Developer: Firebrand Games
# of Players: 1 (Wi-Fi: 2 – 4)
Rating: E (Everyone)
While the portable versions of DIRT 2 couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of content and overall level of difficulty, the Nintendo DS version of the game actually outstrips the more powerful PSP by miles in terms of bang for the buck. Both games are solid, thrilling arcade racing experiences with the PSP definitely beating the DS code in terms of challenge and overall learning curve. On the other hand, the ability to create your own tracks, customize and upgrade cars gives DS owners endless variety long after they’ve completed the main game. Firebrand Studios has put together one of the best DS racers to date that comes highly recommended whether or not you’re a rally fan.
Yes, the game isn’t as spectacular looking as its home console or PC brothers, but like those versions, once you start playing, that DS can be very hard to put down. The general structure of the game is similar as are some of the rides, but a few elements (such as pro drivers and the X Games license) are missing. Your base of operations is still a camper that travels ’round the globe with you and the cars you’ve accumulated as you hit the road over and over in order to become the best rally racer around. There are only a few race locations when you first fire up the game, but as you complete events in the money, more spots unlock on the map. The three game modes (Career, Quick Race and Time Trial) might seem like slim pickings, but there’s a lot to do once you get rolling.
Controls are solid and the game moves at a more than respectable 60fps with three selectable driver viewpoints. Smooth frame rate aside, There’s a tiny bit of redraw in the distance (you might not notice because you’ll be paying attention to the road) and the bumper cam is a bit too low to the ground, but provides the most exhilarating experience. The game has two different control layouts, but would have benefited from completely configurable buttons. With my bigger fingers that can get a bit cramped after playing the DS for long stretches, on a portable racer I prefer my gas, brake and handbrake to be a face button press away. Unfortunately, both configurations here fix one or two of these to the shoulder buttons which makes my poor fingers unhappy after about half an hour. Of course, your experience may vary. I had a little trouble sliding around a few of the game’s later twisty courses because of this, but a bit of practice helped me through these stages and onto a few podiums.
As fast as the game is, once you start upgrading your cars, it gets much faster, often to a ridiculous degree. While it takes a more arcade-like route than the console versions, there’s an active damage system in play like the one found in GRID. Your gearshift, wheels, engine, suspension and steering will be affected should you slam into something too hard and performance can be drastically reduced or you can even be retired from a race if you wreck too many of the above systems. I was never forced out of a race by busting up my car a few too many times, but I did notice a performance decline once I lost a few systems that had other cars catching up in the tighter races. If you’re really careless, you can do too much damage to your vehicle at the very first turn or while trying to pass some stubborn AI drivers that keep slamming into you on tighter stretches of road.
There’s a good deal of globe-hopping in many of the same locations found in the console versions, but the tracks are quite different, so it’s pretty silly to try and do a side by side comparison. Actually, you’ll find a few courses here in the PSP version, but with more detail (of course) and slightly to very different track lengths. Initially, the game can be ridiculously easy, but you’ll find this is merely so you’ll make enough money to buy new cars and tweak them so they become even faster and tougher. Also similar to the console versions, you earn less money for repeat victories on the same courses and you can’t unlock new stuff unless you tackle new locations.
You’ll also unlock new pieces for the fantastic track editor, a feature that would have made the other versions of the game even more outstanding. This is the fourth iteration of the editor first found in Race Driver: Create & Race and later the DS versions of Atlus’ Trackmania DS and GRID and it’s simple enough to use even before you start playing the main game. The in-game tutorial goes by a little too quickly, so feel free to scan the manual if you’re not used to dragging and dropping or drawing out the track you want. While you can do a freehand course, it’s actually much better to create point to point rally or closed circuit tracks using the unique pieces the editor provides. As you unlock new parts, you’ll be dipping back into your saved tracks to drop in crossovers, bridges, different S-curves, hairpins and much more. You can only save up to four tracks, but you can share them via WI-Fi with anyone whether they have the game or not.
