The Colin McRae series has long been considered king of rally racers. With Dirt 2, Codemasters pays fitting homage to the late McRae while trying to appeal to a larger audience. The result is a gorgeous racing game with some satisfying rally sections and a whole lot of wheel-to-wheel racing. While hardcore rally fans may be a bit bummed to find pure rally racing makes up only a fifth of the Career Mode, those who just want a good racing game will be happy.
The original Dirt, released in 2007, has one of the best menu designs of all time. It's truly a stunning piece of art, just on the frontend alone. Dirt 2 has an equally impressive interface that puts you into a RV that you (somehow) drive across the world. Everything you could want is in and around this trailer -- from a world map used to select from 100 different racing events to the multiplayer board on the wall to a TV that shows off instructional videos. Step outside your trailer and you get a look at the festival-like surroundings for each locale and can buy and customize new cars or see the latest tournament results. It's an immersive experience and is in many ways better than the first Dirt.
The core of Dirt 2 is the Career Mode, which starts you as an up-and-coming racer and builds you into a champion. Each race earns you experience points, which in turn increases your driver's level. Through Level 30 you gain new liveries, unlock new races and earn some lovely parting gifts. These include dashboard items such as a hula girl and fuzzy dice to hang from your rearview mirror. Rewards are always welcome and Dirt 2 makes certain to spoil you early and often.
Though you can choose from six different difficulties, they don't affect your progression (though you earn a little less cash and experience at lower levels). No matter your skill level, you can make it up the ranks, starting with Amateur events, moving up through the Pro offerings and finishing off with some challenging All-Star races. The 100 events are locked based on experience level, cars owned, or specific races you need to win. Along the way, you'll unlock a series of special races. First, there are a trio of X-Games (Asia, Europe, and North America) to open up and then five World Cup tournaments, each in a different discipline. There's also a special Colin McRae tribute event, which is a very loving touch from a team that had worked with McRae for years.
One of the best aspects of Dirt 2 is the variety of locales. Rally racing games can start to feel a little redundant with endless desert terrain. Okay, so Dirt 2 has a lot of off-road tracks, but the unique locales are really brought to life -- the small villages of Morocco with their narrow streets, the marshes of Malaysia, the serene hillsides of China.
The rally cars have weight to them and give that sense that you're driving along the edge of losing control. Rookies will struggle as they fail to understand the benefits of braking and pros will be tested at the higher levels by near-flawless AI competitors. The trucks and buggies don't measure up in the same way. They're easy to lose control of, especially with the generous bump of a competitor. This creates a curious dichotomy as any events featuring rally cars (including wheel-to-wheel Rally Cross races) seems to have an element of technical finesse while the bigger vehicles offer more of an arcade style.
For the most part, Career Mode is well-executed, offering the right balance of challenge and a good variety in locations and tracks. But I must admit that I am one of the previously mentioned rally fans who expects a rally game to have, well, rally racing. Sadly, only about 20% of the events in Dirt 2 are pure time-trial rally races. There are a few other time-based races including Trailblazer (rally races without a co-driver) and Gate Crasher (hit gates to add time to your run) that use elements of rally, but if you just want pure rally racing, it's in short supply. There are no hill climb events either, though there is a track in China called "Hill Climb" that amounts to a half-minute of speeding up a twisting hillside. I'd like my rally games to be two-thirds rally racing and other stuff thrown in for fun, not the other way around.
This isn't to say the other events aren't enjoyable. I like Raid events, which put you in trucks against seven AI competitors in a course littered with dangerous obstacles, and Land Rush which is off-road circuit racing in trucks and buggies. I just don't want to have to participate in so many of them to get through a career. There are some rally car wheel-to-wheel races to balance things out, but even those don't equal the experience of a point-to-point speed run. One thing I do appreciate is that almost every event has AI cars on the track. Even time trials feature a staggered start so that you can pass other cars on the track. Your co-driver even warns, "There's an accident ahead."
Speaking of accidents, Codemasters has imported a helpful feature from Grid. Flashback (aka rewind) is prominent in Dirt 2. This optional gameplay addition allows you to stop a race at any time, watch a replay of the last few seconds and rewind to a previous point. This can spare you from a race-ending accident or allow you to retry a corner to shave a few fractions of a second from your time. Flashback isn't limitless and is tied directly to the difficulty, with Easy offering five uses per race and Hardcore allowing for none. Flashback works well except with toy trucks. I find that often if I crash in a truck it takes so long to rewind it back into one piece that I only have a fraction of a second of control before I hit the obstacle again. This isn't an issue with any other type of car, just the trucks, which is a bit frustrating since I tend to wreck those most.
One nice addition is the missions, which are in-race tasks that earn you bonus XP. There are just over a dozen, each with five tiers. They include things like time spent on two wheels, number of Flashbacks used and times you've overtaken another driver.
Another element of Grid brought into Dirt 2 is the idea of a teammate or friend system. During races, my pals (real-life rally racers including Ken Block and Travis Pastrana) chatter, offering witty banter just before I bully them into a wall. Don't worry, nothing can break friends apart, not even my aggro driving. You gain friends by impressing people with your driving skills or beating racers in one-on-one throwdowns. Once someone is your buddy, you are friends for life. It would have been nice to create a more dynamic system where you could create rivals just as well as friends, but Dirt 2 is an optimistic game -- apparently we all can get along.
Though Codemasters didn't make any major changes to the things brought over from Grid, the developer certainly upped its visuals. The cars look better (and maintain an impressive level of damage modeling), the framerate is smooth and the environments are brilliant. Jump into the cockpit view (unique for each car) and you get a real treat. Drive through puddles and mud splashes the windshield, temporarily blinding you until your wipers can swipe away the filth. Impacts can really be felt in this view as can the tension of a driver scraping paint with you as you near the finish line.
Dirt 1's biggest misstep was its multiplayer. Up to 100 people could play online together, but only in time trials and not on the same track. Dirt 2 fixes that. Every event type can be played online with up to seven others. The online runs well and the trucks and buggies, which I didn't love in single-player, are a lot more enjoyable when racing with friends. You can also do point-to-point racing, which isn't going to please the general public, but should satisfy those who crave a something closer to a pure rally game. It's easy to set up a game, select several tracks from across the globe, and do it all again the moment an online event is finished. Every car is available, whether you own it or not in single-player, though you can tell who's progressed in Career Mode based on their livery selection.
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