Mixing a bite-sized rally experience with a festival atmosphere aimed at the millennial crowd, most sim racers share a very distinct love/hate relationship with Codemasters’ DiRT franchise. Though the three main titles in the series are traditionally loaded with content, ranging from historical rally machinery to short course off-road trucks and everything in between, the package in which it has been wrapped up with is often a difficult pill to swallow for a large portion of the community. The equivalent to your daughter’s otherwise polite and courteous boyfriend showing up on your property sporting a Fuck the Police t-shirt and reeking of marijuana, the best bits of DiRT are often overlooked by sim racers who have grown frustrated with the in-your-face atmosphere conveyed by the menus, voice-overs, and overall presentation.
For every track layout that’s genuinely fun to drive, compelling battle with a field of AI cars set to the highest difficulty, or surprisingly competent physics engine for a mass-market racer, there is unfortunately an in-game personality ripped straight out of an Energy Drink commercial, intrusive DC Shoes advertisements, or far too many infield attractions for any rallycross championship to afford. As a result, games such as DiRT 2 and DiRT 3 – while extremely solid off-road racers – are typically blasted by the sim racing community, to the point where some questioned whether DiRT 4 would retain this atmosphere, and Codemasters themselves had to confirm ahead of schedule that no, it would not.
But what if I told you that the complaints these sim racers have made when it comes to the DiRT franchise in regards to the series running wild with The Dudebro Factor, are in reality extremely hypocritical, and instead only serve to enforce the stereotype that sim racers are often elitist man-children who willingly want these games to be as boring as possible?
We’ll start with 2009’s DiRT 2, which many saw as a drastic departure from what the Colin McRae Rally series had traditionally stood for. Eschewing the traditional rally stages and officially licensed short course off road tracks in favor of fantasy layouts littered with an overwhelming array of spectators and advertisements in locations spread evenly across the globe, many hardcore rally fans rioted on message boards far and wide, proclaiming DiRT 2 to be virtually unrecognizable compared to its predecessor. It’s not that the game wasn’t a solid racing title in its own right, it just wasn’t what the actual audience of the Colin McRae series wanted out of the experience. They bought the software expecting lengthy rally championships, and instead got Travis Pastrana shouting at them as they raced buggies in Morocco.
DiRT 2 featured an abundance of real world Rally America drivers, such as Ken Block, Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust, and even the late Dave Mirra, but many were put off by how these drivers were woven into the game’s single player campaign mode. In the middle of the race, these avatars would actively banter with you depending on the on-track situation unfolding, meaning Ken Block would launch into an angry tirade if you sent his car spinning into the barrier. Sim racers hated this element of immersion, as it was seen as not realistic for drivers to shout at each other back and forth during the course of the race. It seems nobody told them that NASCAR drivers would rely on multi-channel radios to communicate directly with other drivers during the course of a race to plan strategies, or just talk mad shit during caution periods, which means the banter between avatars Codemasters had implemented into DiRT 2 was somewhat realistic, in a sense.
These same sim racers would then fire up their PC simulators for league night, in which attendance on a TeamSpeak server that subjected them to off-topic banter between other drivers over the course of the race was mandatory. The banter they complained about in DiRT 2, they would later willingly bring upon themselves in a hardcore simulator.
Though the driver banter was scrapped for 2011’s DiRT 3, the reliance on real-world off road racing personalities was not, with Sebastien Loeb, Sebastien Ogier, Ken Block, Kris Meeke, and Liam Doran all making appearances on the roster of competitors – both in the machinery that had propelled them to stardom, as well as competing in the correct disciplines rather than bouncing around from class to class (as was seen in DiRT 2). There’s admittedly a reduction in the number of real world liveries, but what I’m trying to convey here is that the mere presence of legitimate drivers was much appreciated – it adds an extra level of immersion and fan service to the whole thing, compared to seeing the name John Smith scoot around in a fantasy Oakley livery.
Fans, however, weren’t sold. They scoffed at Ken Block’s role in the software, as at the time his results weren’t all that impressive in the 2011 World Rally Championship season, and many felt his Gymkhana stunt videos didn’t hold as much weight as raw competition results – which were lacking at the time.
Yet when the ultra-hardcore DiRT Rally dropped in 2015, and did not include any real-world drivers in the game’s primary point-to-point rally mode – instead faceless names that were either staff members or randomly generated avatars – fans complained that the game lacked authenticity. Sure, there was the proper Volkswagen livery for the VW Polo R, but it wasn’t an AI driver named Ogier behind the wheel. Sim racers took to the forums to say they wished Codemasters were able to attain licenses that would see a greater increase in authenticity, but forgot that when the DiRT series did try to implement real drivers into the software, fans bitched about that as well.
Now let’s talk about an aspect that pissed a bunch of people off; the adverts. DiRT 2, and to a lesser extent DiRT 3, loaded a bunch of intrusive Monster Energy advertisements into the scenery, to the point where even the game’s primary art style and colors had been designed with the popular energy drink brand in mind. People were absolutely sick of seeing this shit everywhere, as in 2009, most found it highly unlikely that an energy drink company would sponsor an obscure discipline of motorsports to such an extent, they would deck out the facility with giant inflatable energy drink cans.