You can also customize your cars here, although the feature isn’t as impressive. While you can choose from plenty of car colors, you can only customize decals for the hood, doors and roof. The decal editor is pretty basic, but with a little creative color usage, you can come up with some pretty nifty designs. I did a goofy Swamp Thing portrait and slapped it on the hood of one car, which made for some laughs when I was playing the game on the subway. Some guy sitting next to me looked over and asked “Wait… Is that a Swamp Thing car?” Which had me explaining the game, the decal editor and my Swamp Thing fetish to a total stranger for about two minutes or so. It’s a good thing he happened to own a DS, like racing games AND be a comics fan or I’d probably be in a straitjacket somewhere nice and padded. Hey, as long as I can take my DS with me, the peace and quiet (and free medication) would be a welcome change of pace. Hmm… I’d better pack my DS charger for that next subway ride…
Visually, the game looks great for a DS racer. Cars are detailed enough to make out logos and you’ll see bits of your ride break off and yellow “sparks” when you hit other cars or scrape walls. On the buggies, you’ll see the suspensions working away when you take and land jumps and cars even have working lights for the night tracks. There are only a few basic environment types, however, but at least the indoor maps are fun and varied and you can choose your outdoor course weather in the track editor. As far as sounds, the music is great, featuring a number of rockin’ tracks found in the the console versions. The cars, however all sound as if someone recorded a busy hour at the neighborhood barber shop. I’d have preferred no music and better car sounds, but it’s a mild gripe. The game is great stuff, buzzy vehicles or not. By the way, adding the DS Rumble Pak makes for some nicely bumpy tactile action, so if you’ve got one, use it.
My real complaints with the game are with the stunt portions and a pesky bug in how cars react to certain tracks. There are a number of slightly wacky stunt events where you need to either jump and land on a target, flip a car in midair or race at breakneck speed around a few different ramp and bump-filled courses pulling off tricks to score big points. While the “stunt” controls are quickly explained in scrolling text on the top screen, you’ll have no idea of what sort of car you’ll need to best complete an event. Sure, it’s fun to try (and fail) to spin a trophy truck quickly and land it squarely on a brand name logo pad, but you’ll soon find out that certain lighter rides work better.
Additionally, on some stunt tracks, there’s a bug where you car can get stuck in the side of a sloped wall you should be able to drive up or around, which forces a reset and a loss of 100 stunt points. This sudden point drop is a real pain if you’re racking up a good score and suddenly find your car or truck halfway in the level geometry. Finally, should you roll your ride over in a close race, you’re probably better of retrying the event than trying to play catch up. The game takes a few seconds to turn your car onto its wheels, which can be annoying as the rest of the cars whip on by your turtled whip.
My other (much more minor and slightly amusing) gripe would have to be with the product placement, or rather, WHERE the product placement is on the lower screen. As you race around the tracks, you’ll see some product banners, barricades and such in the usual places you’d find on real world courses. The track layout map on the bottom screen is plastered with logos and other icons you won’t even have time to notice because you’ll be too darn busy trying to drive. I’d imagine all these sponsors fought hard to get mentioned in all the versions of the game, but didn’t anyone check out the ad placement to make sure players would actually look down while trying not to slam into a wall or other cars? Well, at least the layouts look great and also include stuff like first aid stations, restrooms and snack bars for the virtual crowd to use, right?
All kidding aside, overall, DIRT 2 for the DS is a pretty amazing little racer that’s a keeper even after you’ve finished that final event. Firebrand Studios is certainly getting a lot of mileage out of the hardware and hopefully, Codemasters will keep them around for future installments. Hell, I’d pay good money just for the track editor with as many slots as can fit on a DS cartridge. That would be pretty darn cool, especially if even more rally cars are added and perhaps the ability to customize them even more than what’s here. Given that there will most likely be a third DIRT game for consoles, it’ll be really interesting to see how much the DS hardware is pushed in the next installment.