Let's start with a moan. What percentage of people actually play their 360 on one of those High Definition Television things? It's got to be well under half of you. Now, we know that it's a Microsoft remit that every Xbox 360 game is to be optimized for 720p on pain of death, but you'd like to think developers would actually test their games on a standard def TV before kicking them out of the door and out onto retail shelves.
So there we were, squinting at the (admittedly lovely looking, when presented on the right technology) Career menu screen, unable to read even the most rudimentary options without pressing our faces toward the screen with an intimacy that'd be deemed too raunchy for the cover of Penthouse. The problem extends to the in-race view - they've made the cars just about big enough to see, but the onboard telemetry - absolutely vital stuff when you consider that rally games are built around blind corners - is almost entirely illegible. You do eventually get used to the stingy scale of things, but this does develop the kind of worrying eye strain resilience that'll have us reaching for the Coke-bottle glasses in order to read messages like the giant "Hollywood" sign before we hit thirty.
Enough of that. Because picking holes in Colin McRae: DiRT (let's just call it Dirt) on a technical basis feels like having to point out to the naked Scarlett Johansson who's just strolled into your room that she's got toothpaste on her upper lip.
Simply put, Dirt is visually luxurious. This debut for Codemasters' in-house Neon Engine (also being used for next year's Race Driver One) is an impressive showcase for the obvious power behind the technology, making rival racing titles such as Forza Motorsport 2 look about as appealing as a tapeworm sandwich in comparison. So stunning are the locations, you'll feel your neck redden under the heat of the desolate dustball tracks, and you'll practically feel the moisture rising up through your socks as you zip around a waterlogged recreation of the forestry of Japan.
The benefits are certainly more than just cosmetic, mind you; weak side-barriers that would previously not be moved now crumple under impact, and if you're so inclined you can break your way through them. And better news is that they've managed to sort out those framerate issues we detected in early preview versions - the action purrs along as though powered by pure silk, meaning there's only one possible way it can all end - by us breaking out the full stops and declaring Dirt the best looking racing game ever.
And it plays a mean game of, er, rally as well, although the biggest fans of the previous McRae offerings might be the last to appreciate it. See, the word "rally" hasn't been omitted from the title by accident - Dirt instead fancies itself as the roughhouse version of TOCA. Rallycross, hill climbs, buggy racing - if there's a chance it'll splash mud in your face, there's every chance it's featured in Dirt. So, does this expansion into other areas of racing dilute the core rallying experience of previous games? Well, in a way, we're afraid it does.
While the general level of track design is a step above the disappointing McRae '05, there's still an inescapable feeling that the handling has been dumbed down to give newcomers the ability to drive more than 400km without their front wheels falling off. Judging this from a neutral perspective (i.e, from the POV of those that don't live and breathe mud), this is unequivocally a positive move for the series, but Colin McRae: Dirt's new-found thirst for mainstream acceptance may leave long-term fans feeling like their well has run dry. Indeed, even poor old Colin McRae is reduced to the status of a wallflower as Codemasters openly flirt with their audience. Your navigator screams annoying messages of encouragement at you at a rate of knots. While you've got to congratulate the guy for excelling in his chosen career path despite the considerable drawback of having a completely paralyzed face, you'll still wish Codemasters thought to map an ejector seat on the bumper buttons.
We're getting bogged down with things that don't count for a great deal. The simple meat of the matter is that Colin McRae: Dirt is a compelling package, absolutely rammed with content, and - crucially - not one bit of it sucks. Getting the best times on the rally events is as furiously addictive as ever, and even rally virgins will soon be memorizing vague instructions in order to gain an extra edge. At the other end of the spectrum, the racing events don't suffer despite their "me too" feel - although the simple-minded AI obviously didn't get the memo that it's not 2002 any more. Luckily, their buffoonery isn't dimwitted enough to spoil the overall racing experience.
But there's one critical thing to know about Dirt and that thing is this - Dirt promises us a mud-bath, and then tips barely half a flowerpot over our heads. Everything is far too sterile and clinical for a game of this nature, especially after experiencing what we have on the PS3's MotorStorm. Every suggestion that enters your head from looking at Dirt in motion is that the engine is clearly capable of better things - Dirt, more than anything, feels like a test run for something even better in the Neon Engine's near future.
There's one other critical thing to know about Dirt, and that's the online multiplayer, which falls short of the expectations we have of Xbox Live. Instead of featuring a head-to-head mode, Dirt online instead concentrates on the rallying aspect, grouping you into leagues of around 100 and inviting you to attack either a rally event or a hill climb in order to scale the charts. It's a good way to measure how far you've come against human opposition, but it's a mistake for Codemasters to expect this mode to carry Colin McRae: Dirt on Xbox Live when there are so many more comprehensive packages available elsewhere. Perhaps head-to-head is being considered as an additional download later down the line? Sadly, there's no doubt such an extra will require us to reach into our pockets once more.
But despite the announcing, the lack of focus and the tiny-weeny fonts, Colin McRae: Dirt is well worth the purchase. The rally revolution is yet to come - perhaps Sega Rally Revo is for you, if you're on the fence - but this is still very much on the front row of the grid.