I have great memories of Colin McRae: DiRT. It was one of the first titles I picked up when I got the Playstation 3 – and certainly it was one of the first rally racers I’d played in quite a long time that really got me back into proper off-road racing.
Good rally games are few and far between these days. Thinking back, it was Rallisport Challenge on the PC that last got me to stay up past midnight with the words “Just one more race then I’ll bail” going through my head. Repeatedly.
DiRT took the rally format and made it enjoyable for the next-gen systems. It was simple, it was effective – it was arcade enough not to get frustrating with a controller, but just hardcore enough to keep the enthusiasts pleased. Offering some serious Rally events and lengthy stages that would keep you white-knuckled all the way to the finish line in addition to some side dishes of Baja and Trucks – it had the balance of events perfect.
Codemasters’ follow up, Colin McRae DiRT 2, has taken a slightly different direction however.
If there’s one thing Codemaster’s have done perfectly in a racing game, it would be the DiRT menu systems. The original was brilliant – not only immensely functional and a joy to operate – but it was absolutely gorgeous. The same innovative functionality is carried over into DiRT 2, but with a new direction, colour and coat of polish.
You find yourself in the middle of the rally paddock, team/driver caravan your base of operations, your current car sitting outside waiting for team preparation. Fans held back at the gates. And the noise of rally all around. It feels like a cutscene. You’re waiting for a menu to pop up – but this is it. Its the menu and you’re baffled as to why someone hadn’t thought of it sooner.
The camera moves inside the caravan and to an unraveled map on a desktop in the corner of the room. Its a world map – and zooming in, we see the same glimpses of the original DiRT menu shining through. Each continent with its own table of events and unlockable tiers of racing. Switching around between countries reveals the open events available to you.
Selecting a race prompts the television on the wall of the RV to preview the game type and give you the basics as to what’s required. For the new game types, this is quite a blessing.
Everything is controlled from within the mobile home area. Your online menu can be accessed inside and stepping outdoors with a simple click offers you the chance to check out your vehicles or tour standings.
In an effort to make DiRT more accessible – and less polarised in pure rally events, the DiRT career mode is far more personalised and much more varied in its racing. I was impressed when I was able to pick my name from a list and have Travis Pastrana say hello to me, addressing me personally. Little things like this, getting the player into the game, rather than just playing the game are abundant in DiRT 2.
The race events themselves are more varied as well. Hardcore rally racers are going to be somewhat disappointed by the lack of pure “Rally” events, in favour of more Baja/Raid events, and the new Rally Cross, stadium events.
In fact, point-to-point rally events are quite sparse, especially early on in the game. By about level 7 in career progress I had unlocked a mere few rally races.
The rally events are tremendous though. New locales and the new graphics engine truly get you into the racing like no other off-roader. The car looks like a part of the landscape, you feel like you’re there powering a rally car through the sands of Morocco, or the jungle mud of Malaysia. You have a co-driver who does his job brilliantly – and listening to his or her word is absolutely mandatory, especially in the harder difficulties.
Rally Raid and Baja events make a return, forming the carnage spectacular – and the racing dynamic has been improved slightly from the original DiRT. The vehicles don’t feel so ‘clunky’. They always seemed tacked on at the last minute in the original game. Like they were an afterthought. In DiRT 2 however, the same cast of characters all jump into Rally Raid or Baja vehicles (again, part of the ‘personality’ of DiRT 2) and you go crazy in an almost demolition derby of rally.
There are new modes too; Domination (which I found a little confusing to follow at first) relies on a Motor Cross premise, but the focus is on setting the best sector times over a couple of laps. ‘Owning’ each sector compound to make points. I had a hard time figuring out exactly where I sat. I was getting 2nd, 4th for each sector – but suddenly at the conclusion of the race, I had come 1st.
Last Man Standing is a variation of “Eliminator” modes found in other racing games. Last place, every 30 seconds or so, gets wiped from the competition. The highlight of these events is the locations though. Often complex stadiums with beautiful backdrops and outlooks. There are night events at London for example that take you under bridges, through puddles of water and over crazy jumps.
DiRT 2’s main focus seems to be on the Rally Cross (or Rally X) events this time around. Closed circuit and stadium events with furious competition and demanding precise car control. Your main goals in these are establishing yourself in the series and eventually heading for the X-games. The new face of DiRT, Ken Block, makes sure you’re on the right track.
All in all there are about 100 events to try your hand at, including the occasional “Throwdown” challenges that appear from your fellow racers.
Most events are locked until you have the required level or vehicle to participate.
