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Dirt Track Racing (PC) Review

Background Info

Almost every form of racing has been represented in a PC title in the past, with one notable exception--dirt tracks. There have been several modifications to other software titles to try to reproduce the look and feel of racing on the natural stuff, with varying degrees of success, but it hasn't been possible to buy an off-the-shelf product that allows you to get down and dirty--until now.

Ratbag Games, makers of the fun and addictive racer Powerslide, tosses their hat into the racing sim ring with Dirt Track Racing (DTR), a simulation of racing stock cars at the local, regional, and national levels. DTR is licensed by the IMCA, a large and popular organization for dirt track races, which really lends it an air of credibility. How did Ratbag use this premise? Here's my take on a very eagerly awaited title. These impressions are from the gold copy of DTR, so the only thing I really can't comment on is the manual, which I hope is a good one--there's a lot to learn about these cars, and a good manual will be a tremendous aid.

Presentation/Graphics : 96
Anyone who owns or has tried the demo of Powerslide will feel right at home looking at DTR--it has the same general look about it, without the futuristic overtones. And, by the way, this is a good thing--Powerslide was stunning, and returned great framerates as well. More on this later.

The opening movie for DTR gives you an idea of what the software is all about, with a nice mix of live video and in-game shots of cars sliding through corners, flying down straights, and yes, crashing. It can be skipped by smacking the ESC key, but I recommend watching it once or twice--it's pretty entertaining, even with the slightly annoying music.

The in-game interface is pretty well done, even if a few things are not quite obvious. Once you've navigated through it a few times, things will sort themselves out, and it's easy to get around. The interface graphics are clean and easy to read, and everything fits the subject matter of DTR.

Once you're into the race, either through the quick race or career mode, be prepared to see the nicest track rendering yet. From the textures of the dirt to the horizons, everything about the tracks in DTR is absolutely top-notch. The racing surfaces at each track have a unique appearance, with some being darker dirt than others, and there is a well-defined groove on each. As the track conditions change, the surface texture changes to reflect it--you can actually look at the surface and tell when the track is drying out. In places where the cars use the same groove repeatedly, the line will get darker from rubber buildup as the race progresses, a nice way to learn the line at some places.

The environments are just as well done as the surfaces themselves, from the infields to the billboards around the track. Ratbag says all the tracks are fictional, but you'll see a few that look familiar--Eldora and Knoxville, to name two--and they look terrific. All the little touches, tracks, horizons, and surrounding scenery, add up to make DTR very atmospheric and believable.

The cars in DTR have been the target of some criticism in the sim racing community, and there are a few problems with the appearance, but overall I'm satisfied with the look. The cars seem to sit a little higher than they should, especially the Stock and Pro Stock cars, but it's really not that noticeable while racing. The modeling of the cars (5 Stock, 5 Pro Stock, and 8 Late Models) is very good. Each car goes by a fictional name, but it's easy to identify the real-world counterpart--the 1968 Lightning, for example, is a Dodge Charger, and the Mars GT is obviously an early Camaro. The Late Models look like, well, dirt Late Models--the body shape doesn't vary much, and other than the ride height issue, is pretty much spot-on. From the rear spoiler to the offset roofs, Ratbag has done a god job of capturing the unique look of these cars.

Each car in DTR gives you the choice of 5 or so paint schemes, and these are very nicely detailed, with dings and dents, visible rivets, and decals on most of them. When you choose a number, it appears on the car you are driving--the only drawback is not being able to chose the font and color, but you spend very little time looking at your own car, so this isn't a big issue. In general, the textures on the cars are appropriate, and add to the immersion and believability of the sim. There is documentation included on how to create car textures and chassis for DTR, and some are already showing up on the Internet, so you can give DTR a new appearance easily. Thanks for making this possible, Ratbag.

The in-car graphics are not the worst in the world, but are a little disappointing when compared to the great jobs done elsewhere in DTR. Everything looks a little rough and unfinished, and not up to par with the in-car views in NASCAR 3. It is probably a great credit to the sim, however, that I rarely found myself noticing the dashboard--it's not vital to watch the gauges (of which only the tachometer is functional, anyway) like it is in a NASCAR sim, and the cockpits do serve the purpose. It would have been nice to see some more detail, though. There are a total of 5 driving views available--a no-cockpit view, cockpit with hood, cockpit with no hood (my usual view), and two chase views. Should be one to please just about anyone.

Frame rates were good on my system, with no real slowdown or stuttering until I went up to 1024x768, and it still remained playable. I was offered resolutions from 512x384 to 1280x1024 with my Banshee card, and chose to run in 800x600 most of the time, as it returned the best combination of looks and framerate. At a few of the very short tracks there may be a rare drop at the race start, but overall the frames really fly in DTR, just as they did in Powerslide--I think Ratbag really has a good thing going with the game engine.

All in all, the combination of incredible atmosphere, outstanding textures, and lightning-fast framerates add up to make DTR a winner in the graphics department. Add the ability to customize things, and we definitely have a winner here. Great job.

