Being filthy never looked (or played) so goodEdit
If you’re of the opinion that great rally drivers are born rather than made, then it’s not difficult to imagine that Colin McRae flew out of the womb sideways at 80mph, and flew out of the delivery room in a graceful arc.
As a driver, he was a traditional flavour of bonkers behind the wheel – driving as fast as he possibly could, often crashing spectacularly and, if the hand of fate plonked him back on his wheels after his airborne barrel roll, carrying on again with his commitment undiminished. Sadly Colin’s gone to the great special stage in the sky, but there’s a new breed of extreme sports nutcases carrying the torch, and it’s their combined spirit that lives on in Dirt 2. After years literally lost in the wilderness, rallying is sort-of fashionable again.
The original Dirt was already inching toward the door when it came to traditional rally. There was still the token inclusion of Welsh forests with unpronounceable names, but thundering V8 trucks had rolled onto the scene and direct, door handle bashing competition was introduced. Dirt 2 is the logical conclusion – the fantasy world tour that off-road racing should be, with a festival atmosphere, far more exotic locations and very little regard for safety.
From the moment you launch the game, you’re plunged into a grubby RV that’s parked up in a bustling paddock area with fans hanging over the barriers with muffled indie music coming from the sound system. You can practically smell the sizzling hot dogs covered with that cheese that inexplicably remains liquid at room temperature.
Guiding you around the place are the disembodied voices of various endlessly chipper extreme sports stars. If you’re easily irritated by kids with more money than sense, you’re going to find it all a bit wearing, but we’re actually fond of them – not least because they refer to you by name (just like in GRID), and their constant compliments satisfy our desperate need for validation as a good driver. They’re so charming and affable that even when you’re on the track and deliberately T-boning them off the side of a cliff they’ll use their final moments on this mortal coil to reassure you over the radio that there are no hard feelings. Most importantly they create a sense of personality in the racers you’re competing against, and allow you to fabricate rivalries with the guys who consistently beat you.
This jolly band of happy campers follows you to a series of beautifully realised international destinations. Dirt 2 is a stunningly attractive racing game and every environment, from the baking Moroccan desert to a hazy downtown Tokyo, is rammed with visual texture.
Your first stop is the Battersea Power Station in London, and it’s packed with baying fans, bathed in sunlight and full of incidental details. When we revisited the location at night later in the tour, with the place lit up like Donald Trump’s Christmas tree during a power surge, we genuinely drove straight into a wall like a crash test dummy because we were busy marveling with child-like awe at all the pretty twinkly bits. While you’ll usually be whistling past most of this stuff at a bowel-loosening rate of knots, it all combines to ensure that Dirt 2’s circuits are drenched with atmosphere.
The vehicles don’t come off too badly either – crank up the visual settings and they become shinier than Kojak’s bald dome, and when you eventually come to an abrupt halt against the scenery (which you will) the entire thing crumples into a ball in a delightfully convincing fashion.
What’s worth noting is that while Dirt 2 was delayed to include DirectX 11 the game looks deeply sexy even when using DirectX 9, and runs at a heady pace on relatively creaky equipment. The fact that Codemasters have married this kind of visual splendour with a sensation of speed you’d struggle to match if you attempted re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere is an enormous technical achievement.
Of course racing game fans are a strange, many tentacled breed and, as RACE On proves, they’ll put up with visuals rendered in fingerpaint as long as the handling’s up to scratch. Dirt 2 doesn’t venture too far into the realms of terrifying simulation – you’re not going to have to worry about damper settings and toe in – but the handling has been much improved since the previous game.The biggest change is a real sense of weight shifting as you chuck the car into a corner, something that makes doing the famous Scandinavian Flick – where you chuck a car in the opposite direction to the corner and then flick it into the corner for extra momentum – logical and useful. Suddenly the cars feel like real physical objects rather than twitchy hovering camera mounts and, in spite of the fact realism usually equates to difficulty, because they intuitively feel right they feel less instantly punishing when you get things a little wrong.
What’s more, there’s something viscerally satisfying about lobbing one of Dirt 2’s newly weighty rally machines into a perfect arc around a bend. Forcing the nose to dip into the camber of the corner, catching the rear with deft throttle work and applying just the right amount of opposite lock would have you leaping up like an idiot if you weren’t already concentrating on transitioning into the next gravel-chucking powerslide.
It’s this kind of logical connection between car and road that makes the standing water on the tracks such an excellent addition. It seems a ludicrous thing to be complimenting a game on, but the puddles in Dirt 2 are not only some of the most beautiful H20 we’ve seen in a game, but they offer a tactical advantage if you use them properly. As you’d imagine, puddles always appear on the inside of cambered corners, so if you’re feeling clever, you can dip your inside wheel into the wet stuff, generating extra drag on that corner of the car and helping you around the corner. Of course, you’re not thinking that while you’re doing it for the first time, you’re just intuitively adapting to the surface presented to you, but the fact that it actually works as you’d expect is a pleasing revelation.
It’d be fair to expect that in their attempt to rebrand a beloved motor sport brand as an extreme sports series, that Codies would have dropped the ball in terms of course design. In fact, despite the move toward less conventional locations, Dirt 2 boasts some of the best courses ever to grace a McRae game. There’s a real sense that the development team is liberated by its newly afforded international scope and as you plunge through an imposing canyon in the Utah badlands, or dart across a narrow bridge dividing paddy fields in deepest China, you’ll realise that the course design is as good as it’s ever been.
The tracks are also challenging enough for hardcore Colin McRae fans – these are as technical as any other tracks in the series and seasoned race-fiends will be in heaven. If you’re new to the experience of whistling past vegetation at face melting speeds, you’ll be pleased to hear that the flashback system has made the leap from GRID, allowing you to rewind time when you stack your car against an inconveniently placed tree. It’s a feature that should come as standard on all racing games, and it means that even if you’re about as handy behind the wheel as a pensioner in an Austin Maestro you should still enjoy the fantasy of being a rally driver.
The only area in which Dirt 2 struggles compared to the competition is in its collection of vehicles. There’s a slim selection of cars, and a disproportionate number of Subarus. Fortunately, the way the game is structured encourages you to pick a favourite and stick with it.
Rather than forcing a vehicle change every time you attempt a new variety of off-road racing, you can complete the game with only two vehicles – one stripped down racer and one enormous truck. You’re also offered customisation options, such as new liveries and dashboard toys as you progress that, while relatively limited, at least draw you closer to an expression of your preferences than most straight racers.Dirt 2 is exactly what a modern racing game should be. Not only does it provide the requisite thrills when you’re pounding some of the prettiest environments you’ll find in the genre, there’s a sense of coherency and urgency to the off-track experience. It’d be all too easy to dismiss Dirt 2’s tour as contrived and a crude attempt to relate to a US audience, but actually the re-creation of a working pit area brings you closer to the experience of being a globe-trotting racing hero than any game before it.
Not only that but Dirt 2 is distractingly beautiful – the first game made the leap from arrangement of polygons to plausible environment, and this one breathes life into those environments, filling them with crowds, noise and lights. There isn’t a more exciting and involving racer around if you have even a passing interest in cars.