Remember when videogames used to have menus, option screens and level selects all built from dull blocks of text? Recall the time when loading screens faded to black and prompted you to “wait”? Hardly distant memories – there are games released this very week that subscribe to the same formulaic approach to interface design that we’ve been perfectly happy with since the early 80s – but today, everything has changed. Yes, Codemasters have been here before with GRID and the earlier Colin McRae title, but this time they’ve built a virtual tour bus and parked it in a virtual race meeting and then done away with everything that used to call itself a ‘menu’ putting you, in first person, right in the mix.
This might seem frivolous and rather arrogant at first – and on the PS3 at least this three dimensional approach might well constitute a good proportion of the hefty (and mandatory) install – but it actually serves a particularly important function: ensuring the player never feels like they’re just playing a game. Instead, Colin McRae DiRT 2 puts you right in the middle of a worldwide multi-discipline tour and keeps the fourth wall well and truly at the back of your mind. Everything, from the introductory magazine showing some of your friends and their latest achievements, to selecting your next event from a map and then choosing your car from a little brochure is done with such detail and confidence that using a static screen in the future just won’t feel the same.
I don’t want to labour too much on this, but it does help to form a certain tactile connection with the game. When you’re free to tilt the camera as the game loads, flick through your Trophy progression via your notebook on your desk and browse the ever expanding collection of liveries in real time you can’t help but feel like everything the game creates around you is real. Heck, even the introductory videos for new events are played out via the TV in the corner of the tour bus, just above the posters that act as gateways to the crucial X-Games sponsored events that mark the career progression into chunks. However, most of this you can sample from the demo that’s on the Store and Xbox Live Marketplace so please do so.
Event types are divided up roughly into countries, of which there are nine. Croatia and China, for example, play host to the standard rally events that everyone will be familiar with, complete with co-pilot navigation assistance as you scream down dirt paths at over 100mph. Conversely, you’ll find the truck-based Raid events over in the Americas and tight, ultra competitive Rally Cross on the streets of Tokyo, and whilst there’s a little bit of overlap most of the time when you’re selecting an event from a country’s pile of sticker-book graphics you’ll know exactly what to expect when the game whisks you off to your next race. The really heavy vehicles have been stripped from DiRT 2, thankfully, but whilst the multi-car races are fun and tense the game still feels strongest when it’s in the pure rally mode.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but it’s clear that the Baja events and the ridiculous breakneck speed Trailblazer modes were designed for the US market whilst the considered point to point time-based sections are as cup-of-tea British as you could possibly want. Trailblazer’s a great idea, though – especially in multiplayer as you wait in line for your staggered start and then proceed to push all your car’s 300 or so horses down a barren dusty track barely wide enough for a donkey with the sounds of your friends’ desperate attempts to stay on the road constant in your ear as they try to catch you. Regardless, the whole world-tour spectacle is distinctly American and the presence of Stateside extreme sport stars like Ken Block and Dave Mirra lend an air of authenticity even if it does stray a little too close to something Neversoft would put out from time to time.
On the track, be that gravel, sand or tarmac (or indeed, a mixture of all three) the racing action is sublime. Yes, the handling is markedly difference from discipline to discipline but it has to be, even when using the same car – an Eclipse Rally Cross car feature far tighter steering than the exact same vehicle does when in Trailblazer mode and if it didn’t the game would be unplayable. So, once you’ve adjusted to each style of play it’s plain sailing, with decent physics, responsive handling and a wonderful feeling of weight forming the basis of Codemasters’ best driving mechanics for years. Initial events start off as single races but you’ll soon unlock the next tier which brings team based modes and multiple race tournaments which play alongside the aforementioned keystone X Games events which work well despite re-using tracks you’ll already be rather familiar with.
As you race, and in particular after a win, the game will prompt you with pop-ups tracking your performance and progress towards not only your next rank (which opens up more races and locations) but also towards certain Trophies and what the game calls ‘missions’ – drift a certain distance, pull off barrel rolls, that sort of thing. There’s also an ongoing weekly tournament which the game enters you for automatically, the requirements for which vary from week to week but seeing your position against every other player in the world is pretty nifty. DiRT 2 manages to track an extraordinary array of statistics seamlessly and the competitive players amongst you will find plenty to get your teeth into just like you probably did with Burnout Paradise’s collection of street-based leaderboards.
Aesthetically, Codemasters’ Ego engine appears to have unlocked some graphical grunt we never knew our consoles had. To say it’s the best looking racer on either the PS3 or the Xbox 360 wouldn’t be pushing the truth, and whilst it only runs at 30fps (compared to the 60fps seen in Forza 2, Paradise and GT 5) the sheer amount of detail and visual effects combine to create a staggeringly beautiful game. Some courses look quite astonishingly vivid (Battersea at night), some brutally imposing (the Moroccan rally) and some look like picture perfect postcards (China) and the way the game seems to be able to switch from neon-lit indoor to Motorstorm-shattering jungle vistas is incredible. Even online, with eight players all jostling for position, the game still manages to throw around the same level of detail in the environments, the same level of damage modeling and the same post-processing effects.
The audio production too, is top notch. There’s plenty of voice-overs from your all-too friendly racer chums, block rocking beats from the likes of Beck and The Stone Roses and some of the best engine sounds we’ve ever heard – the multi-note harmonies of the new Impreza alone should see Codemasters up for some audio awards and the next time the industry decides to honour the games that deserve we full expect to see DiRT 2 up there for presentation and production. This all might sound like endless hyperbole, but Codemasters have nailed the interface, the gameplay, the graphics and the sound and coupled everything with some rock solid online code (we tried a few games before writing this review, and had a blast) and a massive pile of configurable options to ensure DiRT 2 has near limitless replayability. There’s one hell of a game here, and we can’t find a single thing we’d really want to change: whilst it’s not perfect, it’s as near as we’re going to get right now. Wonderful stuff.
Graphics: Rock-solid 30FPS on all but one track (LA) with so much post-processing just watching the replays is an visual delight: 9/10
Sound: Multi-note engines and pitch perfect turbo whistles fit neatly with a superb soundtrack of indie rock and electro breaks: 8/10
Gameplay: Superbly paced, constantly rewarding and a driving engine refined from the last two EGO titles – fantastic: 9/10
Overall: Probably the best arcade driving this generation, utterly unmissable for single players and great fun online too.
Note: all images below were taken directly from within the game via the XMB-based screenshot feature as PNGs, and then converted by Photoshop into JPGs.