After extensive research I have come up with the following steps for enjoyment of DiRT, the newest rally racing game by the makers of the famed (and much-lauded) Colin McRae Rally series.
Step 1: Forget what you know about the way cars handle, especially as it relates to turning and momentum.
Step 2: Place your controller into a sealed waterproof bag and dip said bag in a pot of boiling water. Let the controller stew in a roiling boil for ten minutes. The scaldingly hot controller will help you to achieve the extremely delicate touch that is required to play this game.
Step 3: Take a leather belt from your closet and place it in your mouth. Bite down hard. This will help prevent damage to any fillings or crowns you may have while experiencing the Tourettes-inducing, teeth-mashing frustration of playing DiRT.
It gives me no great enjoyment to be writing in such a manner about a game I've been looking forward to for well over a year, but I can't hide my frustration and disappointment with this latest installment in one of my favorite series. I wrote the other day that the game looks fantastic and has a wonderful design scheme and superb organizational structure, but after several more hours with the game this weekend I have concluded that DiRT's actual driving mechanic is beyond repair. And I checked all of the menus and there is no way to adjust the steering sensitivity, nor is there a way to add digital sandbags to the cockpit to give it some extra weight. It is what it is. And it's crap.
Before I begin, a little background. I play a lot of racing games -- they're by far my favorite genre of videogame -- and I'm holding my own in the game on the Pro-Am difficulty setting which is the fourth hardest of the five available. I occasionally drop it down to the the third setting, Amateur, when I get pissed off but I win every event on that setting on my first try. I also play with a manual transmission. I say this just to provide you with an idea of where I'm coming from. I should also point out that I've put substantial amounts of time in with every game in the CMR series since the second game.
So lets get right down to it. For starters, the steering is awful. The cars don't turn from the front, but rather through an invisible turning axis that bisects the car. To make matters worse, the slightest steering input causes extreme change in car attitude. And it's not so much oversteer in the true sense of the word, as it is just the car taking a ridiculous angle for no good reason. And should try to correct that maneuver with anything but the faintest of touches to the controller, the car will simply jerk back in the other direction at an equally ludicrous angle and speed. Cars don't fishtail so much as they snap back and forth. Thanks to this, the simple act of switching lanes at the pedestrian pace of 60mph on a straightaway becomes a maneuver requiring great concentration and practice.
But even before you worry about keeping the car from getting out of control on a straightaway, there's the initial launching of the car from a start. The race starts, you ease onto the gas and there's no motion at all. The car sits still and the tachometer instantly redlines and the speedometer reveals a speed of 25mph. Yet you're not going anywhere and because there is precious little feeling of contact with the track, you don't even sense the tires spinning in place. I actually begun starting all of my races in second gear just because in all 20+ cars I've driven in the game -- whether they be FWD, RWD, or 4WD -- they all just sit in place at the starting line. Even the slowest cars in the game, cars with barely 150hp.
The lack of feeling you have with the road touches on what I think is by far the biggest problem with the game. The cars feel as if they have no weight to them. Actually, they feel as if they're hovering, a la the futuristic racing game F-Zero. Aside from the awfully abrupt impact of landing a jump, there's very little feeling of contact with the road. Not during the start of the race, not while powersliding, and barely even when crashing. And yes, my controller's vibration feature is on. But it's not even really about vibration, but just the feeling you have when controlling a 2500-pound beast on gravel. Or, in the case of DiRT, the feeling you don't have at all. And a lack of mass is definitely at fault as you'll soon notice that easing off the accelerator all but brings the car to a stop. The tachometer drops to nothing and the car comes to a near-stop... almost faster than if you had applied full braking pressure or yanked on the handbrake. And this happens both with a manual and automatic transmission and downshifting isn't required. It's just that the cars have no weight to them. That is, unless you're falling out of the sky from a jump, then they do feel nice and heavy. Almost too heavy, even.
Another problem with the game is that, unlike in the previous installments in the series, the navigational assistance from your copilot is crap. In previous CMR games, you could always reliably count on your co-pilot to call out the distance to a turn and the degree of that turn. The number for the turn (1 through 6) most often corresponded to the gear you could take that corner in with 1 obviously being the tightest of hairpins and 6 being a gentle bend that you could take flat out. The same nomenclature is used in DiRT, but here there's far less accuracy. Turns that are given a 4 rating are often just as tight and treacherous as those that will receive a 2 rating minutes later. Then, when you factor in the ridiculously deft touch required to keep the car on the narrow track, even a true 4 or 5 rated turn still often requires an abnormally slow speed to negotiate -- certainly not in 4th or 5th gear many times. And again, I don't necessarily suck at this game. I'm winning all of the events and posting times in the top 15 to 20% of the online leaderboards on my first attempt with pretty slow cars. In other words, I don't think the problem is me.
Again, I want to say that I really, really wish I wasn't dumping on the game here. I would have much rather gushed about it and told everyone to go and buy it. But I cannot. Even aside from the broken-state of the driving mechanism in the game, the decision to make the game appeal to a broader audience and "Americanize" it has really hurt the series more than it helped. The inclusion of the CORR events (circular jump-tracks with several buggy cars at once) and Rally Raids (the same, but much longer) are not very fun and only dillute what the rally racing experience is about. Adding Travis Pastrana's voiceover work and hearing him tell me how "stoked" he is that I won wrecks it even further. Rally racing isn't popular in the US for a reason, and it doesn't have to be. Not everything does. Let those of us who do enjoy rally racing enjoy the sport for what it is, rather than for what you think MTV and the X-Games wants it to be.