When Codemasters announced DiRT 2, I was very happy to see that it still had Colin McRae's name on it. I found the first game to be "okay," and after playing the demo for this second installment, it seemed we had a great racing title on the way that would outperform its predecessor and honor the memory of the man whose name graced its cover. Did it succeed?
Not to spoil what comes after the break, but yes. Yes, it certainly did. It's been quite a few years since I've had this much fun with a racing game, and the way it's all presented outshines just about any car porn title that's come before it. Be prepared for a long post, because I've got a lot to say about it. How much of that is good? Hit the jump to find out in our full review.
Colin McRae DiRT 2 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PS3, PC, Wii, DS, PSP)
For the duration of DiRT 2, rally superstar Ken Block will be your guide and mentor. You play as a rookie driver who's just arrived on the scene, trying to make a name for yourself in the world of off-road racing. After a look around your personal trailer and a brief rundown of what's what, the game opens with Block asking you to fill out a few forms, "for insurance purposes." Already, you can see how anything resembling an interface or menu has been completely blended into the experience of being a driver, and this is truly one of the most impressive aspects of the game.
This carries over into absolutely everything you'll be looking at. Events are displayed via a world map spread out on your desk, with stickers to indicate each one individually. Unlocking new events puts new stickers in the blank spaces on the map. Place first in one of them, and the sticker changes to a neato hologram version as a way to "check it off the list." Since you have some control over the camera even here, you can zoom or tilt your view and watch the colors change. (I like hologram stickers, maybe that's just me.) Special event races are shown as badges on lanyards, laid out on top of the map, and there are three X-Games events that appear as posters on the wall, with a medal hanging tacked up after you complete them.
Among your personal effects on the couch is a binder where you can check your stats and achievements. It's got little hand-written notes scrawled onto its pages, showing anything from your completion percentage to how many times you've crashed. Another similar binder on your breakfast table lets you view unlocked extras and shop DLC, and the TV mounted to your wall shows instructional videos to explain the rules of different race types. Walk outside and you'll see, amid the event festivities, a table with photos of all your owned and purchasable vehicles spread out on it. Your currently selected ride is parked nearby, and you can even go over and take a first-person walk around it for a closer look. Game options are in a binder on another table, where you can adjust various settings or change your profile.
As was said before, you begin by filling out the "insurance form," which is where you enter your name, nationality and so on. You're then prompted to enter an audio name for yourself to be spoken by announcers and opponents, and this, as you might imagine, never works for me. I get the idea, and I'm sure it's pretty cool if your name is Dave or Mark instead of Topher, but we're not all so lucky. There is a list of nicknames if your real one isn't among the available preset male and female options, but with monickers like "Fuzzy Nuts" and "Captain Danger," I decided I'd just have everyone call me José. Mostly because it was funny. Of course I don't expect developers to implement a baby name dictionary's worth of audio names, but sometimes I'd rather they just call you "buddy" or something and leave that bit out entirely. Or maybe let you go by your first initial.
Difficulty levels are chosen prior to each event, and vehicle damage can be switched to cosmetic-only or turned off entirely. There's no penalty for doing so, and the only real drawback to lowering the difficulty is that you'll earn less cash after the race. Obviously, cash is something you'll want, as it lets you purchase new vehicles and fun extras to deck them out with. Things like new liveries to change the color scheme and look of your car, dashboard ornaments like those dancing hula girls, and toys to hang from your rear-view mirror. One of those is a little plastic figure made to look like your own Xbox Avatar, which I thought was really cool.
But the badass lineup of vehicles in the game is far more important than the toys you'll trim them with. There are 35 to choose from, which may not sound like a lot if you're a Gran Turismo or Forza fan, but the difference here is that every one of them is awesome. (I'm sure you'll get over the fact that there's no Toyota Yaris.) Each vehicle in the game looks, sounds and drives just as it should, and no matter what your tastes are for this kind of racing, you'll have no trouble finding something you like. I've always been a Subaru man myself, and there are three different generations of Impreza on hand, represented further by a couple of different models and classes.
If you're a bit of a gearhead like me, you can turn on the "Vehicle Setup" option to adjust some basic drivability and handling options before each event. Gear ratio, ride height, differential strength, brake bias and the like. It's not the kind of laundry list you'll find in those ASE-mechanic's-exam racing simulators, but there's a satisfying set of tweaks available. It's quick and easy to make the vehicles handle to your liking. There's nothing to let you bump up the cars' horsepower, but I'm almost happy not to see that.
Why? Because while that most certainly has its place in more technically-minded sims, in games like this, it's an annoyance. It alienates players who didn't grow up in the garage, and even for those of us who did, sometimes you'd just like to start racing. If the main goal of the game is to be fun, why not just give me the properly tuned, fully-powered car from the start? I like to think that's what the developer has done here. I don't see it as limiting my choices so much as it's cutting out the bullshit I have to go through to get a decent car. Do you really want the "medium" package? Of course not, you want the best car you can get, so why screw around building up the low-level jalopy you're just going to trade in later? Wouldn't you rather spend that time leveling up as a driver?
