It was on 15 September 2007, a mere two months after the release of the original Dirt, that rally legend Colin McRae was killed in a tragic helicopter accident. The game's advertising campaign was withdrawn for the PS3 release, which had been set down for a couple of weeks after McRae's death. The game itself however was a quiet success, praised for a strong racing engine and impressive visuals. Two years later, Codemasters have carried on McRae's name in the form of Colin McRae: Dirt 2, a game which seeks to pay homage to the great man while also being a great racing title; a goal at which it succeeds thoroughly.
Before getting too much into the gameplay though, let's ruminate a little on the game's presentation and tone. Traditional rallying is, to put it bluntly, a little stuffy, and not the kind of thing to enrapture American audiences short on time and attention. Those who have played Dirt will recall the incredibly stylish floating menus and smart interface. It was clean, elegant and thoroughly impressive. It was also subtle, made up of muted metallic greys and whites. Dirt 2's menus are bright, flashy, bursting with neon colour. The presentation is still superb, but it reflects the very obvious adjustment in tone to appeal to a wider audience. It's what you might call a Burnout makeover. This will no doubt irritate and alienate rally purists, who were possibly already put off by the original Dirt's smaller deviations away from traditional rally racing. Despite this, it's hard to criticize the decision too heavily, given that Dirt 2 has held up its end of the bargain in terms of gameplay.
The game's Career mode is an interesting beast. It's inaccurate to call it a mode per se because it's the very core of the game from which everything else extends, including online. Your base of operations is a dodgy camper van, which you'll navigate in first-person to get around the game. Outside of the van you can check out your cars and take in the racing festival atmosphere, complete with the distant sound of bands in the background, while inside you can play online, take part in career events or just watch the videos that come up on the television. Thankfully Dirt 2 doesn't attempt to thrust any story upon you, aside from the simple gesture of starting you off with one of McRae's cars, with Ken Block letting you know you've got big boots to fill. Block, alongside Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra, are real life drivers straddling the line between rallying and extreme sports. Several fictional racers also appear in the game, forming a kind of regular gang that you'll be racing with. Half of them will yap through the races, cackling when they overtake you or getting cranky when you crash into them. You won't notice it after a while, but at first it feels rather intrusive and weird. The game tracks your relationships with several of the drivers in a simplistic way where you'll gain their respect by winning races. Once you've become best pals with them you'll be able to occasionally team up in particular events. There's sadly no way to lose their respect, no matter how many times you ram them in a race. Believe us, we tried.
Getting to the meat of career mode itself, you'll follow a fairly simple path of winning races and earning cash. In addition you'll earn experience points simply for competing, with more points obviously being awarded for better results. You can also earn experience by completing the game's 'missions', which are simply about accruing statistics through natural play, like total time spent airborne from jumps, the number of times you overtake opponents or how many times you've rolled the car. Experience points lead to leveling up, which is the statistic that will determine which races and areas become unlocked. There are a total of nine areas in which you'll be racing, most of them focused on a particular racing discipline, which we'll get to shortly. There are stadium arenas for the likes of London, Japan and Los Angeles, intense rally courses in China, Malaysia and Utah, and a variety in Baja, Morocco and Croatia.
As alluded to earlier, Dirt 2 doesn't comprise solely of rallying. There a total of eight racing disciplines to be mastered, with traditional rallying only one of those. Other styles include Trailblazer, which is a souped-up version of rally in which you'll take very high powered cars over long straights combined with tight hairpins. Rallycross events are stadium-based courses in which you'll race other cars directly. Outside of traditional rally cars are a range of pseudo-trucks and buggies, which have their own sets of races, both circuit and point to point in the form of Raid and Landrush. On the gimmick end of the scale there's Domination, which is about setting a fast time on each segment of track to earn points, and Last Man Standing, which periodically removes the last placed contender until there's only one left, ala Burnout. You'll also sometimes taken on your rivals in optional one-on-one showdowns in which you'll either be trying to outrace them direct, or beat one of their lap times. There are 100 events to get through, some having the welcome gimmick of having to use a particular car. The latter end of Career is a little disappointing however, particularly when you get to three race events that involve you racing on one track, then another, then racing on the first track all over again. It's lazy way of extending the game's lifespan, especially when they could have resorted to more multi-country events instead.
But how is the racing itself? Well, magnificent actually. DiRT strikes the perfect balance between the fun of arcade racing and the realism of racing sims. The physics have a generously arcade feel to them without being floaty, meaning you'll still need to drive smartly to avoid crashing and spinning out. Every one of the game's 35 cars feels great to use, and you'll very rarely feel that the game is being unfair in terms of control. Throwing your car into a controlled slide is both easy and hugely satisfying. The sense of barely-in-control speed is tangible and exhilarating. For those times when that breakneck speed hurtles you into a rock or tree (the game's damage modeling is excellent, by the way) you'll have the option to rewind time with a Flashback, choose a spot prior to where you made your error, and resume play (and hopefully not make the same mistake twice). The same mechanic was used by Codemasters in Grid and it works well here again, sparing plenty of frustration for the lesser drivers among us. The few who think this might make things too easy will be pleased to know that choosing higher difficulties means less flashbacks at your disposal (and superior AI).
Visually, Dirt 2 is an absolute stunner, and arguably the best-looking race game on the market at the moment. Environments are rich and detailed and some of the lighting is just stunning. The tracks look exactly as they should: the jungles of Malaysia are lush and dense, Utah is dusty and dry, Croatia is picturesque and green. The cars look great and accrue filth as you go through the race, and as mentioned earlier, the damage modeling is great. It's in the game's replay mode that you can really get a feel for how strong Dirt 2 is visually. When you see your car flying through mid-air in slow motion, leaving individual chunks of dirt spraying from the back tyres, the sunlight reflecting beautifully off the bonnet, you'll sit back and say to yourself: Damn. Sadly there are no weather effects to speak of and the time of day for each track remains static. It feels like a real missed opportunity. Malaysia's muggy afternoons are nice and all, but how cool would it be to race through the jungle, in the rain, at night? Very, Codemasters. Very.
Online play works very well. In our attempts at online multiplayer, we were placed in groups and thrown fairly promptly into eight-player races with minimal lag. All of the rally disciplines are available, though direct races seem to be about who can escape the initial starting line melee unscathed more than anything. Needless to say, you can't use Flashbacks here, meaning you'll have to lift your game a little. Online bears its own experience leveling and mission set, though these are largely insignificant as they don't unlock anything or affect gameplay. You're also able to download ghosts of your own choosing from the leaderboards to compete against in time trials, and take part in weekly tournaments, which will usually be about setting the best possible time on a designated track within that week.
Though Dirt 2's hip new outlook is a bit irksome, it's still an excellent racing game. It looks incredible, the driving is a lot of fun and it's got a healthy online component. Touches like using your 360 avatar as a windshield ornament, the way old buildings will actually fall apart when you crash into them and the game's music running backwards when reversing a replay all demonstrate the care and with which Codemasters have put this game together. The game's range of courses and cars aren't as far reaching as most titles, but Dirt 2 opts for quality over quantity. If you're into racing games, this one is a no-brainer.