Oh boy. I knew I'd be making my return to blogging at greater length about individual games at some point, but I never would have guessed this would be the game to make me do it. Around this time last year I was bemoaning how Forza Motorsport 3 had all but destroyed my enjoyment of the racing genre, proclaiming that it would be a very long time before I could invest myself in another driving game. And up until a couple of weeks ago I still believed that. Earlier this year I attempted stints with Gran Turismo 3 and ToCA Race Driver 3 on my PlayStation 2, neither of which I managed to stand for more than a few races before my racing game fatigue re-emerged and I was forced to retire them back to my gaming garage.
And yet here I am, dedicating an entire blog entry to a driving game whose career mode I raced through in the space of a week. What the hell happened?
DiRT. DiRT happened.
At this point I can't remember what inspired me to pick up Colin McRae: DiRT (to use the full title of its UK release) when I popped it into my Xbox 360 a couple of weeks ago. I'd just finished a tenth anniversary run-through of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and was on the look-out for something to replace it as my go-to console game, but I really don't know what possessed me to choose DiRT. As if my aforementioned 'racer fatigue' shouldn't have been enough to dissuade me, the game had also left a pretty negative first impression when I initially checked it out not long after purchasing it last summer. Trying to pick it up right off the back of several lengthy Forza sessions, I was put off by the comparatively loose handling, tier-based career structure and dearth of options. Why would I be interested in playing a game with less than fifty cars when Forza boasted a figure closer to five-hundred? In every respect, DiRT was a non-starter for me.
When I booted DiRT back up a fortnight ago, I was fully expecting to dislike it. And initially that same disappointment from last year began to surface. Chugging round Knockhill in a Renault Clio isn't fun, no matter how enthusiastic the game's announcer sounds about it. But once I broke through the tedium of the first few events, unlocked some cars that were actually enjoyable to drive, and started throwing my vehicles round the courses a little more assertively, I began to have a lot more fun with it. By the time I reached the top tier of DiRT's career mode, I was completely converted and reluctant to let the experience end. Even now I find myself switching the game back on at least once a day, eager to race the Suzuki Escudo to the top of Pike's Peak, or wrestle aggressively to the front of a pack of dune buggies in a CORR event. Right now my career completion percentage stands at 80%, but I wouldn't be surprised if that rounds out to the full 100% before the year is out.
So what exactly is it about DiRT that's seen it achieve what neither Forza nor Gran Turismo could? If I'm honest, I think it's a combination of its entire feature-set - the same feature-set that put me off the game just over a year ago. The smaller overall scope of the game makes it feel like a less daunting proposition to pursue that coveted 100%, but within that narrower focus there's a great deal of variety to the events themselves - traditional rally is far enough removed from, say, CORR, to keep the whole experience feeling fresh. The fast, loose driving model makes driving the zippier cars feel exciting and precarious, but it's also forgiving enough to encourage players to take risks without having to worry too much about potentially disastrous consequences. While it's got a wealth of tuning options for petrol-heads, more casual gamers like myself can ignore all that stuff and still do respectably well on the higher difficulties - I went through most of the game on Pro-Am without ever tweaking anything. Pretty much the only thing I dislike about DiRT are the Crossover events, which feel like they're governed by cheap rubber-banding AI. Take those out of the equation, and it's a game that I'd find incredibly hard to fault.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about why a game I'd previously had no interest in has managed to completely subvert my expectations of it, and the best I can come up with is this. A lot has changed since last summer, and I'm certainly not the same person I was then. I have a lot of commitments that demand huge chunks of my time - my job and the obscene amount of overtime it's thrust upon me recently, playing drums for a new band, and playing and practising darts, just to name a handful. I don't have the time or the energy to invest in a simulation racer with the size and scope of Forza or Gran Turismo any more. I have no desire to dip my toes into another car collect-a-thon, spending scores of hours earning credits and working my way through an interminable list of events. When I've finished doing everything that needs to be done, I just want to sit down, pick up a controller and throw a virtual car around a virtual track, with no additional commitments. DiRT satisfied that need perfectly.
So now that I've finished with DiRT, what's next? While I don't think I'll be playing any other racers for at least a few months, I've got a title waiting in the wings in the form of Race Driver: GRID. Also developed by Codemasters, GRID falls under the same umbrella as DiRT, so I'm hoping it will provide a similarly smooth, enjoyable racing experience. I'm also keeping a tentative eye on Forza Horizon, the new release under the Forza banner that seeks to marry the series' reputation with the open-world model pioneered by Burnout Paradise. Again, it's not something I'm planning to play immediately, but it's intrigued me enough to think about buying it once it drops below £20 or so. Right now, I'll be diverting my attention back to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - I'm now around halfway through the core story missions, with thirty-five hours on the clock and sixty-or-so missions completed in total. I've also been craving a first-person shooter of late, and am in the process of narrowing down my options on that front before picking one to play. And of course, there'll still be the odd intermittent racing session with DiRT.
Before I sign off this blog, I'd like to draw your attention to something I'll be doing in a few weeks' time. Regular readers of this site are no doubt aware of Extra Life, a charity event which encourages gamers to play for twenty-four hours non-stop to help raise money for childrens' hospitals. Unfortunately I didn't catch wind of the event until just a few days before, and so I wasn't able to take part. The idea has stuck with me, though, and I've spent the last couple of weeks putting together a little charity event of my own. On Friday November 23rd, I'll be running my own one-man twenty-four-hour gaming marathon to raise money in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. Some of the finer details (like which games I'll be playing, and how I'll be broadcasting the event) are yet to be finalised, but you can read about the marathon (and if you're feeling really generous, slip me a small donation) on my JustGiving page. Wish me luck, Giant Bomb - I have a feeling I'm going to need it. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)