Road to nowhere

DiRT  never gets going
By MITCH KRPATA  |  August 1, 2007
2.0 2.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for DiRT

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Or so they say in the world of sports. In the most interesting video games, winning is hardly anything. A game console is like Dr. Who’s phone booth: step inside and the possibilities are limitless. With increased hardware power comes more opportunities for compelling narratives and interactive experiences. That’s why it’s getting harder and harder to appreciate games that merely seek to emulate reality — games in which winning is, sad to say, the only thing.

Take DiRT, an off-road racer that features dozens of vehicles, six race types, and damage modeling that affects every aspect of your ride differently — from wheels to drivetrain to exhaust. It’s a professional effort, top to bottom. Still, several solid racing games are released every year. It’s no longer a distinguishing characteristic to have pretty graphics or vehicles with a sense of weight and inertia. To praise a game for having met the minimum standards is like high-fiving a pedestrian for using the crosswalk.

The racing modes are varied enough that any DiRT player is likely to have a favorite event. I had the most fun with CORR (Championship Off-Road Racing) and Supercross events, which play the most like a traditional racing game. The CORR races feature several trucks chugging through slippery, muddy tracks, and there’s an agreeable amount of vehicular contact. Supercross, too, is mostly distinguished by its multiple surfaces: portions of the track take you from asphalt to packed dirt to mud. On the other hand, I enjoyed these races more a few months ago, when they were called MotorStorm.

The meat of the game, and the forte of its paid endorser, Colin McRae, is in rally racing. In its purest form, which is what you get in DiRT, the rally is spectacularly unsuited to the video-game medium. You drive alone along a stretch of road and compare your finishing time to your opponents’. That’s it. Although the tracks are gorgeous, and there are plenty of hairpin turns at high altitudes, the lack of on-track competition makes it feel toothless.

The other strange aspect of the rally is the way your navigator shouts directions. I’ll admit to keeping a place in my heart for the co-pilot in the classic Sega Rally Championship, who randomly addresses you as “baby.” In DiRT the navigator just shouts numbers at you: “100, over crest, left three, right six long.” It’s like being trapped in the car with a hyperactive math teacher. But it sure is realistic!

Then there’s the on-line play. Claims of a 100-player on-line mode turn out to be as misleading as saying that you can get bistro-quality panini from your microwave. Up to 100 entrants can compete in a single race, yes, but under rally rules, that means you’re all racing your individual stages alone. You compare times once it’s all over. That’s no different from looking at the leaderboards once you’ve finished a race in single-player mode — and those have more than 100,000 entrants.

What’s missing is the drama of the photo finish, of nudging a pesky rival out of contention at the last moment. The closest you get is seeing little indicators on your heads-up display showing what the other players’ times are in relation to yours. It’s weak sauce, especially given how chaotic a true 100-player racing game could be. You may win or lose, but without the action preceding the final standings, DiRT just feels stuck in the mud.

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