First Level: Colin McRae DiRT 2

Sand.  Mud.  DiRT. The cockpit view in Codemasters’ latest Ego-powered racer hits you with every leftover element Mother Nature has to offer as you squint through the tireless windscreen wipers and try to get a lock on the next corner – it’s a real effort to play the game via this camera, but the thrill is utterly unmatched and the sense of speed downright terrifyingly quick and most importantly keeps that fourth wall well and truly sealed.  It’s tough, yes, and bloody nasty in places, but DiRT 2 as it’s meant to be played is the kind of rally game we could only dream of when slogging through now forgotten genre classics like the Amiga’s Lombard RAC Rally in our youth – we no longer have to pretend to be part of something much bigger and more brutal because now we’re slap bang in the middle of our player character’s driving career  with the fat trimmed off the edges DiRT 2.

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Refreshing curt and to the point, it’s like somebody took the festival spirit only hinted at in the original Motorstorm and cranked the volume up to eleven: static menus replaced by an RV and hundreds of onlookers, licensed music that kicks in during the high point of the song rather than the boring beginning, and on-track spectacle the likes of which you’ve never seen before.  When you reach your first X-Games sponsored tournament (which is as far as we’ll discuss for this First Level) you’ll find yourself in the final, surrounded by seven other hungry drivers and thousands of lights, fans and litres of slipperly mud as you rush headlong around Codemasters’ own visual of Battersea in a rapidly deteriorating Impreza (we’ll forgive the American mispronunciation at the begining) and it’s only then that you realise just what Evolution’s launch title could have been.

No other game places you right in the middle of a World Tour quite like DiRT 2 does, and the effect is mesmerising.  Yes, the pick and mix approach to racing is fine overall – the straight rally courses a delight but the wide open Raid events rather dull – but it doesn’t really matter when the progression is almost entirely non-linear.  Whilst only one location is open at first by the end of my playtest this evening I’d unlocked all but 2 locations and was just about to jump up from the rookie levels, unlocking more tracks and further widening by choice of race types.  So, if you don’t like having to break for corners you can stay clear of the navigator-assisted point to point races and head for the hill climbs, and if you don’t like being lonely dive into some of the bumper to bumper rally cross races and trade paint.

Codemasters’ Ego engine, an evolution of the one from GRID, seems capable of wonderful visuals, and once past the initial 15 minute install load times are relatively quick, certainly more spritely than the previous DiRT game and there’s far more to look at during the waits, too, with the game constantly feeding you statistics, Trophy progress percentages and all manner of trivial facts about your driving ability as you wait for the virtual plane to take you to your next destination.  As you’d expect, presentation is through the roof and everything has a coherent, solid feel that just screams quality.  Sadly (and inevitably) there wasn’t anyone else online this evening so I couldn’t test the multiplayer (there’s no split screen) but the menus are comprehensive enough with plenty of settings to tweak so those that choose to host can tailor games down to the smallest detail.

Consider us impressed; DiRT 2 is a wonderful achievement and I can’t wait to get stuck back into the game – so, if you’ll excuse me, I have wheels to buckle.

Previous First Levels:

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