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Dirt 2 Review

By Neilie Johnson, 11/3/2009

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For over a decade now, the Colin McRae rally series has been a mainstay of the racing game genre. Originally developed in cooperation with legendary rally racer Colin McRae, the games started as more realistic rally sims, evolving recently into more accessible arcade-style racers. Sadly, we lost McRae in a fatal 2007 helicopter crash, but its latest incarnation, Dirt 2, does his memory good justice.

Dirt 2's immediate predecessor, the aptly-named Dirt, represented something of a departure from the more straightforward rally racing formula. Its most dramatic improvement was a graphic upgrade seen in its stunning UI, realistic damage and HDR lighting effects. Dirt 2 maintains that incredibly high level of aesthetic excellence while presenting some of the most fun you can have on four wheels. Like previous Colin McRae games, the focus of Dirt 2 is the single player career mode. Starting at rookie level, you work your way up to all star through 100 events held in countries like China, Japan, the U.K., Croatia, Malaysia and Morocco. You're coached through the usual rally race events as well as more off-the-wall events—like trail blazer, gate crasher, last man standing, raid, land rush and domination—by famous real-world rally star, Travis Pastrana. And once you've reached a high enough level of expertise, you're allowed to participated in the celebrated X Games as well as invite-only World Tours.

You start out with the most basic of vehicles, with Travis even footing the bill for your first pricey rally pack upgrade. The more events you participate in, the more money you earn (the amount depends on where you place in the race) to buy better vehicles. Before each event you can set the event's difficulty and damage levels as well as buy new cars or customize current ones with cool liveries (that's “paint job” to the uninitiated), horn sounds and dashboard ornaments. You're only allowed to choose from cars that fit the type of race you're entering; that's a good thing, so you don't end up looking like an idiot by choosing a huge pickup truck for a closed-track arena rally. The game starts you on slower, more driveable cars but you can purchase the faster, tougher ones later on. It's important to take your time and work your way up to the highest-end machines because on those tricky tracks, it's easy to wrap yourself around a tree or go tumbling down a cliff. I was kicking ass in my little Nissan 350Z, which made me cocky, so next race I bought myself a BMW Z4M coupe. The race started and ten seconds into it, I was bouncing back and forth against the barriers like I was inside a pinball machine.

Racing in Dirt 2 is accessible to gamers of all skill levels because it can be as easy or as difficult as you make it. The controls are simple and beginners can accept the default vehicle settings and let the game auto-shift for them. Experts can make things much more interesting not only by driving the more complex cars, but by controlling everything about them including their gear ratio, suspension, brake bias and differentiation. Manual or automatic, it takes a little while to get a handle on all this but don't worry. The first time you overtake the lead car in the middle of a spectacular drift, you'll be hooked.

The cars aren't the only things offering up a ton of variety. The races take place all around the world, in some of the most exotic and beautiful locations you'll ever see. The tracks vary from the dust-filled village streets of Morocco to the blacktop tracks of a U.K. stadium and all of them look spectacular. Races happen both in the daytime and at night and each track feels distinctly different, making some races (think “a twisty mountain pass in Croatia with a sheer drop on one side”) truly hair-raising. The racing experience overall is enhanced by a choice of three camera modes: a sort of “hood cam”, a classic third-person overhead cam, and a car interior dashboard cam. The dashboard cam is particularly cool because the inside of every car is different and this view allows you to appreciate your dashboard ornaments. Not only that, the game gets 100% more visceral, dangerous and fast-moving when you feel like you're in the car. The only thing about this is, for anyone with motion-sickness issues, this is the quickest path to queasiness I've ever experienced.

Dirt 2 does a great job of upholding the series' reputation as a high-energy rally racer but pushes itself even further along the “arcade-style” end of the spectrum with its latest gameplay addition—Flashbacks. Flashbacks allow you to stop the race the second you spin out or tear your passenger door off, and rewind the race to a few seconds before the unfortunate event occurred. With the press of a button, it's like nothing ever happened; you can correct yourself and move on. The number of Flashbacks allowed per race varies from five to zero depending on difficulty and is a great way to keep things fun for less skillful drivers. Purists out there are likely to hate this feature but hey, no one says they have to use them.

As you participate in and win races, you gain a reputation among the other drivers, among whom are some of racing's biggest names like Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, Dave Mirra and Tanner Foust. With this “buddy” system, you supposedly alter the other drivers' feelings about you depending on how well you do and how fair a competitor you are. (That's what you're told, anyway. In my experience, no matter how much of an ass I was on the track, I was never able to make any enemies.) Once these famous drivers like you, they'll offer you “throw down” challenges and race with you in team events. Going into the game, I wasn't all that familiar with these drivers but I admit I felt all warm and fuzzy every time Travis Pastrana said “Good going, Omelette!” Oh yeah, I forgot to mention; you can pick your own nickname at the start of the game. Most of you would probably pick something like, “Flash” or “Speedy” but what can I say? “Omelette” called out to me.

Anyway, the trend in driving game graphics these days is ultra-realism and Dirt 2 does a damn fine job of measuring up to the standard. The game is as custom-made as one of its pro-level cars and the attention to detail is amazing. Continuing on in a trend started in the first Dirt, the menus are inventive, beautiful and fun to use. Housed in your own exclusive travel trailer, they stylishly allow you access to your event map, stats, extras, multiplayer modes and a TV that shows videos explaining each event. Outside the trailer, no matter where, the pre-race landscape and props change to reflect the location and make you feel like you're really traveling around the world. The environments you drive through (what little you can see of them traveling at 100 mph) are incredible too and I dare you to resist giggling gleefully every time you hit something and pieces of metal fly off your car.

Dirt 2's graphics are so gorgeous, it's easy to overlook the soundtrack which offers them brilliant accompaniment. The music is mostly perky, upbeat, motivational pop-rock from the likes of Franz Ferdinand and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and it fits the game's energy perfectly. What I personally appreciate is that you don't hear music blasting during the races. All you hear then is your engine, the squeal of tires on the road and the occasional trash talk of the other drivers and that's as it should be.

Single player is really the reason you play Dirt 2 but Codemasters has done a few things to improve the multiplayer experience. The complaint gamers had about the first Dirt was that it's screwy multiplayer didn't allow people to actually play together, instead forcing them to compete separately. Dirt 2's multiplayer changes that by making every event accessible online for up to seven other players.

Dirt 2 is an exceptionally well made, accessible racing game. While some hardcore racing fans may not like some of the arcade-style aspects of it, most gamers will be won over by the brilliant graphics and addictive gameplay. If you're not a rally fan, after playing Dirt 2, I assure you will be.

Overall: 88%



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