DiRT, A Three-Step Plan

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.


Jackie said...

Hmm, I find your complaints interesting from the point of view of my research. Your real world experience of driving cars is trying to transfer to a new situation that's like driving, but has very different mechanics/physics. The question is, how long before you re-adjust? Children probably do it fairly quickly given that they don't drive cars, although that being said, they are passengers in cars and most likely have some sense for the ways cars run. Nevertheless, I expect that you'll just take a little longer to adjust, but ultimately will do so quite nicely.

My latest research is getting into these kinds of questions. We are tracking people's motor plans/movements in response to visual computer-generated stimuli and "real-world" stimuli. We are asking questions such as, "Once people have mastered a task in one environment, what happens when we introduce them into a new environment? Does their expertise transfer immediately? Quickly? Slowly?" We've also instituted a reward/penalty system because in our everyday lives, we are constantly provided with positive or negative feedback about our actions. So, we have monetary rewards that are factored into their responses and we are interested in characterizing the level of reward people need to carry out certain responses (kind of like economic decision-making).

Anyway, I say all this because the work I just described will be expanded upon even more when I head down to Austin to begin my post-doctoral work there, where I will get into the realm of Virtual Reality and build environments in which people act and we study their actions as a function of visual, and sensory input, and reward-cost functions.

Very fun and very exciting!

Doug Walsh said...

Interesting. I'm not sure it's really an applicable analogy however as the problem isn't from making the transition of real-world driving to virtual world driving, but rather from good racing videogames to a rather crappy one. I play racing games all of the time and whether they are arcadey/fictional racing situations or realistic driving simulators I never have any trouble making the adjustment. Nor have I had trouble with this game per se, as my performance in the game indicates.

It's more of a function of the game masquerading as a rally racing "simulation" that has drawn my ire. It's not that I'm having trouble with it, it's that from a critical standpoint, the game is not good and not worth playing. It doesn't deliver in the areas I expected it to consider it cost $60. In other words, it's not a matter of when I would adjust to its wretched physics, but a question of why would I want to? The game is not what it was supposed to be.

That said, your research sounds really interesting. I didn't realize you were headed to Austin. Giving up the big city, huh? Good luck with that and keep me posted!

Jackie said...

I see your points. As a researcher I can't help but think about it from that mindset. :-)

Yes, down to Austin--can't wait! My little family (Aaron & Lily) and I are heading down there around November or so for about 3 years and then it's on to wherever we get professorships. It'll be nice to escape NY with the possibility of owning a house and having a backyard to enjoy!

Doug Walsh said...

I was thinking about your research idea a little more and, as a gamer who deals in the virtual world daily with games, I would caution to make sure that your computer generated stimuli is designed very well and that you don't misconstrue results. After all, as this discussion shows, it would be easy for one to say that I'm simply not adjusting to the new rules quickly enough, but in reality, it's just a poorly designed virtual realm.

Can't say how it will affect economic decision making and I obviously know little about your research, but as with anything related to VR, your findings are only going to be as good as the VR situation you create.

Anonymous said...

Just as an aside, what did you think of the F-Zero series. I prefer arcade racers and that's about the only one I want to play consistently.

Doug Walsh said...

I thought F-Zero was a great game, just very, very difficult. I liked it better on the GBA, actually.

My favorite racing series is the PGR series (even back when it was called Metropolis Street Racer back on the Dreamcast) as I think it does the best job of balancing between arcadey fun and semi-simulation.

As for total arcadey style racing though, it's tough to beat Wacky Races on the Dreamcast with Mutley and the other Saturday Morning Cartoon characters. Great game!

Thanks for writing!

Craig said...

Doug, I have to agree whole-heartedly with your entire findings on this game.

I have just put in about 3 hours worth of gameplay - not much I realise, but the game has already lost me. I've been playing NFS: Carbon, and the cars feel better in that game! 'Nuf said.

As you suggest, the cars feel as if you are driving them on the moon, with absolutely no feedback (not through the controller, but visually) even on corners and speeds where the car should be powersliding quite dramatically. It has got me lost how they could release this game in it's current state - surely _someone_ in the testing phase, said "hey, does anyone else think that the cars feel a little floaty?", but perhaps too much time, effort and money was laready invested.

I'm using a Logitech Wingman Formula on PC and to say I'm disappointed would be an understatement. Back to Test Drive Unlimited and NFS: Carbon, I think.

Leah said...

Fantastic analysis. I feel much of it holds true for the recently-released sequel, DiRT 2.

I really, really wanted to enjoy it, but found the steering ridiculously sensitive no matter how I adjusted it (with both keyboard + mouse, and various gamepads). The physics of the vehicles, and the way they interact with other objects and the environment, came across as counter-intuitive and bizarre.

Curious, I went back and played DiRT 1 and GRID, and found the same handling problem in both titles (albeit not as pronounced in GRID).

My conclusion is that it's just Codemasters's idiosyncratic car handling model, and it really doesn't change much from game to game. The cars may no longer turn from some weird central pivot point, but they still feel floaty and hypersensitive. You still have to wrestle with the sensitivity settings to get things anywhere near playable.

Strangely, many Codemasters fans seem completely baffled by criticism of the developers' handling model. I think using an actual steering wheel to play may factor into this, as it seems that CM's games are designed for wheels, and many of their fans use them.

Personally, I've played many, many other racing games throughout the years (mostly on gamepads), from pure arcade to pure sim, and the Codemasters games stand out as having some of the most peculiar and finicky handling I've ever come across. I'm not hardcore enough to buy a wheel (though I'm beginning to consider it), but if most other racing titles can play well on a gamepad, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect Codemasters titles to do the same.

I'm glad I'm not alone. I was starting to wonder if I was just crazy for not being able to roll with the CM handling model.