Since the release of the original Dirt game, its namesake rally driver has sadly passed away. It’s nice that Codemasters has kept the name of the legend that was Colin McRae, and indeed paid tribute to him: the first car you get in your garage is a McRae special, plus there’s a dedicated McRae challenge event and other unlockable Colin related goodies.
The more observant among you will have noticed that Dirt 2 has been out for a couple of months on the next-gen consoles, but it’s only just been released on the PC. And the excellent news is that Codemasters has evidently spent some time making a good job of the transfer, not merely rushing a port over. One of the major differences between the console and PC versions is in the visual department, with Dirt 2 on the PC supporting Direct X 11.
Granted, you need a pretty beefy machine to be able to play the game with DX11, and some of the enhancements – such as super realistic water and more detailed models of fans stood by the track-side – are only available if you run Dirt 2 on ultra graphics settings. It looks spectacular, although the frame rate hit is considerable, and anything but newer GPUs will find themselves coughing and spluttering like an old Capri Ghia.
At any rate, Dirt 2 looks great without any of these DX11 bells and whistles enabled. As you whizz past them, those track-side spectators clap you or make “go for it” gestures. The car and damage models are excellent, the dust clouds they spew up look very realistic, and that’s nothing compared to the water. When you bomb through a huge puddle in the cockpit view, the water splashing over the windscreen and being cleared by the wipers is a stunning effect. With or without DX11.
Okay, so this game’s a looker, we’ve established that, but how does it play? Dirt 2 offers an expansive tour, covering some 100 events across a number of countries. As you win races and gain experience points and driving levels, these events progressively unlock. Podium places also net more cash to purchase and upgrade vehicles. It’s the usual sort of career mode, but with a couple of tweaks which make it slicker than the norm.
The first being the wide variety of racing styles. As well as standard timed rally stages, there are all manner of events, such as rallycross which is circuit racing with mixed tarmac and gravel surfaces. Raid events feature huge four-wheel-drive trucks and long rugged tracks with regular splits in the road, including shortcuts which can go horribly wrong. ‘Gatecrasher’ challenges you to hit all the gates placed along the racing line on a track, whereas ‘domination’ splits a circuit into sectors, with each driver aiming to achieve the fastest split time in each sector over a number of laps.
Among the main events, throw-downs are introduced by the game’s star name drivers such as Ken Block and Dave Mirra. They dare you to best them on a favourite track, or beat their record lap time. In fact, as you race and conquer these top drivers on the tour, they become friends with you, allowing you to take part in team events with a professional partner. Although if you spend all the time ramming into and generally destroying their prized rally cars, it’s unlikely any of them will be teaming up with you. You’ll probably be off Dave’s Christmas card list, too.
Avoiding smashing into opponents isn’t too tricky, fortunately, as the cars handle very smartly. As you would expect for a rally game, it’s all about power-sliding, and the vehicles slide nicely around corners without being overly slippery or difficult to control (with the exception of the off-road buggies, which can be a right pig to steer). Dirt 2 isn’t a simulation, and there are definite nods to accessibility with features such as the “flashback”, which allows you to stab a key and rewind time to before a mistake happened.
However, there’s more than enough realism here to give you an excellent flavour of rally driving, especially with the difficulty levels cranked up (on the top setting, for example, flashbacks aren’t allowed). Players also have the option of going into the details of vehicle setup, adjusting the suspension, brake bias, gear ratios, downforce and even which silly spring-loaded toy is stuck on the dashboard (we went for the skull with dynamically rolling eyes).
Throw in a wheelbarrow full of achievements and unlockables, and you’ve got quite a driving game here. Perhaps the best bit, though, is the fully formed online mode. This allows you to quickly access casual or ranked games, with a choice of non-contact racing or full contact for the brave who are prepared to be used as a brake on sharp corners by their opponents.
There are certainly some idiots around, as ever, but at least Dirt 2 flags up players who behave like demolition derby drivers with an angry red skull, so you can easily identify them and choose to find another session. The game’s online population seems thriving, and the lag beast is kept well tamed: we only came across the occasional lagged and ghosting opponent. A full range of leaderboards rounds off the multiplayer experience, with time trial leagues to prove who’s the best in the world against the clock.
Oh, and we must mention the soundtrack, too. Any game which includes Queens of the Stone Age and Scars on Broadway in its music library gets top marks in our book. Dirt 2 provides some great rock and indie stuff to listen to while you’re waiting for races to load up.