Review: Colin McRae DiRT 2

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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)
Developer: Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters
Release Date: September 8, 2009 (NA) / September 11, 2009 (UK) / December, 2009 (PC ver.)
MSRP: $59.99 

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.

Instead of boxes, lists and the kind of boring UI elements we’re all used to, DiRT 2 has cleverly — and very effectively — hidden everything in the real-world objects that make up your surroundings. The UI is presented as if you were camped out in your own touring trailer at an event, viewing everything from a controllable first-person perspective. The start screen is a set of event badges, gently swaying from lanyards hung on the wall. Press start and your view shifts downward to a stack of rally magazines on a small table. The front cover of the top one is dynamic, and its headlines change every time you start a new game. Instead of staring at a loading screen, I’m reading about how many people are currently racing in Morocco on Xbox Live, or how my friend and former Dtoid editor, David Houghton, has just bought a new Subaru in 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.

Why did I just spend three paragraphs talking about the UI? Because it’s brilliant. Other games have done it this way before, but never quite so effectively, and I’ve sure as hell never seen anything like it in a racing title. Perhaps for contrast, the UI of the first game (still a gorgeous menu system in its own right), is displayed on a laptop sitting on your desk. DiRT 2’s entire interface is presented in a way that is so completely organic and unobtrusive with its post-it notes and Polaroids that it never feels like a menu or a loading screen. There’s always something genuinely interesting to look at, and you never once feel like you’re waiting. All that and the game proper hasn’t even started yet?

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.

But with that out of the way, it’s time for the racing world to face José’s fury. There are 100 events, spread out over 41 tracks all over the globe, and you can choose any one you’ve got unlocked in the order you like. As is the nature of off-road racing, the terrain doesn’t change a hell of a lot. Your options are pretty much dirt, gravel, sand, tarmac, dirt, concrete, dirt, more dirt and mud. Maybe even some dirt. However, given the array of countries and locales you’ll be visiting, the tracks still manage to look and feel very different from one another. You might go from the gravel and narrow village roads of Morocco, to the sacred and serene hillsides of China, to the wide-open Utah desert or the Malaysian jungle all in one event. And with city stadium tracks like London and Tokyo, somehow “dirt, dirt and more dirt” just never gets boring.

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.

This was something that I was unsure about when I first heard of it. You mean there’s an option that lets you rewind time to correct your mistakes? That’s got “casual” written all over it, right? As it turns out, no. Not really. Hand-holding would be something that completes a difficult section of track for you. You still have to do your own work here. All the Flashback feature really does is two things:

1. It removes the frustration and rage that bursts forth in those “shit happens” moments.

2. It lets you learn from your mistakes and teaches you to be a better driver.

When you screw up, (and you will screw up), you can hit the very appropriately-mapped Back button to initiate a Flashback. This replays the last several seconds of the race in real time, and gives you complete control of playback with the triggers. You can replay it over and over as much as you want, so you can study it. Analyze it. See exactly what you did wrong, or pinpoint the exact moment some asshole clipped your bumper and sent you spinning. But most importantly, so you can learn from it. Learn how you should take that particular corner, or just how much room to leave for other drivers.

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.

Rather than a “win button” for noobs, the Flashback is a useful tool for everyone, regardless of skill. It’s a welcome addition and has never once felt like a crutch to me. I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I use it all the time, and I’d even say it adds a whole new level of strategy to the game. Once again, Codemasters have cut out all the frustrating annoyance and left us with an unhindered and incredibly satisfying racing experience.

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.

Adding further to the experience is the game’s fantastic soundtrack. You may remember my displeasure with the song featured in a trailer for DiRT 2 I posted recently, which it turns out is performed by a bunch of guys who look exactly like I imagined they would. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rest of the soundtrack is actually very, very good. Like, “buy the CD” good. Maybe they had a 1-song “suck quota” to meet, I dunno. The point is, the rest of it is awesome, or at least appropriate. That is of course a matter of personal taste, but my taste in music is good and you should listen to me. So there.

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.

As you progress through the game, you’ll eventually qualify for something called the Colin McRae Challenge — a 3-race tour, spent driving Colin’s own Forest Stages Rally Ford Escort MK II. Upon winning first place in the event, rather than flashing back to the world map, you’re shown a photo of McRae himself. This is followed by a short song and video tribute, with commentary from friends and colleagues, set to live-action clips of his Subaru or Citroen performing the kind of insane acrobatics only he could pull off. If you were a fan, it will likely make you choke up a bit. I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see this included in DiRT 2. It was heartfelt, tasteful, subtle and perfectly timed. Bravo, Codemasters. Just … bravo.

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.)

A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage.

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