Two years ago, DiRT not only continued the Colin McRae series’ tradition of providing a top-notch rally racing game, but also enhanced it with incredible graphics, smooth controls, and one of the slickest menus systems ever seen in a racing game. Now, after a misstep with Fuel, Codemasters is back in full force with DiRT 2. It not only refines the already-excellent gameplay of the original, but revamps the career mode with a new structure and event options.
DiRT 2 does away with the pyramid-based structure of the career mode races found in the original and instead uses an open-ended map-based menu system that allows you to go from locale to locale in whatever order you want. This certainly offers up more freedom and like the original, rewards you the most for succeeding on higher difficulties, but also allows those who struggle at that level to get some kind of reward just for racing, and will recommend racing at a lower level when you lose too much at a higher one.
The addition of new event types also helps to freshen up the career mode. There’s more variety here than in any other rally racer that I can remember. No matter how great a game is, after a while, all the standard events like hill climb start to see alike since they‘re in every rally game. DiRT 2 avoids this pitfall to some degere by keeping those things in, but mixing them up with other, newer events like gate crasher, domination, landrush, raid, and trailblazer. These add some wrinkles to the usual “race from point to point“ formula and the latter four events feature exciting bumper-to-bumper races.
The most memorable of the bunch for me is gate crasher, where you race against the clock and smash through small gates in order to give yourself two more seconds; the racer with the most time left over after finishing wins, so it’s imperative that you hit every possible gate. When the clock winds down, you’ll find yourself in a mad dash for either a finish line or a gate to hopefully extend your time. Despite playing countless checkpoint racers in arcades, what this reminded me most of was Crazy Taxi. Just like this where you’d have to hustle for that one last ride while hoping that this time, you’d get the fare that would extend your time ever so briefly. DiRT 2 also allows you to compete against virtual incarnations of the real-life racers who have endorsed the game - giving you the chance to test your mettle and gain their respect.
The worldwide basis for the career mode brings with it another challenge for the developers - creating a relatively accurate version of the locale and making it seem different than the other ones. Far too often in racing games, it seems like you’re always surrounded by areas that look awfully similar no matter where it says you’re racing. That isn’t a problem here, as each area looks distinct - from the desert surroundings in Baja, California to the lush greenery that surrounds, and often makes up the tracks in Croatia, there’s no mistaking one place for another. That in and of itself is quite an accomplishment and helps get across the worldwide scope of the career mode, and provides quite a feast for the eyes as well.
DiRT 2 plays almost identically to the original, which works in the game’s favor. Even with two more years of releases to judge it against, it’s held up well due to getting so many things right the first time around. What that means for this game is that it mostly improves upon what worked and the end result is a fantastic game in every respect. The incredibly sharp controls remain, and are actually a little more responsive here, which is great for veterans. However, that does mean that there’s more of a learning curve for newcomers here than with the original. The cars still control differently depending on the driving surface, but series vets should take to the game quickly. That may be a turnoff for newcomers, but the learning curve isn’t too steep - it should only take 30 minutes to an hour to get used to how the care react differently. Simply playing the demo or just choosing exhibition races will remedy this issue.
One major change from how DiRT, or any other rally racer, can be played is the addition of the flashback feature from GRiD that seems to be on its way to being a new standard feature for racing games as a whole. Allowing you to rewind time back to before you made a big mistake is a feature could be easily abused if handles improperly, but so far, that hasn’t happened. Restrictions are placed on how many times you can use it, and after experiencing the frustration of DiRT’s track reset feature, which had a tendency to not reset you when it seemingly should’ve - like being knocked off-course by a rival. Now if that happens, you can just flashback to before that time, and not deal with the frustration of either losing or being forced into restarting the race.
However, as great as DiRT 2 is, it still suffers from some of the same problems as its predecessor - like frequent and sometimes exceptionally long load times. While they don’t quite reach the levels of NFS: Shift’s minute-long ones, they do last long enough to disrupt the flow of things a bit.
As gorgeous as the original was, this tops it in every way. It’s easily the best-looking racing game I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been playing a lot of them recently. The cars are so detailed that it’s almost jaw-dropping when you see how intricate the vehicle damage can be. You’ll see grime build up on them, then watch as the bumper slows falls off after a crash. Then you’ve got the tracks themselves, which vary wildly visually and thematically, but there’s never been a more beautiful sight for me in a racing game than a night-time London race here, with lights strung up around the track, fireworks going off in the background, flash bulbs popping from trackside spectators, and the reflection effects of both water on the track and window as they’re hit by the lights. And when you add the cars to everything and it just almost seems overwhelming.
DiRT 2 delivers a top-notch audio experience as well, with an excellent soundtrack full of a mix of metal and techno that will have you either hummer, tapping your toes, or slapping your leg to the rhythm. A lot of catchy songs were picked, and they add a lot to the experience. Plus, if you don’t want to listen to the songs during races to instead focus on the incredible sound effects, you can tweak some settings so the music is muted. This also works well if you’ve got a race you’re struggling on and you want to strictly focus on it with as few distractions as possible, you can. The sound effect work here is incredible. Crashes come alive not only due to the visuals, but the sound getting across just how vile the impact is. If you just lightly tap a vehicle or ram into it wit all your might, you’ll be able to tell the difference both visually, with the intricate damage levels, but also aurally with the varying sound effects. The audio is a complete success in every way.
Much of DiRT 2 is, actually. Anyone who loved the original should pick this up as soon as possible, and if you’re new to the genre, at least download the demo and give it a shot. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it once you’ve gotten used to the controls, and find that the game’s wide variety of well-done events result in an incredibly fun experience that should please nearly anyone.