Reason one is obvious: just look at all the eye candy. Visually, DiRT is everything Forza 2 isn’t. It does ludicrously lush trackside vegetation, stunningly detailed car models, artful speed blur and beautiful, warm, glowing lighting like no racer ever before. The interior views, which actually change and crumple to reflect car damage, are probably the best I’ve ever seen. Wheels don’t churn up the track as they do in Sony’s MotorStorm, but there’s certainly enough dust and mud flying around to satisfy any would-be off-roader. Look at the replays, and you’ll be astonished by the incidental detail. Watch carefully, and you can see blades of grass bend in the car’s wake. So what if all this goodness comes at the price of some very occasional slowdown or tearing? You’ll barely notice, and it never affects the playability.
DiRT also scores big on another area where Forza 2 fell down: the courses. From British forests and moorlands to Japanese lakes and mountains, the game is almost too picturesque in its scenery, and there are some thrilling combinations of devilishly tight turns and fast narrow, undulating stretches for you to navigate at speed. In terms of sheer thrills, nothing quite matches MotorStorm’s most fearsome Monument Valley tracks, but the hill-climb up the winding, dusty trails of Pike’s Peak comes close, as does the breakneck rampage through the densely wooded Australian tracks. In the Spanish and Italian tracks it’s tempting to go off-course altogether. Wouldn’t you like to have a quick beer in that inviting hill town, or take a dip in the emerald waters lying in the distance? OK, so we’re missing the likes of Greece, Sweden and Finland, but I still can’t think of another next-gen racer – well, maybe Burnout: Revenge – that matches this one for spectacle and variety of scenery.
Which brings me on to the handling. Okay, okay, despite all Codemaster’s claims about their new physics engine, it isn’t what you might call ultra-realistic. After Forza 2 practically every car feels very light, and there’s still an over-arching feeling that they’re all rotating around a central point rather than resting on four separate wheels. However, it is fun. There’s a great sense of speed, and a real seat-of-the-pants feel to the racing that keeps you focussed and watching every bend and change of surface with due caution. Wet surfaces are a particular strength; the game might not do dynamic weather conditions, but race through perilous downhill S-bends on a rain-soaked Japanese mountain road and you’ll soon remember what your driving instructor told you about skidding and breaking distances. As damage, while undeniably spectacular, can be fatal to your chances of victory, you really won’t want to smack too hard into every sign, tree and barrier.