Presentation/Audio : 59
One of the weak points within DTR lies in the sound. The basic engine sound is acceptable, but it doesn't seem to vary in pitch quite enough as the RPMs climb. In other driving sims, I use sound as an indicator of speed, and that is difficult to do in DTR, and made things a little harder for me at first. I hear rumors of a fix or sound update coming, though, so hopefully this issue will be addressed.

Interface/Options : 88
As I mentioned above, the interface is really pretty simple--it consists of nested menus, which you navigate with the mouse. The initial screen offers choices to go to the game, set options, go to a multiplayer screen, and a few other less important functions. One problem, and it is a small one, is that things weren't always intuitive to me--the series schedule is under career information, for example. This is only an issue the first couple times through, though, so it really doesn't affect things in the long term. There are a few little quirks that could be done differently--the main thing I'd like to see is, when viewing the season schedules, an asterisk or something to denote a series you are currently participating in. With 12 different series to choose from, it can be a little confusing to remember which you've chosen at times.

The options in DTR aren't as numerous as in some other titles, but everything is straightforward and effective. Upon launching the software, you are given a choice of video device--Glide, Banshee, Direct3D, software, and auto detect. Once in the game, you have choices to further define your graphics setup, with resolution (my Banshee offered several resolutions, mentioned above) and various detail checkboxes. The only item I didn't have access to was specular lighting, but everything else was enabled during the review period.

The sound options are about what you'd expect, but there seems to be no 3D sound support via A3D or EAX. With all the great sound cards available, this seems to be a strange omission.

The game options are very complete, allowing for a number of parameter changes. There are 3 damage settings (off, arcade, and sim), 2 race session types (brief or detailed), and the option to enable tire wear and yellow flags during a race. The setting with the most effect, though, is the Handling slider. It can be set from pure arcade handling to full simulation, or anywhere in between. This will be nice for those new to racing sims, allowing a nice learning curve when combined with the AI settings.

No new ground is broken in any of these areas, but it is very simple and effective--and I'll take effective over attractive any time.

Gameplay : 92
All the neat graphics and original premise would be worthless if the gameplay was bad, and thankfully this isn't the case with DTR. I'm afraid that the subject matter of this title is going to scare some potential buyers off, and that's a real shame--DTR can be a blast for anyone, dirt racing fan or not.

My initial foray into DTR was a real surprise--the first time I started the program, I was asked for my racing sim experience, and of course selected the highest setting. Once on the track in quick race mode, I learned something--the Late Models are very difficult to drive fast laps in. When I selected the level at the start, DTR placed the AI and car handling sliders at the highest levels, and it makes a tremendous difference in the learning curve. I have since returned the sliders to the far right, but it took a little time at the lower settings to get comfortable.

Quick race is one of the race modes available, allowing use of any car on any track out of the 30 included. You can set the number of opponents (up to 15), number of laps (up to 99), and the AI speed and track condition (from very dry to wet). The condition of the track has a marked effect on the way the car drives, so be prepared to make changes in the setup or your driving style if you go from tacky to very dry, or make any change at all.

After some time with small fields, I decided it was time to move on, and set up a race with 15 opponents at full physics and AI. From what I've seen the past couple weeks, DTR is going to be a stout challenge for quite awhile, even in quick race. The AI are very aggressive, looking for a way to get under you and pull the famous "slide job", and if you try to take the line away they will give you a nudge. Often, the AI cars will make mistakes, too--driving into a corner too hard and sliding up out of the groove, spinning, and having accidents without the human driver being involved. Ratbag did a good job on this, and it makes for some pretty believable competition.

Speaking of the AI, I did find a problem at a couple tracks, most notably the mile at Brewerton. It seems like the computer cars have a hard time with the long straights and flat turns here, and most of them go into the corners far too fast and slide up into the wall--the 12 lap race I did had 6 yellow flags, and only 6 out of the 16 starters finished the race. The next time, everything went about the same way--this does appear to be a quite significant bug, and makes this track very difficult to race against the AI. Hopefully a fix is on the way.

Besides quick race, there is also a career mode in DTR, and that's where the replay value comes in. It's structured a lot like the career mode in Sports Car GT, with the addition of several different series to race in--12 in all.

Starting with a small amount of money, you must first purchase a car for the Stock or Pro Stock class. These are production-based cars, with the major difference being that Stock class cars must remain stock--no modifications are allowed. Pro Stock cars can be upgraded by earning money to buy engine, chassis, gearbox, and other performance enhancements. Once your car is chosen, you can enter one or all of the series your car is appropriate for--but note that if you run more than one series, you may have to skip a race in one of them, since the calendar moves on at the same rate in all series. This makes concentrating on one series at a time advisable.

