It was almost exactly two years ago that rally driving champion Colin McRae was killed in a helicopter crash, but despite his untimely death, his name lives on in Dirt 2, Codemasters’ latest off-road racer.
The Colin McRae Rally series spans over a decade, but Dirt 2 – just as with Dirt in 2007 – veers away from pure rallying and heads out into the wilds of extreme off-road racing, including rally cross (circuit racing with a mixture of tarmac and gravel), point-to-point landrush events, ‘throwdown’ challenges against one other driver, last-man-standing races and gatecrasher, where you drive through barriers against the clock. Of course, proper rally stages are kept in the mix for good measure.
As with Codemasters’ previous games, such as Race Driver: Grid, you play the part of the aspiring racer, with cheery cut-scenes throughout the proceedings to link the races. You make an auspicious start by being handed the keys to the late McRae’s No Fear Subaru Impreza, and you jump straight into racing at London’s disused Battersea power station.
Big off-road names such as Ken Block and Travis Pastrana soon crop up, and you end up jet-setting around the globe to compete in events in the USA, Morocco, Japan, Malaysia, Croatia and China. Each venue hosts multiple disciplines, so there’s rarely a moment to get bored. Each race earns you cash, and XP. You’ll need XP to level up to unlock the various locations and extras like vehicle liveries and dashboard toys. Cash, meanwhile, will buy you new cars and upgrades.
You get to drive around 35 or more diverse vehicles and when it comes to on-track action, Dirt 2 is simply fantastic. You can choose how involved you get with the car’s setup (or not at all), and whether the car’s in-race damage is purely cosmetic or actually affects the car’s handling. However, be under no illusions that Dirt 2 is a simulation; this is a casual affair that mixes the crashes and slow-motion from Burnout with the mobile phone chats from Grand Theft Auto. Damage doesn’t noticeably affect the car’s performance, and won’t prevent you driving in a straight line. If you do total it in a moment of bad judgement, you’ll be offered a Flashback (an idea lifted straight from Race Driver: Grid) which lets you rewind time by a few seconds and have another go at that overtaking manoeuvre.
That’s not to say that Dirt 2 isn’t enjoyable, though. No matter what your driving skills are like, there’s a difficulty level to suit. Codemasters worked closely with pros like Ken Block to ensure that each discipline was realistic, and that cars had a ‘weight’ to them. We’re not convinced they entirely succeeded in their task, as vehicles still tended to roll without persuasion and turned as if mounted on a spindle through the centre of the car. Nevertheless, once you’ve got the hang of handbrake turns, it’s supremely satisfying to execute the perfects drifts round tight corners and spray the crowd with mud at hairpins.
If there’s one other minor complaint, it’s that the rally events tend to be single-stage races, lacking the pressure of older titles like Colin McRae Rally 2.0, where you needed to shave a few tenths off each sector in each repeat run to eventually win the rally. At least there’s an option to switch the basic instructions shouted through your earpiece from your co-driver to the technical pace notes enthusiasts would otherwise miss.
Visually, though, Dirt 2 looks stunning, and we love the way the colours momentarily split into their component red, green and blue parts when you crash. The way your vehicle becomes progressively more dirty and damaged is also a treat to watch. Sound, too, is impressive, with Codemasters’ samples of the real-world cars proving worthwhile. The constant banter between drivers during a race is a little odd, and mostly cheesy, but it does help to link the cut-scenes with the races.
Disappointingly, there’s no split-screen multiplayer, but the online modes – especially domination – are excellent. Up to eight players can race against each other and the Online Jam mode lets you race anyone with any car on any track.
You might want to turn the emo/screamo soundtrack down after a while, but Dirt 2 is one of the most enjoyable racers we’ve played for a while, and deserves a place in your games collection.