Review: DIRT 2 (PSP)

Platform: PSP

Developer: Sumo Digital

Publisher: Codemasters

# of Players: 1 (Wi-Fi: 2 – 4)

Rating: E 10+

Official Site

Score: B

You’d think the portable versions of the stellar console and PC rally racer DIRT 2 would cater more to novice players and in regards to a good chunk of the Nintendo DS version, you’d be right on the money. PSP owners, however, get quite a challenging bit of off-road action in their version of the game thanks to Codemasters and developer Sumo Digital. If you go into this one expecting a total cakewalk, you’ll be wanting to turn your PSP into a Frisbee-SP after about ten or so minutes of smashing into walls and cars at breakneck speed. However, take time to master the controls and the game becomes quite a bit of fun. The overall presentation could have used an extra coat of polish, but we’ll get to that later.

Sumo has programmed the game to be a bit trickier in terms of car handling, so if you’re going to this expecting the same super accessible rally experience as the console or PC versions, you’ll be in for a nasty surprise or three. Of course, between both portable versions and their bouncy physics, some of the more hardcore rally purists out there will probably want to run screaming to the nearest window, PSP in one hand and DS in the other in an attempt to commit some sort of dual sacrificial mercy killing. Let them go on ahead – the rest of you get ready for some fun with a few flaws.

By the way, forget about fiddling with car settings here – shifting is all automatic and other than one button press on the options screen to adjust “Driving Aids” there are no car adjustments whatsoever. The differences in assists (Clubman, Amateur and Pro) are interesting, as the default setting is the middle of the road Amateur rather than the easier Clubman. On the Clubman setting, your vehicle tends to automatically bend toward curves, giving you a gentle hint of when to brake, Amateur makes sliding more your choice and as it has no assists at all, jamming on the e-brake on the Pro setting will more often than not cause you to start doing donuts or whip around a bit too quickly to recover.

This lack of tweaking options is a missed opportunity, particularly given the tricky twist and turns on some of the tracks here. However, given the rather short length of most courses in the game, it’s easy to see why the feature is missing. With the exception of the longer Championship and a few other multi-race events, you can blow through many races here in about three minutes or less once you get the handling down. Some events blaze by so quickly that you’ll find yourself not minding retrying them just to get a better ranking or master the course even more. The frame rate and sense of speed tends to be a bit inconsistent on certain tracks using the slower trucks, so sometimes 80 MPH looks and feels like half that on some courses. The rally cars fare better, however.

If you’re a longtime rally game player, the handling here falls somewhere Eden Games’ infamous (but eventually satisfying) V-Rally 3 slipperiness and (unfortunately), V-Rally 2’s tendency for cars to roll over or flip with ease on the bouncier tracks. Granted, once you learn to brake properly and not floor it on the jumps, the more frighteningly bumpy tracks become a lot less daunting. I’ll bet more than a few of you will despise the tiny yet insanely bumpy Ethiopia and twisty, tricky Mexico circuits the first time out. On these tracks, handling is either moon buggy bouncing around or tight hairpins that have the AI drivers knocking you around or tumbling into you when they wipe out.

If you screw up and go zooming too far off course, you’re automatically reset onto the track. This can be a bit annoying on those tracks where it looks as if you can take a shortcut, particularly when there are a few courses where you can actually cut across smaller portions without a reset penalty. There’s no Flashback function here, but you can “respot” your ride, which can actually cost you the race at times. Sometimes, an AI driver will fly off the track only to spawn on top or right in front of you, causing another crash that can put you both out of the money.

Tracks are a mix of original designs along with a few slightly enhanced circuits found in the DS version. It would have been a total game-changer for the PSP if the great track editing function found in the DS version were included or some sort of cross-compatibility with the PS3 version of the game, but neither are on board options this time out. It’s another missed opportunity and given the X Games license and drivers are nowhere to be found (some of their rides are in the game, though), without the DIRT 2 logo, some cars and the similar camper menu setup, this could almost be any generic rally game.

The main game consists of World Tour (which has four stages of increasing difficulty) Arcade Mode (Single Race, Championship and Time Trial) and a set of five different Challenge events with four different difficulty levels. The latter mode’s PSP exclusive events, Airtime and Powerslide will help you get used to the handling and physics, while the other events take their names from the home versions of DIRT 2, but play out with slight differences. Trailblazer, Gatecrasher and Last Man Standing are all fun to plow through as you learn the ropes, but they can be frustrating if you’re expecting smooth sailing all the way through.

One example: the Gatecrasher event here is a very different bird than in the console and PC versions. Rather than smashing through foam barriers, you’re driving through giant half tires with tape stretched across them. The biggest change, however is you need to be at a certain speed for each gate or you fail the event. With the super-slippery handling the game provides, this event can get a bit sadistic if you’re one of those folks that absolutely has to clear each stage with a gold ranking. The bigger problem regarding the challenges is you can’t select the car you want for each event. This means for the harder level challenges (which all take place on different tracks), you’re stuck with the same ride even though something else might be more up to the challenge.

Visually, the game looks nice, although not as polished as some other racers on the PSP. The cars are detailed enough to make out the bigger logos and such and they all cast realistic shadows on the tracks (a nice touch). Environments are varied and feature some minor destructible elements such as the cacti in Mexico and small marker posts on a few other tracks. The vehicles get a tiny bit dirty and damage modeling here is quite minor compared to the PSP’s Pro Race Driver or WRC games. Hit a wall or other cars a few times and you’ll see a slightly crunched back or front end, but as far as I can tell after completing the entire game, you can’t ever be forced out of a race by a bad wreck – you just wreck your chance to win.

Sound design is OK, if a bit generic. I rather liked the squeaking and rattling of the vehicles, although the engines aren’t all as throaty or beefy as they could be. There aren’t any voices in the game, so some of you might miss the co-driver’s call outs on the point to point stages. Actually, now that I think about it, I’d have preferred co-drivers over the music selection. You’ll hear the same tunes found in the DS version and if you’re like me, after playing through three iterations of this game, if you never hear that “Steve McQueen” song again, you really won’t miss it at all. Actually, music is only played on menus and during replays, but it’s almost too muted on the default settings. If you like, pop in the ear buds and groove away at your leisure. Multiplayer works just fine and allows for game sharing with one UMD or true Wi-Fi races where you can set up to five tracks in a row for a little twisting and shouting with real life rally pals.

While the PSP version of DIRT 2 isn’t quite as tight as the other versions I’ve reviewed, it’s still a nice enough racer for those looking for a bouncy bit of off-road thrills. It’s not the easiest game to love if you’re a newbie looking for a simple traveling companion, but stick with it and it turns out to be a hell of a ride. I’m hoping Codemasters adopts a few of my suggestions for the next portable installment, as helping developers make better games is part of my job description these days…

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