Colin McRae: DiRT 2 Review (Xbox 360)
Codemasters is a company that has been experiencing a methodical transformation over the past few years. In a time long past (all of three years ago), the company was releasing some of the most realistic and hardcore simulations on consoles.
TOCA Race Driver 2 and TOCA 3 were arguably the pinnacle of simulation racing on the last generation of consoles. Cases could be made for the driving model in Gran Turismo or the gameplay in Forza, but TOCA and the Colin McRae series (and even the IndyCar titles) were always worthy of mention when discussing the sim kings on consoles.
After those titles, Codemasters, in an attempt to acquire a more wide-ranging fan base, seemed to shift its focus to slightly simpler handling models. And for the most part, that strategy has worked.
Dirt was released two years ago, and it was the first step in the process of tweaking the Colin McRae series so it was playable for the masses. However, the online play was laughably bad (consisting of nothing more than synchronized leaderboard chasing -- called "rallies"). Still, the game was a very good racing game that successfully straddled the line between simulation and arcade handling.
Dirt 2 takes what made Dirt successful and improves upon it in almost every way. However, some of the omissions that were made to strip down some of the events that were potentially too long or dull for the casual racing fan may put off a true rally fan.
The game is flat out beautiful.
Like it or not, graphics are the source of first impressions. After all, the first thing people do when looking at a not-yet-released game is check out screenshots and videos. It’s human nature.
In that regard, Dirt 2 is among the best in the business. We’re inching closer to photo-realism as time goes by, and Dirt 2 is one of the prettiest racing games I’ve ever played. When you launch out of the gates in Utah or Morocco the first few times, you’ll have a tough time believing your eyes.
The cockpit camera, which is (thankfully) all the rage in racing titles nowadays, is here -- and it looks fabulous. You don’t have the "black out" effects when you crash like in Need for Speed: Shift, but the camera is fantastic nonetheless. Each car’s interior is fully detailed (with working gauges and dashboard illumination), and you can see the driver’s hands work the wheel as you navigate each course.
Better yet are the effects from within that cockpit view. Water pits will splash muddy sludge across your windshield, and you’re momentarily blinded by the effect -- much like you would be in a real car. During these instances you must wait for your windshield wipers to clear the sludge before you can see.
Cracked windshields will fly, fenders will go hurling through the air after a crash, and the headlight and dust effects are amazing. Speaking of crashes, you’ll see some of the most intense and awe-inspiring wrecks in Dirt 2. I’m not kidding when I say you may very well sail under a car that’s barrel-rolling through the air in the midst of a nasty tumble.
All of this adds up to one of the prettiest racing games you’ll ever encounter on a console.
The audio package is not as mind-blowing as the visuals, but it's still very good. Every racing game on the planet has the same core sound package -- engine sounds, tire skids, collision effects, etc. Dirt 2 has a very believable sound environment that lets you hear the gravel rattling off the undercarriage of a vehicle and the sound of your tires gripping the various racing surfaces. Asphalt will sound different than gravel, which is different than sand and so on.
Some of the collision sounds are wince-inducing, especially if you misjudge that sweeper by a hair and go nose-first into a boulder -- despite your copilot telling you “don’t cut." Speaking of which, the copilot is very good, and also comes in two flavors: basic and technical.
With the basic instructions, you get “easy right”, “easy left.” But that doesn’t tell me much about the severity of a corner. If you go into your options, you can set the copilot audio to technical, and then you get “three right into two left into six right.” It’s something that most rally fans will appreciate, and it's almost a required setting to me. But the fact that it’s not the default just proves the direction that Codemasters wants to go here.
Overall, much like many other racing games, the sound presentation sort of takes a backseat to what you see and feel, but it’s still well done in Dirt 2. Basically, I enjoy the actual racing sounds, but the soundtrack is forgettable and some of the commentary from the superstars is laughably bad.
The gameplay is pretty awesome too.
When all is said and done, however, nobody cares about how pretty a game is if it feels like you’re driving your grandmother’s Cadillac to church on a Sunday morning.
Thankfully, Dirt 2 is not only one of the prettiest racing games out there (I can’t say that enough, I sound like a complete graphics whore, I know), but it’s also one of the best handling as well.
Since there has been a shift in focus for the company, I wasn’t expecting a hardcore simulation of off-road racing, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that it’s a nice balance between simulation and arcade racing.
The cars tend to be a little light and snap quickly to where you need them to go, but that’s generally to help make the game more accessible for the Mountain Dew-infused basement crowd, I think. When you go to point the nose of a car into a corner, it’s heading there, and it’s going to go there right now.
What this lets you do is really tear around courses, snapping the front end of the car left and right like an epileptic goldfish. On some of the Rally and Trailblazer stages, this is glorious. You feel like you can do anything with the vehicle that you choose, and that feeling of power is something that most racing games strive to pass on to the user.
That’s not to say that it’s an easy game -- far from it. You need to judiciously apply pressure to the throttle to avoid slinging dirt everywhere and keep up your pace. You have to find the delicate balance between going fast and staying controlled in almost every corner. Point being, it’s a very well-coded handling model that will reward you for setting up corners properly and powering through them.
