Colin McRae: DiRT 2
When Colin McRae, his son and two friends were tragically killed in a helicopter accident back in September 2007, the driving superstar’s death resonated far beyond fans of rally, to millions of gamers to whom the name McRae will forever be associated with one of the great Playstation-era racing series. The first DiRT title was released just before McRae’s horribly premature passing, and saw Codemasters essentially rip everything up and start again, giving the franchise a face-lift fit for the next-generation. It highlighted the tone of a series moving increasingly further from the realistic, ‘pure’ brand of rallying in the earlier games to a more arcade-orientated, thrill-seeking approach. Whether seduced by the bright-lights of, for example, Project Gotham Racing, or whether Codemasters were just seeking change for the sake of change lest creative stagnation take hold, DiRT 2 (yes the strange lower case ‘I’ is intentional) represents the consolidation of this new approach.
The opening comment “You’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill” is a neat acknowledgment of Colin’s legacy, though the ensuing day-glo menus and extreme-sports branding sit somewhat uneasily with the sentiment (in fairness there is a far more substantial and considered tribute to Colin later in the game that proves to be as well-judged as it is moving). This edition’s format sees the career, or Dirt Tour mode as it’s known, split into countries (there’s the echo of PGR again), with individual events within each locale.
As well as the standard rally sections, which see you navigated across the terrain by a co-driver, there are team races, a Last Man Standing event (where the racer in last position at each twenty second interval is eliminated), and a Domination mode, to name just three. This latter discipline splits the track into segments, each of which is individually timed to give your driver an overall score. This mode, like all the others, comes into its own when seen in the broader context of DiRT 2’s career structure. With any racing title with a campaign as deep as the one that’s presented here there’s always a plateau where the initial period of becoming familiar with the handling and game design gives way to an eventual grind for experience points; where racing a new course for the first time is exciting, but less so at the twentieth time of asking. DiRT 2 fares well in this respect. Better than, say, the last Forza game (where I spent the last twenty hours in a comatose state of play); the variety of racing modes and styles helps to keep the whole experience ticking along. Naturally you’ll discover your favourites over time, but their range and the choice they offer are unarguable.
Range and choice can be equally applied to the vehicles in DiRT 2, which in this edition stretch from the obvious rally cars to dirt trucks and dune buggies. It’s a risky strategy, inviting comparisons to recent classic Motorstorm whilst risking a dilution of the core game. Thankfully DiRT 2 doesn’t find itself stretched too thinly. There is enough difference between the handling models to warrant their inclusion (even the dune buggies eventually excel, although their initial slippery and temperamental way with cornering is a patience-tester). They’re also all satisfying to master. It is somewhat ironic though that despite all these bells and whistles, DiRT 2 really is at its strongest and involving when you’re behind the wheel of a rally car, with just the track and a time to beat; nice to see that Codemasters concentrated on getting this core element perfect before stretching outwards.
Codemasters have, across several generations, been one of the most proficient developers in getting the best from the hardware in question, and DiRT 2 maintains this tradition. The visuals are excellent, with a frame rate that never seems to falter (use the first-person camera angle for the best sensation of speed), while the audio side of things is similarly solid, with realistic effects and voice work that never outstays its welcome. The variety of locations, from the jungles of Malaysia to the dustbowls of Utah, all look fantastic. If there’s one criticism it’s that there is little real spark in the presentation – but then we’ve become so used to technical brilliance across the last few years that it takes something truly special in the way a game looks and sounds to make us sit up. DiRT 2 will certainly not embarrass any HD set-up you may be using. As well as getting the big things right – the look and the feel – there are plenty of little touches that further reinforce DiRT 2’s quality. Especially pleasing is the option of having your Xbox Avatar hanging from the rear-view mirror of your car (hardly game-selling, but still), and the numerous in-game missions that help propel the sense of progression.
Codemasters have also drawn a neat line from DiRT 2 and their previous racing game, the brilliant Race Driver GRID, by incorporating the latter’s famous flashback device. Though the amount of flashback attempts you get depend on the difficulty, each use of one allows you to literally rewind from any mistakes you may have made and try again. At first it feels like a very odd addition to a motorsport that is all about memory and precision, and the use of a flashback in the middle of a rally is good at erasing any tension that may have developed. But it quickly becomes a useful tool, and one that conversely helps you remember certain tricky bends and annoying obstacles. DiRT 2’s robust online component obviously doesn’t feature flashbacks, which interestingly positions play across LIVE/PSN as closer to the series’ original vision than anything found in the main game. This is especially true when racing against the clock. The other cars in online time trials are on-screen simultaneously as ghosts, and it’s this combination of bragging rights and the removal of a flashback’s normal safety-net which proves compelling. Every corner is crucial when there are real reputations at stake.
With the arcade racing innovation of Split/Second and Blur just around the corner, and the simulation behemoths of Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5 occupying the other end of the scale, DiRT 2 – with its ultimately well-judged balance between substance and style – is perfectly placed to occupy the niche that exists between both racing camps. The purists, those reared on the early Playstation games, may gripe that this isn’t the McRae series of yore. And they’d be right. For DiRT 2 is something altogether more ambitious, interesting and fun. It’s also a fitting testament to the great man himself.
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