Whether you're a veteran rally game racer or just a casual Sunday driver, Dirt 2 takes you on a whirlwind, worldwide tour amongst some of the best created tracks ever seen. The Colin McRae series has long been the king of off-road racers, so will flashbacks and friendships mean Dirt 2 lives up to the rally legend?
Those who remember the original Dirt game (2007) will have fond memories of the menu design created by Codemasters. It was stylish, yet simple. The first thing you'll notice about Dirt 2, is that Codemasters have put just as much effort into 2009's release. The menus are set out in a first person perspective, behind the scenes at a racing event. Outdoors, you can select your car or buy new ones and also check out news of tournaments or your friend's progress. However, inside your motorhome is where the action happens. An event map shows any available races, while the multiplayer and stats menus also find a home here. Some of the world's biggest off-road stars will help you get settled in with voiceovers describing everything you can do. Some of the stars featured include Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and the former BMX king, Dave Mirra.
The event map is almost empty when you first start, but eventually it will be filled with 100 events, covering five different types of off-road racing: Rally, Trailblazer, Rally-Cross, Land-Rush and Raid. Each location has a handful of events of each type, including team events where you will have to pick a friend to compete with you - more about this later. Added to these, each racing type has a World Championship of sorts, and there are three X-Games events, finishing with X-Games America, the game's biggest prize. There is also a brilliant tribute event to the game's namesake, including a video about the rally legend. Cheesy...but undoubtedly moving.
As you can tell, the game has a lot to cover before you'll finish it completely. There are varying difficulties, designing to cater for everyone from beginners to true experts, so you can set the game up to your own abilities. For the added challenge, the game rewards you with more money, more XP (the game's reputation system) and less "flashbacks"; the newest feature to the Dirt series.
Those who have played Codemasters' track racing game, Grid, will be familiar with the "flashback" feature. It gives the player the option to rewind the action and try a corner again - very useful after falling off the side of a cliff or smashing into an unseen rock. This makes the game much more forgiving, but takes away the adrenaline-fuelled edge of rallying; knowing that your one mistake could be your last. While the "flashbacks" work well and aid those who are more prone to mistakes, it's worth stepping the difficulty level up and giving yourself less room for error - believe me, it gives you a lot more motivation to get it right the first time around.
As for the cars themselves, Codemasters have made sure to give you as much variety as is really possible with off-road racing, without putting us in quads or motorbikes - which may have been a nice addition. There are pure rally cars, such as the Subaru Impreza and unlockable Ford Escort Mk2, to trucks and Baja buggies. The handling is spot on, offering a real challenge but still retaining an arcade-style drifting setup. The cars stats are split into three - Top Speed, Acceleration and Driveability. The latter is possibly the most important, as rookie drivers will find the very best, and fastest cars, very hard to control at high speed. It's worth finding a vehicle to suit your own driving style and abilities, as it could make the difference between 1st and finishing head-first in a tree.
The game's main career mode, or World Tour, is non-linear and you can more-or-less choose which event you want to take part in. Early on, there are only a few options available, but after a few hours playthrough, almost every event is open. It seems quite scattered, but is set up in a way that makes sense, as you're invited to new locations by other racers if you impress them and reach a high enough level. If there's one criticism I have of this, it's that the events unlock all too easily. Dirt 2 has an achievement called "As Good As It Gets," for when the player reaches Level 30 in the in-game reputation, or XP. By the time you reach Level 30, I found I still had over 60 events to complete and I'd already won each of the 5 World Championships and every X-Games event. Why Codemasters have set the bar so low, only they can answer.
The other problem I have with the World Tour mode is simply this: in a game involving one of rallying's greatest ever drivers, I expect a lot of rallying events. However, pure rally races only make up about 20% of the career. While some won't find this a problem, I was disappointed that there was so little in the way of timed, solo rallying. Even when you do enter a rally event, the points system remains the same over each course, with the winner getting 10 points and lowering values from there. It would have been nice to see the results based on cumulative times, like real WRC events.
