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Colin McRae: Dirt

Preview: Colin's latest stuns us with shocking realism

We'd seen the impressive screenshots for Colin McRae: Dirt but we were totally unprepared for the actual visual treat Codemasters has put together with the sixth instalment in their rally series.

Seriously, those shockingly realistic screenshots are absolutely true to the in-game graphics. We seen it and played it. The scenic detail in Colin McRae: Dirt is astonishing. Playing it on a sweet 40-inch HD TV, we could see every blade of grass in the thick forestry that lines the dirt tracks as we raced along.

When you drive on the grass you can see it bend as it folds down underneath your car. Look behind you and you'll see the grass remain compressed as you drive away. It's not that there's never been nice grass in games before, it's the sheer amount of it that's impressive. The grass is so thick it forms a gorgeous furry texture that covers the banks.

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Compare this to the usual flat green texture with the odd stick off solid grass you see in other racers - PGR 3 and Gran Turismo HD included - and you can see why this is special.

As you hammer your car over the dusty surfaces the wheels kick up an insane amount of dust, and on a HD TV you'll see the particles within the cloud fade away realistically over time. Indeed, dirt has never looked so good.

The lighting is equally as astonishing. You'll pass under trees to see the shadows of individual leaves cast onto your motor as the beams of light sneaks through the gaps in the overhead vegetation. And this is topped off by some really nice depth of field (or focus blur) - giving the distant scenery a slight haze while the ultra-realistic cars stay as pin-sharp as you like.

We were blown away by the damage model as well, not just on the cars but on the scenery, too. If you slam into a metal lamp post it's not solid as a rock, like some games, nor is it flimsy like a papier mache pole. You car hits it with a solid impact as it realistically bends. You can drive on but your car will be in bad shape, and don't expect to keep your front bumper.

We were even more impressed when we managed to bend one of those metal barriers that line the road - which are usually rock solid too. As we tried to recover back onto the road the front corner of our car got stuck on one end of the barrier, and with the accelerator held firmly down we slowly bent the metal into the road before freeing up our bumper and hobbling the remainder of our smashed car along the course.

Now imagine there was another car behind you - that barrier, now bent into the road, would form a new obstacle for them to avoid. That has carnage potential.

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Our only reservation is that these super visuals come at the expense of the frame rate - at 30 frames per second it's noticeable choppier than the 60fps-slickness you hope for in driving games on these high-performance consoles.

But you won't have much time to think about the frame rate while you're playing because you'll be too busy trying to stay on the road. Needless to say, the demo demonstrated the games extreme difficulty.

It's wasn't because the handling was bad; on the contrary it was responsive and as satisfying to drive as the Colin series is known to be.

But the courses we played were extremely narrow. We know that this is more accurate to real life than the wide courses of past Colin McRae games, but it's important for games to strike that fine balance between playability and realism, as the excessively harsh Richard Burns Rally game discovered when no-one could play it.

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