Colin McRae: DiRT 2 Review

Dan Webb

Codemasters kicked off their racing revolution two years ago with the well received and foundation setting Dirt. A lot has changed since then and the critically acclaimed EGO Engine has gone through many iterations and improvements – some that we saw in GRID – on the way to where it is now, back where the engine effectively sprouted its wings... on the mucky stuff. Dirt 2 looks to build on everything that was lacking or misguided in the original and throws players into a more structured and gripping career, but it seems to lack the direction to take the franchise to the next level.

Rallycross at its best.

Those familiar with the original will notice that the cars, trucks and buggies handle a little bit differently this time around. It’s nothing major, and after a few races it’ll become second nature, but the cars definitely felt a little stiffer to handle, which essentially brings the handbrake in to play more often than not. The engine is very much the same otherwise with a few barely noticeable tweaks, but if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? You can expect to see water on the tracks this time around which can affect handling and slow you down a little. A simple, but effective touch.

The main changes come in Dirt 2’s structured career mode. Gone is the elegant, but simplistic pyramid structure; and in comes the “tour” aspect of the title. Players will start off as a rookie in the career mode, a lonely morsel with no companions to talk to. That is until you’re offered an olive branch in the form of Colin McRae’s Subaru Impreza STi by Travis Pastrana, and told to make a name for yourself. This means you’ll be jetting all around the world to 10 different countries and getting involved in 8 different game modes. The game modes are your standard fare brought over from the original, with Codemasters deciding to axe the crossovers, hill climbs and painful desert bus rides (yay!), and introduces trailblazers (essentially hill climbs but without the hills), gatecrasher challenges, last man standing races, domination events and throwdowns (essentially one on ones against the game’s many pros). The latter four were obviously introduced to fit in with the new X-Games vibe.

The delivery of the career mode's interface is leap years ahead of any other innovative menu systems on the market as it throws players into their own trailer in a first person perspective. From there players can soak in the the festival, X-Games party atmosphere of whatever country they’re currently in. Players can then choose their events via a huge map in their trailer, check out their stats, access the multiplayer and then be on their merry way. Head outside the trailer and you can check your rides and what tournaments are going on online.

There are 100 career events in all with 3 X-Games events to tackle – they're called X-Games events, but in truth, they are just a series of events tacked together with a small celebration scene if you win. A definite missed opportunity to make them more loud and lairey. Codemasters however didn’t miss out on the chance to tip their hat to the game’s inspiration, Colin McRae, and after players have won all the X-Games events, they can take part in the Colin McRae Memorial Challenge which is a really nice touch, especially as you get to race against personalities that were close to him; Valentino Rossi, David Coulthard, his father Jimmy, brother Alister, and others. Win that and you get an extra special treat.

You'll spend a lot of time in this trailer, so get used to it.

The problem comes when you realise that some of the races you travel around the world to do, just aren’t that fun. These most notably involve the buggies and the trucks and seem to be lagging behind the rest of the exhilarating gameplay – in other words, the rallies, trailblazers and rallycross events. Whenever you’re behind the wheel of a buggy or a hummer type truck, you’re counting the corners until you can get back in a proper car. Variety does mean something in this day and age, but when these races in question seem more like a chore, you know there’s a problem. Codemasters would be better off cutting them. It’s as simple as that.

There may be 10 countries that you can race in, but it feels like a lot less and a lot of the tracks seem to be variations of the original course, which is hardly ideal. The game desperately lacks rally courses and none of the current ones reach the same heights that the Japan rally course did in the original. Dirt 2 however excels in its rallycross circuits this year and the festival atmosphere Codemasters have created; whether it be racing at night, the fireworks, or the crowds leaning over the advertising boards. It just feels good to be involved in them.

The game boasts 6 difficulty levels which range from a leisurely ride out to the shops, to an insane, perfect corner, pedal to the metal type of a challenge. The difficulties affects not only the opposition this year, but how many flashbacks you get – more on that shortly. There is also a simplistic pre race vehicle setup for players that want to get the most out of their cars, but I have a feeling people will be spending more time slapping liveries on their motors, and changing their dashboard and rear view mirror toys than they will there. The dashboard and rear view mirror toys will give players a good excuse to check out the terrifying cockpit view, which thanks to the water, has now become a hell of a lot scarier. Although I encourage people to use it for a few races, just for the sheer experience of it, chances are you’ll be back in third person view, behind the car view in no time. It’s just that much easier to navigate around the tracks and you get a good chance to see the game’s beautifully rendered cars that way anyway.

From a visual aspect, everything ticks the super-realism boxes, from the lighting and water effects, down to the cars and environments. Obviously everything seems to have more polygons than the original, but it’s the new night races that really seem to sparkle that little bit more. You can’t fault it on any level... seriously, my job as a critic would be a lot easier if there was something I could criticise. The audio aspect compliments the superb visuals as well and whoever decided on the set list for the game, should be commended for a stellar job. The cars roar and purr as they should, and it’s only really the voice acting of a few of the pros that lets the team down. The first time Katie Justice said, “Hey Dan, that was a massive win,” it made me want to punch a horse. Hard.

