Codemasters' Colin McRae rally franchise has generally been considered the preeminent off-road racing series for years now. Release after release, Codemasters has raised its own bar and incorporated fantastic controls with showcase visuals. Now the developer/publisher is taking the franchise to the next-gen starting line with DIRT: Colin McRae Off-Road for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.
Built entirely from the ground-up, DIRT is a completely next-generation take on the series and Codemasters has literally rebuilt every bit of the experience from scratch to take full advantage of the systems. From its breathtaking visuals to absolutely massive multiplayer lobbies to even its menu system, the game simply smells like a brand-new car, and an extremely plush one at that.
The first evidence of this is the menu system. Each "window" of the front end, be it the races, option screens or what have you, are represented by floating slats in a full 3D space. Navigating between them moves the camera up and around between the windows. Sure, it's a very small part of the overall experience, but it immediately lets you know that everything from thereon in will be slick.
In order to make the series more US-friendly than ever before, DIRT will include a plethora of US-based locations, vehicles and more. You'll be able to race rally raids, 4x4 events, hill climbs and more, including the entire run of Pike's Peak. Codemasters claims that anything that happens off-road will be represented here in some fashion. One thing along these lines that's new to the series is multi-car racing, and we're not talking ghosts here. You'll actually be able to go toe-to-toe with other vehicles and lock wheels as you fight for dominance over each and every turn.
On a technical level, Codemasters is attempting to push the systems to their limits. Audio is created on-the-fly and is fully dynamic. There are no pre-recorded versions of Doppler or reverb effects here, and the developer has managed to record individual samples for every section of an engine's sound palette. That is, the game doesn't use a single sample and then speed it up or down for higher and lower RPMs, but rather those unique samples are stored in memory for dead-on accuracy to the real thing.
Visually, DIRT is a very impressive title. The game looks just as good in motion as it does in the screenshots, which is saying a lot. Clouds of dust kick up as cars race forward with a fantastic lighting model that creeps naturally across the bodies of the cars. Individual blades of grass can be picked out far into the distance - we didn't notice any sort of draw-in here, resulting in a natural and very smooth landscape to speed past.
The physics system, which Codemasters has always excelled at implementing, utilizes soft body physics so that car part can bend and distort in realtime for completely dynamic damage modeling. Axles can bend, resulting in wheels that rotate in an awkward manner, and doors, roofs and whatever else can become disturbingly mangled if you happen to run off the track.
One of the subtle and yet extremely cool things that we noticed during the demo was the camera work. If you race in the overhead view, the camera will bob and shake as you take jumps and slide around corners. It's still certainly tight enough that no ounce of control or accuracy looks to be lost, but its small and subtle movements help make the game look a little more TV-like in its presentation. Should you prefer to race from a first-person perspective, along with standard rooftop and bumper views, a full in-helmet view is present that allows you to get a view of the wheel, dashboard and such.
DIRT: Colin McRae Off-Road is scheduled for release this June on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. We'll have more on the game very shortly, including some hands-on impressions, so stay tuned.
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