Instead of wasting your time, DiRT 2 gives you the cream of the automotive crop on day one, and shaves away all the inferior crap you're never going to drive. Excellent vehicle choices have been made here. You might not be able to get under the hood, but the cars on offer are nothing but the best, and as was said before, you will find something that suits your driving style, taste and ability. What it comes down to is, the game respects your time. That's the polar opposite of what most racing sims do. If you need any more proof of that, you need look no further than its new "Flashback" feature, brought over from the company's last racer, Grid.
2. It lets you learn from your mistakes and teaches you to be a better driver.
Furthermore, you're only given a few uses of it per race, forcing you to ration them carefully. Once they're used up, that's it. A set of small icons appears over your speedometer to indicate how many Flashbacks you have, with the available stock progressively decreasing as you choose higher difficulty levels.
We'd all like to think we're Captain Badass, the guy who's never going to use this feature, and we also know what a filthy lie that is. You've got stuff to do; you can't spend 14 hours a day playing this game. Do you really want to replay an entire 5-race event from scratch just because your wheel snagged the wrong rock on the last lap? Give up 20 minutes of your life over an unfortunately-timed blink or a sneeze? Of course not.
The opponent AI has been handled exceptionally well, and your rivals will present a satisfying level of challenge on any difficulty. More importantly, however, they'll also make mistakes. Nothing is set in stone, and if you find yourself redoing an event, it may turn out that the guy who beat you last time didn't do as well on the next run. They'll hit walls, oversteer on hairpins and always give you the feeling that luck is a factor for everyone. Instead of racing with untouchably flawless CPU drivers, no one is perfect and it feels like you've always got a fair shot at the gold.
Multiplayer features its own unique set of achievements and missions, and works either via system link or online over Xbox Live. For online play, you can choose either Pro Tour for ranked competition, or Jam Session for more casual races among friends. Both are simple to set up, and in my experience, perform well without any lag, freezing or other suckery. You can play with up to seven other people at a time, and all of the cars are available to use, even if you don't own them in the single-player campaign. That means there's no wait -- you can jump right online with your buddies and rock out on any track, with any car, on day one.
Even if you can't find seven friends online at once to join you, you might be surprised to find you've got a few in the single-player mode. DiRT 2 uses what's almost a very basic form of social link system, wherein other drivers' opinion of you can work out to your benefit. Depending on how well you've gotten to know your fellow drivers and how much respect they have for you, they might foot the bill on a new car or invite you to partner up for a team event. This ties in with a humorously named achievement, "Two cups, one girl," which is unlocked by winning two team cups with the same female teammate.
You'll also hear other drivers exchanging conversation and friendly trash talk on the track, and while it can get repetetive toward the end of the game, it still reminds you that there are people driving these cars, and that you're one of them. This isn't a ghost town type of racing game where vehicles seem to operate themselves. It's about cars, but it's every bit as much about drivers. They're also voiced by actual pro racers, so you don't have to deal with the camp of some goofy, made-up characters like other games that have tried this. It really only adds to the experience.
Perhaps the best thing about the soundtrack, though, is how they've utilized it throughout the game. On city courses, you'll hear the songs echoing within a stadium as you pass through it. When you leave your trailer to browse your cars, the songs are being spun by a DJ for the crowd gathered at the event. But the best is how it's used betwen actual races. Before you start, the song goes from a low murmur with that DJ talking over it to a clean, full-volume chorus.
The same occurs when you finish a race. The music starts as you cross the finish line, as distant background noise amid revving engines and crowd applause. A photo snaps of your car and the screen fades to sepia, as the volume ramps up into the full song and you're whisked back out the the world map. A bit hard to explain, but you'll know what I'm talking about when you play it. I think you'll agree the effect it creates is awesome.
But in spite of everything it does so incredibly well as a videogame, my favorite moment of the whole DiRT 2 experience is something that's not even playable. It's a short video. It isn't plastered everywhere, but the franchise does indeed still bear the name Colin McRae, who died tragically between the release of the last game and this one. That was hard news to hear, because he's been my favorite race car driver since the first time I saw him behind the wheel. Over the years, I have watched this man do things with real cars, in real life, that I'm not even confident enough to try mid-race in a videogame. Things cars shouldn't be physically capable of. The developers knew this too, having worked with Colin for years.
And you can extend that applause toward the rest of this game in its entirety. I've struggled to find something bad to say about it. They could have added a few more options here and there. Mixed it up a bit with the spectator character models. But when you hit the start button and dig into it, the tiny annoyances are completely blown away by just how solid, thoughtfully-crafted and unabashedly FUN this game is.
DiRT 2 is an absolute triumph, and anyone who had a hand in its production should be very proud of themselves. Please, keep doing this. Keep honoring the memory of Colin McRae with outstanding videogames that capture the spirit of what he did. Continue this kind of sky-high quality and you've already got my money waiting for the third installment.
Score: 9.5 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)
THE VERDICT - Colin McRae: Dirt 2
Reviewed by Topher Cantler