Fast forward eight years, and Europe’s most prolific RallyCross championship is known as the FIA Monster Energy World RallyCross series, while a similar championship in North America is financially backed by Monster’s rival, Red Bull. The trackside artwork and outrageous, edgy liveries that were once deemed bizarre and cringe-worthy by sim racers is now in retrospect highly accurate, almost prophetic.
As are the tracks, and some of the concepts pioneered in the DiRT games. Though the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group ran a very prestigious off-road championship inside American football stadiums, many sim racers believed layouts that would send short course trophy trucks flying over entire sections of bleachers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were little more than wishful thinking. Three years later, Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck Series, now known as Speed Energy Formula Off-Road, did just that.
Slowly, the narrative of the DiRT series being arcade games begins to fall apart. Yes, there was a soundtrack aimed at teenagers and the setup options were merely sliders, but the game’s subject matter still remains relatively close to reality. The Monster signage may have been obnoxious at the time, and the track designs a little flamboyant for where auto racing was at in 2009, but we eventually did send cars ripping up the LA Coliseum bleachers, and Monster is now the title sponsor of a prestigious rallycross series.
One of the biggest complaints about DiRT 3 back when it first came out was the inclusion of a dedicated YouTube button in the game’s replay mode, which the game aggressively pushed for you to experiment with via voice-overs shouting silly one-liners at the conclusion of each event, such as “sweet run homie, you should put that on YouTube!” The phrase became a meme of sorts both on the official Codemasters forums as well as other sim racing message boards, because at the time it was seen as a completely useless feature that almost nobody would bother making use of. The functionality was also limited to thirty second clips, so even if the feature did boast solid upload times and minimal loss in quality, external third party recording software did a much better job at capturing your best on-track exploits.
Sim racers scoffed at this feature, and the annoying “put that on YouTube, bro” dialogue that came along with it. Eight years later, they’re putting everything on YouTube, and the PlayStation 4 has what’s essentially a YouTube button directly on the controller. DiRT 3 was blasted by the sim community for pioneering what has become a very large part of the sim racing ecosystem – YouTube videos.
Last, but most certainly not least, would be the dreaded Gymkhana and drift events found in DiRT 3, which aggravated sim racers not particularly well-versed in the art of going sideways. Littered throughout DiRT 3’s surprisingly lengthy career mode are non-racing events, which ask you to either smash boxes, attain points for driving sideways, or participate in freestyle events that draw inspiration from both Monster Jam, as well as Ken Block’s prolific YouTube series based around carefully choreographed automotive stunts. Though there’s a pretty good amount of courses and vehicles designed around this off-shoot mode to make it into something that’s worth learning how to master rather than a quick diversion to be forgotten about, sim racers threw wide scale temper-tantrums over events that had very little – if anything – to do with off-road racing. In fact, sim racers cried that the difficulty of these mandatory Gymkhana events prevented them from progressing through career mode, or something to that effect.
Though the occasional Gymkhaha event did appear in Career mode, DiRT 3’s progression system did not require you to complete every single event in a linear fashion to move deeper into the game. Career mode handed you a set number of tokens for completing each event, and would open new events after X amount of tokens were attained – kind of like Super Mario 64, where new doors in the castle were opened after a set amount of Stars, and it didn’t matter how you got to that number. Most of the time, the token threshold would be achieved in a fashion that would let you outright skip Gymkhana events entirely. So aside from the tutorial level, which practically held your hand through rudimentary challenges, drift sessions and Gymkhana events were optional diversions you weren’t forced to do, and the sim racers crying that they got stuck on a Gymkhana event, are actually admitting they couldn’t complete a basic tutorial level.
The irony, of course, is the sheer number of sim racers who enjoy drifting in their simulator of choice, whether it be Assetto Corsa, rFactor, or even Live for Speed. Of course, it isn’t always the same people taking an interest in both drifting and DiRT 3, but what I find perplexing is how many people slammed what’s more or less an elaborate drift mode in DiRT 3 that was made significantly easier thanks to competing on dirt and given all-wheel drive vehicles, only to head to the Assetto Corsa forums and see that there are an awful lot of sim racers who love drifting, and shouldn’t actually be having problems with the drift challenges or the Gymkhana mode as a whole. The same sim racers who criticized DiRT 3 for implementing race types centering around drifting, are in some cases shutting down DiRT 3 and then proceeding to boot up their favorite rFactor drift mod. Codemasters were trying to give this portion of the userbase something fun to do, and were criticized for it.
With DiRT 4 on the horizon, it’s easy to leave the previous three titles in the dust, and thank Codemasters for returning to their semi-hardcore roots with an uncompromising rally simulator. Yet in looking at the two most controversial games in the series, many of the elements that were deemed to be crafted with the casual audience in mind and seen as a slap in the face to the hardcore audience, were in hindsight either realistic, reasonable additions to the overall experience, or pioneered certain concepts that would later be adopted by the entire sim racing community. If the wait for DiRT 4 this summer becomes unbearable, it’s really not a bad idea to bust out the older games for a trip down memory lane; you might be surprised what you’ll find when approaching the software with an open mind.