While there may be some debate as to which video game developer can be called the leader in racing simulators, there is no question in most people's minds that Codemasters knows how to program an off-road racing game. For several years running, their Colin McRae Rally series of games has been unmatched in terms of quality on all categories. As good as other rally games were, every iteration of the Colin McRae Rally games outshone them year after year. With the move to next-generation consoles came a name change and change of focus. The series became known as DiRT, and the game widened its range from strictly rally racing to most forms of off-road racing. The change didn't do much for the quality of the title, as it was still considered some of the best off-road racing around. It took a few years, but the sequel has finally arrived, and while a few more things have changed, one thing has remained constant: DiRT 2 represents some of the finest off-road racing gamers have seen yet.
The very first thing you'll notice is that the development team wanted to impress you right from the get-go. The plain white 3-D menus from the first game have been replaced with a full off-road festival setting. From the title screen that displays your badge to the menus where your car is sitting amidst a sea of spectators, you'll immediately feel like you're a part of a large spectacle that never ends. The rest of the menus, held inside your trailer, "pop" more than they did in the first game and really help with the atmosphere. One thing that carries over from the first title is the fact that load screens and some menu items randomly display facts about your driver as well as progress made on certain milestones. Not only is this helpful, but it also keeps a game's most boring element all the more interesting.
The game's main single-player mode is the DiRT Tour, which has you traveling the world to take on different off-road events using a variety of different vehicles. You have the standard rally racing to deal with, but there are other events present that put a little bit of a spin on the standard rally or abandon it altogether. Trailblazer is rally racing without the co-pilot, while Gate Crasher is rally but with the added task of crashing through foam gates to lower your overall race time. Raids take the traditional racing route with cars in different positions and throw off-road vehicles into the mix, while Land Rush pits all of the cars side by side. Last Man Standing is your basic elimination mode where the last player in each lap is booted out until one player is left. Domination divides a track into sectors and scores are tallied per sector based on your position. Finally, Rally Cross is much like Raids, except that the tracks are divided between open dirt mixed with standard asphalt. All in all, there are 100 different races here that include X-Games events in the three major regions (America, Asia and Europe) as well as a tribute event for Colin McRae that acts as a special way for the development team to show appreciation to a man who they never got a chance to properly thank.
There are a few new features that really amp up DiRT 2, and the first is the experience system. Winning races and even just participating in them becomes the key to unlocking more tracks and more cash. It also acts as the unlocking system for the more decorative things, like dashboard toys and liveries for your car. The livery items travel with you to the online game, so it really motivates people to level up quickly to show the competition just how good they are. The other new addition is the friendship system. Performing well in races gets the famous drivers to notice you in their competitions, but racing politely also helps them get to know you better. By not crashing into them and passing them without incident, those drivers will increase their friendship level toward you and will return the favor during races in the future. The friendship system also helps unlock bonus events, like personal duels and time trials, helping to further the experience you'll gain in your career. Finally, the game features a rewind system that only gets activated after a race-ending crash. Using a rewind will let you turn back the clock a few seconds to give you a second chance at avoiding the big crash. While some may consider it cheating, it does help lower frustration levels if you happen to mess up in the latter half of a race. It's also limited depending on your difficulty level, so expert drivers will never have to rely on this crutch.
There are a few things that prevent DiRT 2 from becoming the king of all racing titles, let alone off-road racing titles. The most notable omission here is traditional rally racing. It's not that the game doesn't have it, but it's the fact that it comprises so little of the game in comparison to the first title. It's even more alarming considering that the DiRT team was responsible for the Colin McRae Rally titles in the previous console generation, making you wonder why rally was reduced to a footnote this time around. Also, even though the game still has a good amount of simulation aspects, such as the ability to tweak each car's vitals to your heart's content, the detailed part damage system isn't here anymore. Instead of getting a percentage reading that tells you how stable major parts are (e.g., tire, drive shafts), you simply get warnings about major or minor damage to your engine and wheels.
With so few serious off-road racing simulations on the market, it's a bit disappointing to see the series start to cater a bit to the arcade racing crowd — something other titles are already doing. The other disappointment comes in the friendship system. While there was some praise given to it earlier in the review, the one flaw that it has is the inability for someone to break their friendship with you. Once you become friends with any one of the pros, you can repeatedly drive poorly and crash into them over and over again without any real penalty. There could have been some serious strategy here if friendships could be broken, since it would force the player to learn to drive better once a friendship is formed.
