Review: DIRT 2 (PS3)

Platform: PS3/Xbox 360

Developer: Codemasters (Racing Studio)

Publisher: Codemasters

# of Players: 1 (Online: 2 – 8)

Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: A

Accessibility is the prime mover DIRT 2 uses perfectly to keep players of all skill levels coming back for more. Whether you’re a rally newbie interested in the sport thanks to the X Games or a grumpy veteran player shaking his or her fist at Codemasters for “Americanizing” the game in the past two installments, there’s definitely something for you (and everyone in between those two extremes. Stick a controller in your hands or sit in front of your expensive steering wheel setup, lock in your difficulty and take the phone off the hook – you’re not coming up for air unless it’s your virtual ride taking to the skies on an awesome jump. Fantastic visuals, near perfect handling and a solid racing experience await anyone looking for one of the best racers this year. A few bumps in the road keep this from sheer perfection, but the Joe Gamer crowd will barely notice the problem areas.

The game clicks as soon as the intro video that uses in-game graphics video hooks you in. Forgoing any sort of deep character editor, you’re dropped in the shoes of a driver you can personalize solely by name and nationality. The cool thing about the former is if you name is on the lengthy list provided on the setup screen, other drivers you race against and eventually befriend will call you out with compliments when you win big or complaints if your driving really stinks. If you’re new to all this rally stuff, yes, your driving will most likely stink until you realize this isn’t Burnout Paradise, or any similar arcade racer. Sure, you can set the damage to cosmetic and smash the cars up ’til the cows come home. However, other than a few fun Trophies or Achievements that relate to wrecking stuff, after a few hours of hitting stuff for kicks, you won’t find much reward other than cheap thrills.

Once you dial in the controls and realize that each of the cars, trucks and buggies handle differently, then you’ll be in for the long haul as the events open up and your reputation improves. Interaction with the pro drivers and others in the game is limited to quick dialog snippets or slightly longer map intros with the ability to befriend these superstars as you best them on the tracks. Then, there are the occasional Throwdown challenges sent your way once your wins start piling up. Defeat a challenger and get their undying allegiance (along with a cool livery or three for your growing garage). In fact, once you get really good at the tracks, the game dispenses so many goodies so often that it almost seems like a malfunctioning vending machine.

There’s a new progression system that uses experience points earned from placing in the top three slots to unlock new courses and vehicles, but this isn’t a RPG, folks. If you play on Easy and win a bunch of races in a row, the game nicely asks you to bump up the difficulty level to make things more challenging. Of course, while the harder modes come highly recommended for those players looking for lots of challenge right out of the box, you can also exploit Easy mode to rake in a huge pile of cash and a nice selection of rides so the harder modes become a wee bit less stressful. No matter how you play, it’s hard to find fault with the racing here because as mentioned above, you can make it as easy or difficult as you wish. I will warn those grumpier pure rally fans to stay far away from Easy mode, as too may races are “gimme” events where all you need to to is make your way past the pack and pretty much every event is yours for the taking.

The late Colin McRae gets a ton of respect here with your player character getting his black No Fear ride as a starter car and there are a few other McRae branded cars and liveries to win as you progress. The car selection isn’t huge, but the seven different off-road vehicle classes plus the numerous events are more than enough to keep you stuck to the couch for a while. The whole “extreme” vibe is both hit and miss – the X Games crowd will groove on most of the name drivers, locations and events here, but some longtime fans of the CMR series might find the elevating of some of these guys and gals to worldwide superstar status a bit off-putting. Personally, I’m on the fence here. I do see the need for the sport to reach a wider audience, but kicking tradition to the curb almost completely is kind of painful to watch.

There’s a great “menu” system here that, other than some pesky load times, keeps the game flowing from event to event Everything in the game is done from inside or just outside your race trailer. Need to hit the tracks? Check you map, choose a location, race type and vehicle and after a short wait, you’re ready to race. Car setup is optional and basic and I’d gather veteran players will be the ones getting the most use out of this feature than novice players. While you can jump into any event without fiddling with the ride height, springs or brake balance, it actually helps to tinker around for some of the trickier courses. Every adjustment type is explained (another nod to new players) and you can even test your settings in Free Race or Time Trial modes.