But what makes the Dirt 2 experience so unique is the variety. You’re never doing the same thing for very long in the game, and that is something that you’ll find people feel very strongly about. The purists will blast the game for getting rid of the lengthy hill climb and rally segments where a 20-minute race against the clock can be ruined by a misjudged corner.
Nevertheless, Dirt 2 is all about short sprints, not the endurance races. The vast majority of the races you’ll enter in your career are between 1.5 and 4.5 miles. We’re talking two- to four-minute races for 80 percent of the career mode. That’s not a problem for most people, but if you’re looking for a hardcore rally simulation, this is not it.
What you get here is a wide variety of events, spread across a huge number of venues and stretches of terrain. One minute you’ll be in buggies with other competitors flanking you for two laps around an enclosed course, and the next you’ll be racing a Rally segment with a copilot. After that you’re running a Trailblazer race with no copilot instructions, and then suddenly you’re competing in X-Games Asia or Europe.
The career mode is simply where it's at in Dirt 2.
This is where Dirt 2 shines. You begin by plugging in your name and nickname (that you’ll be addressed by repeatedly, both in the menus and in races), and then you’re off. You can immediately choose the first tier of races in the starter zones, and from here you’ll find a little bit of everything.
You can race some rally segments in Croatia, hop over to Baja, California for some RAID events or go back to London for some Rally Cross. Again, variety is the strength of Dirt 2.
As you drive, you’ll get experience points that are based on your difficulty settings. I didn’t see any handling differences between “Serious” and “Savage” difficulties, so as far as I can tell, it’s just the AI difficulty. What raising the difficulty does is give you more cash -- more cash is always good.
As you finish races, you earn experience points that boost your driver level. This practice is becoming pretty standard fare in racing titles nowadays, and so there’s nothing here that should surprise you. You earn XP, gain levels, and as you gain levels you earn new liveries for the vehicles as well as new venues and events to race in. The career mode is fairly straight forward, but you do have the freedom to jump from continent to continent to enter whatever you want, in whichever order you choose.
By the time you reach level 30 in the Dirt Tour (that's what the career mode is called in this game), you’ll have unlocked all of the liveries and events in the game. You can run in some of the special events like World Tours in any particular discipline, and each continent’s X-Games event has a level requirement to achieve.
It should be noted that the X-Games aren’t exactly realistically depicted, but it was a nice touch to compete in a round-by-round simulated version of the contest.
After all is said and done in your Dirt Tour, you’ll have had a lengthy trip across multiple continents in a variety of vehicle types, racing in all sorts of events. Only in a game like Dirt 2 will you have a type of event that seems ridiculous at first glance, like Gate Crasher (where you get points for speeding through a run, plowing through blocks of Styrofoam), but then after racing it several times, you find out it’s an incredibly helpful mode for learning the line around any given course. You’re always learning in the game, which is wonderful.
Many will enjoy racing in the career mode, but others will enjoy the game's online mode.
A lengthy and varied career mode is a must in any racing game, but so is an online component. And, unlike the original Dirt, Dirt 2’s online mode is not a tacked-on leaderboard. This time around it’s actually a fully functioning multiplayer suite of modes.
You can hop online in a party or by yourself and choose to take part in ranked (Pro Tour) or unranked (Jam Session) modes. The Pro Tour is the only way to earn your online fame, which is essentially the same as the XP offline. Online and offline levels are earned separately, which may please or infuriate you, depending on your perspective. You do not have to race through the career to purchase all of the cars, though, as the defaults in each class are all available. The only reason you would need to run through the offline career mode would be if you want to get some of the special-edition cars (that are admittedly very good).
The online area is pretty much what you would expect. However, the one thing that annoyed me to no end was that all Pro Tour races are set to reverse-level starts. So, if you’re just beginning at level one, you’ll be placed at the front of the field every time. This is good in theory, except in sessions with full contact you’re guaranteed to get slammed in the rear and spun out in the first corner almost every race.
Experienced racers know the effect that this can have on your state of mind. It’s incredibly frustrating to try to race clean, only to get slammed by the entire field in the first corner. This is avoided by racing people you know, but you won’t get online fame running in Jam Sessions.
What I found to alleviate some of that frustration was to only race in the Rally and Trailblazer events early on, where there are no collisions (cars show up as ghosts after they get a little distance from you). Once your level climbs a little, you’ll be starting mid-pack and have a much better chance of surviving the typical “first-corner carnage.”
As Xbox 360 gamers, we have a plethora of excellent titles to choose from right now. A few weeks ago the excellent Need for Speed: Shift was released, and Forza 3 is looking like a world-beater (due to release in about a month from the date of this writing). So why would you choose Dirt 2 over one of those other titles?
It's straight-up fun -- and it’s unlike anything else you can get on the system.
Dirt 2 isn’t going to be the game that replaces Forza or PGR in your rotation. It’s just going to squeeze into the rotation by being itself. It's a game you can pop in and play for a few minutes and complete a few races, or play for hours and really perfect lines. And the fact that you’ll be catching air and racing along cliff faces really puts it in a league of its own.
In the end, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a game that’s an absolute blast to play, and it successfully and brilliantly straddles the line between sim and arcade. Other than minor things like omitting true endurance racing and hill climbs, I don’t have any major complaints. It knows what it wants to do, and it does it extremely well.
Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)