Thankfully, the difficulty levels have been organised incredibly well again in DiRT 2. You have a multitude of selectable difficulties varying from something you could win at while asleep, to a mode that requires numerous replays, course memorisation and substantial talent. There’s really no handicap in playing the game on any level though. Even the easiest level rewards you enough cash to advance quickly. Part of the accessibility and a welcome addition.
As you gain XP from events and progress through the tour, you unlock new liveries for cars and little customisation touches. Ever wanted fuzzy dice hanging from your rear-view mirror in a stripped-out rally car? DiRT 2 allows you to do this. They’re nice touches.
Without a doubt, the basic ‘core’ of the DiRT franchise remains. It still plays great and offers the same level of enjoyment as its predecessor, albeit with a slightly different focus. This is made up for with an abundance of character and personalisation though.
Truly DiRT 2 is stunning in the graphics department. Every one of its backdrops are created in vivid colour and thorough detail. Thin, white dust whips off your tyres as you tear through the countryside. Ripping up the ground and roaring through outback roads has never looked so good.
The cars themselves are impressively detailed. Everything from wild race versions of well-known cars to the crazy little buggies are insanely detailed and all manage impressive visual damage modeling. Its not uncommon to see windscreens shattered and bumpers flying off cars. Crumple zones compact and crush on bigger impacts and all of this affects handling and raw performance.
Vehicles have a cockpit view, further immersing you in the detail. It is particularly impressive with a racing wheel setup – the force feedback pulling the wheel around and you watch as the cars in front of you drive through a huge puddle of water, completely drenching your car in muddy water – the wipers come on immediately, struggling to remove the mud and water. For a split second, you’re blinded and wide-eyed in anticipation of what awaits you after the view is clear.
The framerate hasn’t missed a beat in all of my play time. Even with the sun in your eyes, a throng of cars around you, those magically detailed tracks and all the action, water splashes and dust trails, its all silky smooth and fantastic to behold.
The cars themselves sound exceptional. Engine noises are meaty and all have a matter of urgency to them. Tyres struggling to get traction on the loose gravel and sand surfaces is very well done.
Music is a little lackluster and I found myself turning the volume down for the most part. The car and track noises are far more immersing.
During events when you have other drivers on the track with you, they will often make repetitive insults and pointless banter, or laugh at you as they overtake you on Rally events. Drivers crashing out or retiring feel the need to announce it over the radio for you to hear as well, when your co-driver usually informs you about the accident anyway. Its part of the personality they have endeavoured for in DiRT 2, but on this occasion (and this occasion only) it really feels forced and out of place. I don’t think its a bad idea, but its definitely a bad execution. Thankfully though, you have the option of disabling this in-race chatter.
DiRT 2’s online capacity has vastly improved from the original. All of the game types are available for play online, which is a massive bonus and proves incredibly fun when you’re running the time trials and Trailblazer events in particular. You can race against up to 7 other players online, or with your Friends in private lobbies – and with the point-to-point races, your opponents come up as ‘ghosts’ on your screen, so you can still maximise fair racing, without trading paint or having the races turn into all-out destruction derbies.
The system is completely solid, voice chat works perfectly in the games I’ve had and there’s virtually no noticeable lag – also a welcome improvement over the original.
I’m usually against Online Trophies, but in the case of DiRT 2, the online is actually so appealing I’ll probably wind up spending quite a bit of time slugging it out in the mud with my mates.
The lack of a solid rally event list was at first a little disappointing. The point-to-point timed events were absolutely my favourite aspect of DiRT. They were incredibly exciting – still are – but I am left wishing there were more of them. The Baja/truck/Rally Raid events are good fun, but don’t have the same lasting appeal or replayability of the rally events. Additionally, the trucks and buggys don’t have the same weighty feel of the rally cars and can be twitchy to drive (sometimes incredibly annoying), whereas the rally cars and Trailblazer cars have a better sense of speed and contact with the ground.
The Rally Cross events do make up for this, they are where the new excitement and white-knuckle racing is, following the X-Games – but sometimes the game does feel a little more like Ken Block DiRT 2 as opposed to Colin McRae DiRT 2.
Colin McRae hasn’t been totally left out though and receives a heartwarming tribute event. Its a pleasant throwback to the man and the legend.
Minor qualms over the new direction aside, overall, it is another successful outing for the DiRT franchise. They’ve taken the original game and made it look and feel even better. And as far as the racing goes, its more accessible and more personal. Hardcore rally fans may at first be deflated, but at the heart of DiRT 2 is a top-notch, well-produced, fun and addictive racer dedicated to McRae.