Dirt racing has value for developer Monster Games. Since it hasn’t always been included in the studio’s titles through the years, fans have demanded it. Dirt racing also has cred. Many famous drivers got their starts on dirt, tearing it up at local tracks throughout the country on a Friday night. So, it makes sense that Monster would partner with NASCAR star Tony Stewart – who has always supported dirt racing – for a sprint car racing game on dirt.
Racing is naturally more slippery on dirt, but I’m glad this title has more gameplay nuance than just slopping through the corners. It’s more about finesse than aggression, and you must consider your car’s HP and the banking and arc of the turns. The fact that the tracks are ovals might seem boring, but the shortness of the straightaways relative to a NASCAR track creates a fun rhythm; it feels like you’re perpetually turning the wheel in preparation for the next corner. The flow feels different than a regular offroad or rally game. I was often on the gas the whole race, managing the car simply through careful and timely steering inputs, tearing around the track and scissoring between the other cars. Unfortunately, this is negated during online races, where lag can cause cars to visually appear to teleport around.
Starting out in the career mode, I gained an appreciation for what it takes to even eke out a mid-place finish through disciplined racing and avoiding contact with other cars. The mode contains three tiers of cars of escalating HP corresponding to the three racing series (midgets, 305s, and 410s), as well as upgradeable parts within each which you buy with your winnings and sponsorship payouts.
Progress through the mode is gradual, which I like. I didn’t win my first race until my second season in midgets, by which time I not only had better equipment, but I was also simply a better racer. Accordingly, I began to deal more with lapped traffic (on 50-percent race length) – another gameplay wrinkle that takes skill and patience to navigate. Eventually you can own more than one race car across each series and use your success in lower tiers to fuel your progress in the higher ones.
The game’s career mode is appropriately wedded to the experience on the track, but it’s locked in a linear inevitability that puts a cap on the mode’s ultimate payoff. Eventually you can get enough money to buy the parts you need to simply outmuscle opponents. This isn’t necessarily bad; it works, but it also makes your progress through the mode predictable and without consequence. It doesn’t match the tension and excitement occurring on the track itself.
Dirt racing may be a sort of minor league to the big-time stock cars, but this game – while limited in some areas – taps into its own enjoyable racing rhythm and buzz.