the cars. Driving along the groove becomes progressively more difficult after each lap, as the dry dirt lacks the traction that it had at the start of the race. This forces you to either drive high along the outside of the groove or low on the inside of the track. It's certainly an effect that hasn't been attempted in previous racing games, and it adds a new facet to an established genre.
The game is powered by the same engine used by Powerslide. Long, streaking textures on the track and along the walls give a great sense of speed to Dirt Track Racing. The cars themselves are fairly detailed, and the sun-worn paintjobs and chipped sponsor logos lend more realism to the cars' appearance. Improvements in the engine include the ability it gives you to play the game from a 3D cockpit view, and the incorporation of a damage model that affects your car's aesthetics. However, unlike in Powerslide, Dirt Track Racing has no soundtrack whatsoever, leaving you to contend with nothing but the droning of the cars' big block engines.
A robust multiplayer component lets you and nine others compete over a LAN or through an Internet connection. The game even comes with a lite version of Gamespy for easy sorting of active servers. But even with all of Dirt Track Racing's finer points, it's hard to overlook its repetitive tracks and racing events. Despite the fact that the game accurately captures the nature of the sport it portrays, Dirt Track Racing ends up being a robust racing-management system broken up by boring races.