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DiRT 2 (Xbox 360) artwork

DiRT 2 (Xbox 360) review

"Rare is a racer so well wrought from start to finish."

The sounds of spraying gravel and frantically called pace notes echo in my living room. It's two in the morning, and I'm flinging my favorite Subaru through a forest in rural Croatia, deftly avoiding trees, rocks, and spectators alike. The smile on my face is growing by the second.

Way back when I was a teenager, a friend of mine introduced me to rally racing by way of his enthusiasm for all things four-wheeled and fast. Since that fateful moment I've tried every game adaptation I could get my hands on, starting with the old Colin Mcrae titles. Codemasters' DiRT 2 is their latest title to bear the Macrae name, and even though it's not strictly a rally game, it manages to hold an almost perfect line all the way through.

DiRT 2 starts off with a monstrously huge career mode, playable in six different difficulty levels with five different types of events. Rallies are traditional off-road races with a co-driver calling out pace notes (a series of annotations of the course ahead) and staggered starts. Trailblazer races ditch the co-driver in favor of quick reactions and course memorization. Rallycross events include a whole field of opponents at the starting line and laps around mixed pavement and dirt courses.

Climbing into trucks and buggies will get you access to Landrush and Raid events, with Raids taking place over a few laps of a track and Landrushes being a simultaneously started truck-based rally. Things can get pretty hectic in these events, with other drivers smashing about in SUVs, trucks, and buggies like they're in a demolition derby. It's a pretty big change of pace from the measured tension of the rally events, which brings some good variety to the campaign.

Three modes of racing help to mix things up even more. Gate Crasher is a solo rally that starts each driver with a certain amount of time, which ticks backwards. Maintaining a good line and smashing into gates will keep the clock from running out, with the highest finishing time winning. Domination and Last Man Standing can either take place on Rallycross or Raid tracks, with Domination awarding the fastest times within individual sections of the track and Last Man Standing eliminating the slowest competitor one at a time, every twenty seconds. Domination seemed to play mostly like any other lapped race to me, especially since it awards points for finishing order, but Last Man Standing could get pretty interesting, particularly when an elimination came on one of my weaker sections of a track.

There's great tension in DiRT 2's races, owing partly to the structure of rallies in general, but also to the fantastic course design and difficulty curve. Every track has some do-or-die moments, and quite a few of the locations are long strings of nothing but. (I'm looking at you, Croatia!) Individual countries of the world all feel distinct in both environment and execution. From the mountainous, winding rallies in China to the long stretches of barren desert in Utah, each race is lovingly rendered and unique.

Given that the campaign is so engaging, I have to wonder at Codemaster's decision to include a levelling treadmill and Call of Duty inspired "Missions" that reward chunks of experience for drifting a certain amount, driving on two wheels, and the like. Even the unlockable dashboard/mirror gadgets and car liveries (paint schemes) feel a bit tacked-on, with only a few options each and no real effect on gameplay. Car upgrades would have been the way to go, here. They would add a much-needed "CaRPG" element to the DiRT series, and give the player a much more rewarding grind than just some visual doo-dads.

If the five different events, three special modes, nine different locations, and unlockable gimmicks aren't enough meat to sink your teeth into, DiRT 2 has a full-featured online mode, complete with its own independent leveling system and custom game lobbies. Unfortunately, I found the ranked multiplayer a bit difficult to enjoy, thanks mostly to a lobby system that allows you to join races in progress. I spent more time waiting in those lobbies than I did behind the wheel, which is never a recipe for a fun multiplayer experience. Still, if you're willing to put the time in, there's even more game to be had here, and a party of racing buddies will find the custom games particularly enjoyable.

In both single and multi-player games, the most consistent quality of DiRT 2 is the graphical presentation. This game is gorgeous, with a vibrant color palette reminiscent of an energy drink label, but without the gaudy aesthetic. For that, we turn to the cars themselves, which can range from visually subtle tributes to the late Colin Mcrae to garish pink monstrosities complete with "z"- laden pluralizations and horrifying spoilers. The over-the-top nature of the cars works fantastically in tandem with the aforementioned scenery. They've got just enough pop to keep your eyes interested without rolling them back in your head.

You'll need to keep your eyes on the (lack of a) road as much as possible, though, because DiRT 2 will happily send you careening down a mountainside if you're not paying attention. The Flashback feature from GRID makes a timely appearance and promises to alleviate some headaches, but it doesn't hurt the wonderfully executed difficulty curve of the overall game. DiRT 2 grows with players very well, providing a good mix of challenge and reward with uncanny consistency. Rare is a racer so well wrought from start to finish.

Like any other game that approaches perfection, the best parts of DiRT 2 can also serve to illuminate its flaws. Thankfully, these little dings and dents are few and far between, but they bear mention regardless. First (and foremost), the variety in cars is sorely lacking. Even with a total of 35 vehicles across all the different disciplines, too many of the cars feel similar for my taste, and many are actually just different versions of the same thing. I count at least four Impreza WRXs and three Evos in my garage. Driver AI is a bit cookie-cutter as well; every opponent in a race will try to take the same line through a turn unless it's somehow blocked off to them. This really starts to show on multiple-lap courses and in events like Raid, Rallycross, and Last Man Standing where the player can easily take advantage of the slower sections in the AI's routine.

Still, the core of any driving game is the racing itself, and DiRT 2 has arcade-inspired bliss by the truckload. It would be a shame to let any of the less-than-stellar elements of this game detract from the sheer joy you get piloting a turbocharged hatchback through the back country at over a hundred miles per hour. DiRT 2 not only succeeds masterfully in delivering the fun of off-road racing to your living room, it does so with style and character all its own.


frankaustin's avatar
Freelance review by Frank Austin (October 07, 2009)

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