The damage model in Dirt 2 – as it was in the original in fact – is quite possibly the greatest damage system ever created in a racing game. No ifs, no buts, it simply is. You know when the damage model is up to snuff when you purposely veer of the track into danger, knowing that you’re heading into a whole lot of trouble just to see what damage you can do. Hardly the purpose of the game, but there is something quite mesmerizing about watching your shiny, dirt ridden Subaru Impreza roll perilously down a hill and into a fairly dense forest, then rewinding the replay and seeing the carnage all over again. It’s here where the new “flashback” feature comes in handy as well.

Like GRID, Dirt 2 introduces the “flashback” feature into its basic gameplay mechanic and it pretty much mimics the GRID system in every way. The flashback system is as it sounds, if at any time you make a mistake in a race, or want to redo something, simply hit the back button, rewind the play, and then start from that rewinded point by hitting X. You can’t overdo this feature however, as you have a set amount per difficulty level, but I have to say, in a high octane, dangerous sport like rally driving, the flashback feature is welcomed with open arms. No more face planting a tree on that final corner of a rally and having to do it all over again, thus increasing the frustration of the game. Now you can simply fire up the flashback feature and away you go.

I don't want to ride this in real life, yet alone a game.

The biggest improvement in Dirt 2 is easily the game’s online mode, which has gone from being barely passable in Dirt 1, to top of the class in Dirt 2. The multiplayer arena offers ranked and unranked races in everything from rallycross and trailblazers, to domination and last man standing. There are 7 set race modes in all, but for those wanting something a bit more customisable, the “jam” sessions"  are the perfect tonic. They allow players to create their own racing rules so they can style the race exactly how they want it. On the whole it was quick and easy to find a race, there was no lag and you could stay with your lobby and roll from race to race. Pretty faultless. The only perceived problem is that any 8 player contact race ends up in an 8 car pile-up on that first pesky corner. We can’t expect Codemasters to recondition the human race. Well, not until the sequel anyway. All in all, the robust online arena is a cut and above the original and can make for some extremely entertaining racing.

The original Dirt’s achievement list was a solid one, and Codemasters have followed that up, with a list just as fine tuned. It’s not a rehash thankfully and these days, credit must be given there. The list is fairly balanced and does a good job of rewarding you in increments... so you never feel the next achievement is too far off. That is until the end however, and they even ridicule that slightly by offering an achievement for not unlocking another achievement for 100 kilometres. There seems to be a lot of online grinding involved for level 30, and completing 100 of the events is no 5 minute job, but they included an achievement that parodies a famous internet meme, “Two Cups, One Girl,” so we can forgive them for that.

The problem with Dirt 2 has nothing to do with the game’s structure or even the game’s mechanics, which I must say are right on the money, but has more to do with the choices that Codemasters made. The game may well be one of the most visually stunning racing games we’ve ever seen, but you spend too much of your time in the career mode grinding through the game’s non fun races – the buggies and the raids – rather than spending time behind the wheel of the rally and rallycross cars. That is where the game shines. That is the arena that is the most exhilarating, and whilst the shift towards the X-Games may well put people off the title, it provides for some fantastic entertainment. Cut out the trucks and buggies, and Dirt 2 would be the best racer on consoles period. It’s as simple as that. Instead, what you have is a pretty damn impressive racer, with a robust online mode, that seems to go too far off the tracks on numerous occasions.

A great rock influenced soundtrack that features great artists like the White Lies and Bloc Party. Superb engine sounds. Only let down by some forced voice acting from the pros, thank goodness you only hear their sound bites once in a while.

A masterpiece. Simple as. The cars are superbly rendered and the courses are fantastically crafted. They've set a new standard in what we expect.

The game handles like a dream. It may feel a little bit stiffer than the original, but the tweaked handling allows you to use the handbrake to devastating effect.

Not enough rally and rallycross. Not enough epic courses, and way too much racing outside of the game’s comfort zone. The rest of the game though is a step up from the original and the new stylised menu system is worthy of our eternal praise.

An all round good list with a nice balance. The list shows an element of creativity and gives achievements at a steady rate. By no means a quick 1,000 points, but an enjoyable one.

A definite step up from the original in more ways than one. Immersive racing, jaw-dropping visuals, an extensive career and a vastly improved online mode make up for the game's few minor annoyances... like riding in vehicles that just aren’t that fun. It would be nice to see Codemasters step back towards the rally and rallycross aspects of the title for the inevitable sequel and leave the frankly boring aspects behind. Let’s face it, racing buggies and hummers isn’t exactly what I call fun. I wouldn’t race in them in any other racing game, so why force me to race them now? Otherwise, Dirt 2 is an impressive racer, but it kind of makes you think about what could have been though.

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