The procedure for the race weekend goes, for the most part, like it would in real life. You start with a practice session, qualify, then run a heat race. If you finish in the top 4, you are transferred straight to the A feature--if you finish 5-8, you go to the B feature, where you must earn a transfer spot to the A feature, and so on. This is a very good representation of short track racing, and DTR is the first title to capture the pressure of having to earn your way into the big show--great job. Points are earned at each event, and season points are kept, leading to the series champion being crowned at the end.

As your career progresses, you'll earn money from two sources--race winnings and sponsorships. This is the first time that sponsorship has been utilized in a racing sim, at least to my knowledge, and it does add another interesting twist to DTR. Perform well, and the sponsors will start throwing long-term offers at you. Perform poorly, and it's back to racing out of your own pocket. It adds a little more pressure to run well each time out, and is a welcome addition to games of this type.

The money earned can be used for several things besides buying parts or cars--you have to pay to repair any damage you incur (during the event if it's minor, but you'll have to withdraw from the event and repair the car in your shop if it's major), and you must rent the track to run test sessions. It can take quite a few seasons to earn enough money to move into the Late Model ranks, and the expense of replacing tires, etc., becomes greater in the higher classes. Be prepared to spend quite a few years in the lower classes on your climb to the top.

Learning your way around the garage may take awhile, depending on the manual. Some of the adjustments won't make a dirt car react in the way we're used to on an asphalt racer, so the process should be interesting for everyone--new and experienced racers alike. There are a goodly number of things to tweak on a fully race-prepped car, including: Front and rear toe-in, wheel offset, tire pressures, tire compounds, shock bump/rebound settings, spring rate at each corner, gear ratios, weight balance, and several more. Suffice to say, there's enough here to make just about any gearhead happy--and it all seems to affect the car the way it should.

I want to take time to address a couple of the most common concerns I've seen about DTR--the driving physics and the damage model. Many people don't have a clear understanding of what DTR is meant to be, and I hope I can clear this issue up a little.

The driving physics in DTR are very flexible, from 0% (pure arcade mayhem) to 100% (full simulation). This allows DTR to be run as an arcade racer at low handling with the damage off, which will suit some people just fine. With the handling at 100%, and the damage enabled, I think Ratbag has done a commendable job of providing a quality sim experience--the cars are NOT easy to drive at speed, and the track conditions changing continuously make for a formidable challenge to the setup expert as well. It's my opinion that DTR fits the label of a racing simulation, both in the physics and the career play.

The damage model in DTR is not quite what I expected, but it's certainly not bad. Damage is inflicted on different parts of the car, i.e., smack the wall with the right side, and the right side of the chassis is damaged. Hit something with the front, and the front of the chassis and the engine take the damage. None of it seems out of line, and it may be a little forgiving, but not by much. I would like to see the ability to cut a tire by scraping the wall, though, since that seems to be the way a lot of people steer in multiplayer. More on that below.

Multiplayer is a focus of DTR, evidenced by the inclusion of a special version of GameSpy Lite on the CD. There is also a growing community on Kali, and races using the demo are going on just about all the time. I've not done a huge amount of online racing, but when I have, the software has performed admirably. I've seen very little warping, and DTR seems to handle high pings very well. With a maximum of 10 drivers in each race, an ISDN or cable connection should be a very capable race host, and a 56K works great for the clients. There are leagues forming now, and that will be welcome--pickup races are the usual, a lot of good serious racers intermixed with the backwards driving, purposely wrecking jokers who give online racing such a bad name. At least DTR gives the host the ability to ban anyone from his races, a feature I see being used often.

It seems that DTR has a very capable and stable multiplayer function, and I look forward to enjoying it for some time to come.

Are there things I don't like? Sure--mainly the way you start a race, sitting in the car with the computer driving it toward the green flag. I'd like to see a full pace lap under player control. Yellow flags are not handled well, either, with the CPU taking control in that situation as well. The duration of cautions is also an issue, with some of them lasting less than a full lap.

When it all comes together, though, Ratbag has given us one terrific title here. Even with the flaws, DTR is incredibly enjoyable, and it's flexible enough to please a wide audience. Now, Ratbag, let's have some open wheelers...please?

Replay Value : 90
As I have mentioned, the career play, along with online racing, give DTR a great deal of replay value. Start a career with the AI at the low level, and when it gets too easy move on to the middle or high setting, and you'll find a new challenge. If you've mastered the Stock class cars, buy a Pro Stock--ditto. Replay is almost limitless, and should keep DTR on hard drives for a long time to come--can I say any more?

Overall : 92
Overall, I've gotten more enjoyment out of the gold version of DTR than I have any title in a long time, maybe since the original NASCAR Racing back in 1994. It's not perfect, with some of the problems I've outlined here, but the overall gameplay and subject matter more than make up for them. Thanks to Ratbag and IMCA, I have a new favorite racing title. With the many DTR websites popping up, and the good developer communication we've seen so far, this good thing can only get better. At the price point Wizard Works has DTR placed, around $20, there is no reason for any short track race fan to pass this one up.

By: Scott Moore 11/23/99

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