The multiplayer is great, and it comes off feeling like the second part of the game's career mode. Every event from every discipline is available for up to eight players to race. Even though that pales in comparison to the 100 players seen in the first game, at least you'll see all eight players on the track at the same time. Unlike most games, all of the vehicles are available to play online even if you haven't come close to unlocking them in the single-player modes. Not only will this end up benefiting you by giving you a preview for which cars you should be aiming for in single-player mode, but it also ends up being more enticing for players who want to take on the competition without having to slog through the single-player modes. Online play is smooth, and there didn't seem to be any hint of lag after repeated multiplayer sessions in almost all disciplines. Despite the competition, there are plenty of players from both Europe and the U.S., ensuring that there will always be some competition happening at any time. As an added bonus, the single-player experience system is applied here as well, and while it doesn't unlock anything special, the ranking system will keep you playing long after you're done with the main game.
The controls have a definite learning curve that doesn't make it ideal for pick-up-and-play experiences. The difference here lies in the fact that off-road vehicles are much more sensitive machines when compared to the standard race cars to which most gamers are accustomed. That increased sensitivity is replicated in the controls, meaning more opportunity to slide around the track and crash into things, and that's what most gamers will do the first time they try to control any of the cars here. Sliding into walls, falling off cliffs, and rolling end over end become par for the course for the inexperienced, and this will cause most of them to simply put down the controller and walk away. Exhibit a bit of patience, though, and you'll find out that the controls are very responsive once you learn how to control these metal beasts. Even then, it'll take more time with the controls if you really want to bust out power slides and take turns well. Again, without that bit of patience, the sensitive controls will make you curse the game over and over again until you get a better grasp of them.
The graphics show that Codemasters are experts in the field by now. The outdoor environments are beautiful, with lush vegetation draped on the sides of just about every course. Smoke and dirt effects look realistic and other things, like the flames coming from the exhaust at the start of races, look good as well. Speaking of the cars, they look just as impressive as ever. Each one is rendered as realistically as possible and textured well so that even the smallest decal can be easily identified. The car interiors also sport the same amount of detail and become a bit busy thanks to the little dashboard toys you can place there. The drivers are also quite detailed, though the navigators can seem a bit stiff since you barely see them move, even during replays.
As with any good off-road game, though, the real graphical star of the package has to be the damage and dirt. Very careful drivers will only get dirt and mud on their vehicles, but really bad ones might not even have a car left by the time the race ends. It's not uncommon to see doors fly open, bumpers fall off, rear windows shatter, and paint completely peel off due to vehicular damage. All of this is done so well that you'll feel bad anytime you take a nasty spill and see that car parts are already missing. This is especially true when you make another lap around a track and you see that your car parts are still on the track. The extensive dirt and damage system is a bit too good, though, since it makes driving with the driver cam so difficult due to windshield wipers creating more of a muddy mess by wiping away the dirt. All of this is done through a very soft filter that does a great job at anti-aliasing at the cost of brightness. One of the early turns on the first track exemplifies this well, as the sun blinds you just enough to make the wall barely visible. You'll be fine once you get used to how everything is filtered, but don't be surprised if it messes up your run.
The sound is an all-out assault on your ears. From the festival setting of the menus to the replays, there's no shortage of hard rock music blasting from your speakers. The good thing is that it works well with the game theme, especially since there are enough tracks to ensure that one song won't get replayed until much, much later. The only time the music doesn't play is during the races themselves, and this is where the sound effects take over. Engine noises are great, and you can tell how damaged your engine could be from those sounds alone. Damage makes a major impact thanks to the effects, which will make you cringe when you hear it, even if you don't see what got damaged.
Voices are also fantastic. Unlike other games, where celebrities sound bored reading their lines, the celebrities here sound genuinely excited. Guys like Travis Pastrana and Ken Block seem as comfortable reading out the tutorials as they are when talking about their last race. Even the non-big name talent lend their voices rather well, whether they're praising your driving skill or blasting you for making them spin out on the track. The only voices that break away from the high quality presented here would be those of the rally navigators. It's common that the navigators are serious with their roles, but given the party atmosphere in the rest of the game, the bland navigation directions given here feel a bit out of place.
DiRT 2 is different enough from its predecessor that this can be considered a companion piece to the original, as opposed to a full-blown sequel. This isn't a knock on the game at all. The graphics are a little better than the original, as is the sound; the atmosphere also has a better sense of immersion than in games past. However, some of the more serious aspects of rally racing, which were present in the prior version, are now missing. The 100-person online play, even if it wasn't simultaneous, will also be missed. Gamers looking for a more involving pure rally simulation will be better off playing the older titles, as the rally racing has been toned down. Those looking for an off-road racing game, though, should look no further, as this is the absolute best of the bunch.
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