In another nod to keeping new players less frustrated, those infamous Flashbacks have drifted over from Codemasters’ other stellar racer, GRID. While these limited rewind do-overs make the game easier, as mentioned above, all you need to do is bump the difficulty up so you have less (or none) to use or simply don’t use them at all. Granted, I do miss the more technical car setup screens and a few other European-style rally elements found in the last couple of Colin McRae Rally or the WRC games, so it would be nice to see some of that stuff come back. Of course, the McRae series had its detractors among hardcore rally fans that railed against the old “pivot” style driving model, which vanished with DIRT and is even more refined here. If you’re a stubborn fan of the inside the car viewpoint only, you’ll be in heaven once you hit your first big puddle and that realistic water and mud splashes up on your windshield just as a nasty turn is coming up.

Online, the game is just as fun as the offline game. Everything is a fast and slick as the main game and even if you don’t want to race against others, that leaderboard will lure you in to see if you’ve made the cut. One cool thing about online and offline play is the game tracks all sorts of stats and occasionally rewards you with experience points for pulling off long drifts, overtaking cars and smashing into stuff, among other things. I didn’t read the manual until I ended up with something like 4,000 extra experience points after a two part race because I’d done a few different “missions” I didn’t even know about. No complaints there, as it’s always cool to get points in a game for just doing what comes naturally.

You’ll hear no complaints about the graphics, either. Every one of the photo-realistic vehicles looks spectacular and they all smash up as realistically as possible thanks to a great physics system and wonderfully detailed damage modeling. Environments are stunning, super-detailed and packed with hazards from bumps and dips to rock walls, trees, buildings and other rally car wreckers. You’ll also see even more spectators lining the sides of some courses, all behind barriers, of course. It’s pretty funny to see them reach out to wave (or seemingly touch your car) as it blasts past, but should you hit that barricade, they’ll recoil as you recover and speed away (or start rolling end over end).

Sounds are also great throughout. The different engines roar, rattle and wheeze away, the tactile ground effects (thanks to vibrations from the controller) across the different road surfaces almost make you feel like you’re in that rally car, buggy or trophy truck. The US rally guys and gals here all sound great and thankfully, not one of them monopolizes the game with annoying quotes or catchphrases. Musically, I was more impressed with the DS version for the quality of the tunes and the fact that they’re so clear on the handheld, but in listening to the same music on the console versions, I’m less impressed. Thankfully, none of the music plays during races, just during replays and on menus as a sort of concert happening in the background.

As to the problem areas, I’ll have to nitpick on a few things as a longtime CMR fan. Other than the wind blowing particles across some tracks and causing flags to wave, weather effects are a no show here. I think back to when I had the grand opportunity a few years back to play a Colin McRae Rally 3demo down at Codemasters offices and being totally blown away by the rain effects on the Japanese rally course. Hell, rain and snow are big parts of rallies that take place in certain climates and many of the dozens of rally games I own have weather effects, so they’re definitely missed here. I’m guessing the missing storms and such are due to the fact that the Summer X Games relies on sunny, bright weather for its outdoor events. However, I’m hoping Codemasters gives us either a different rally game at some point or adds different weather in some of the stages next time.
Also missing is carry-over car damage, but I can understand why it was removed. Still, one of the crucial parts of a real rally is tackling your car damage between stages which sometimes forces drivers to hit the road with a less than perfect ride. Here, even in multi-race events, your car or truck is as good as new and ready to roll race after race. I think the option to repair damage between races should be added for players that want the extra challenge. Yeah, yeah, that means the game will be harder next time. but again, if it’s optional, you don’t need to use the feature if you don’t want to, right?

In the end, DIRT 2 is quite an exciting racing game anyone can get into, even if they’ve never played a rally racer before. Granted, the rally purists are probably all screaming about us Yanks taking over yet another sport and making it so “extreme”. On the other hand, when you get a game as polished and thrilling as this out of it, future installments can only get better. Hopefully, Codemasters will find that happy medium that satisfies every fan of this sort of racing without going too far in either direction.

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