However, any problems like this are small and don't have a real effect on the overall enjoyment of the game. In fact, the game has more than enough rewards and little touches to make up for any problems, such as the in-game "missions" and friendship system. The missions, much like the Xbox achievements or PS3 Trophies, are based on things like amount of cars overtaken or total driving time. While there are no direct rewards for these missions, they do offer more motivation to do certain things. Even the worst of racing drivers will smile when they see that they've unlocked a mission for spinning the car 5 times or more.
The game's friendships are another brilliant addition. As you progress through the game, the stars of off-road racing start to notice you, invite you to events and even become your friend. During races, they speak to you and encourage your progress, or laugh at you if they overtake you. You can even pair up with them for events that require you to race as part of a team. From time-to-time, they will also invite you to "throwdown" challenges. These are 1-on-1 events that are purely for fun and friendly rivallry. The friendships may seem like a novelty extra at first, but it gives Dirt 2 added realism behind the scenes.
Graphically, the game excels. The cars look fantastic, and get splattered with mud and dust, as well as getting bumps and scrapes from all angles. The damage modelling, as we have come to expect from Codemasters, is exceptional. The slightest collision will result in a smashed headlight or a caved-in door. Perhaps the only thing missing from this kind of racing, is mechanical breakdowns - I'm sure I'm not the only one who's not too worried about this being left out. To get the best out of the game, it's worth hopping into the cockpit view. Each car has a unique interior, complete with dashboard and rear-view mirror toys that you can unlock throughout your career. The best of these is probably the option to have your Xbox avatar hanging down on a string from the mirror, swinging wildly around as you drift over gravel and sand.
It's a shame Codemasters didn't implement Grid's car customisation in Dirt 2, however, as it would have been brilliant if you could create your own livery to use on each vehicle. While the in-game liveries are plentiful and unlock in rewarding fashion, the lack of pure customisation is a pity. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would have liked to have a special unlock at the height of your career, allowing you to create your own design.
Dirt 2's one huge downfall is it's lack of split-screen multiplayer. While Codemasters have addressed the original racer's main issue and have included online racing for up to eight people, the lack of offline multiplayer racing is a shame. While the trucks and buggies weren't so enjoyable during the career mode, they are great fun against other people. The online racing is clean, fluid and lag-free, and every car is unlocked from the start. Dirt 2's online action is another success for Codemasters following Grid's lead.
In conclusion, Dirt 2 has taken everything good from the original title and it's sister, Grid, and made for a very satisfying racer. The graphics are slick and react brilliantly to the conditions, and each location is presented beautifully. London's Battersea Power Station is a particular highlight, with some of the best tracks ever created in a racing game. The audio is also fantastic, with tracks from Madina Lake and You Me At Six adding to the excitement, but not overpowering the action. Each car sounds, looks and demolishes just like you would expect, and the unlockable toys give a fun edge to quite a serious title. The career's longevity will suffer with everything unlocking so quickly but there's a lot of fun to be had before the game starts to wear thin. While there are a few bad points, Dirt 2 heavily outweighs these with it's immersive menu system and it's unique mix of simulation and arcade. No other racing title can quite mix the two as well as the Colin McRae series.
* Varied difficulties cater for those of all abilities
* Overall Audio/Visual presentation is excellent
* Tracks are technical and challenging, but still great fun
* Loads of vehicles - lots of variety in vehicle type
* "Missions," friendships and unlockables add to the longevity of the game
* No split-screen multiplayer
* Limited customisation of cars
* Points system in rally mode detracts from realism
* Career's non-linear setup seems scattered
* Career based achievements set the bar too low
* Good mix of online/offline (most offline)
* Too easy to get to 700+
* Best: "Just Drive!" (Drive 100 miles without getting an achievement)
* Worst: "Showboating" (Bask in your success at X-Games - automatically unlocks without doing anything)