As someone who spent their high school years playing the Gran Turismo series on the PlayStation One, I can safely say that I'm burnt out from the repetitive nature of the hardcore racing sim. Going through a hundred hours of hardcore physics and minute car tuning hasn't really changed since the glory days of Gran Turismo 2, and I don't think I'm the only one who has lost interest in the genre. Still, there are few things in human nature more natural than timed competition to the finish line. It's for this reason that I've become a big fan of Codemasters' series of middle-of-the-road racing sims that emphasize fun and slight realism over overbearing simulation. Dirt 2, as a rally racer, is a welcome addition to this subgenre of racing games.
Dirt 2 kicks off when you're introduced to your main hub through the career mode: your RV. From this RV, you can purchase new cars, enter races from many locations around the world, hit up some multiplayer, and adjust difficulty levels. The three dimensional presentation merely teases the superb presentation that permeates every pore of the game. After a quick introduction from a fellow rally racer to the ins and outs of the game, you're given your first car, a Subaru Impreza that was driven by the late rally legend, Colin McRae. From here, you can enter your first races. Win a few races, and you'll gain experience RPG style, which allows you unlock races in various locales around the world.
It's obvious from the first starting line that this is a polished racing experience focused on fun and loose physics, but nothing as arcadey as say, the Need for Speed series (with the exception of shift). Dirt 2 features an intimidating level of speed, and if you decide to play in the first person cockpit view, you'll probably need to check your shorts for skidmarks. Much like Grid before it, smashing into obstacles at 180 MPH doesn't mean you're out of the race. Dirt 2 allows you to rewind as much as 30 seconds of the race to try and take that tricky corner again. When you adjust the difficulty, you get fewer rewinds per race, and the later 8 or so lap endurance races will have you using your rewinds judiciously. Hardcore racing fans will want to crank the difficulty to the point where rewinding is no longer an option. At any rate, the rewind function is great for checking out the admittedly awesome wrecks from various angles.
The varying difficulty levels mean that anybody can pick up a controller and enjoy Dirt 2. Whether you're the hardest core of racing fans or picking up a controller for the first time ever, Dirt 2 has feels like it has been programmed with you in mind.
The cars themselves feel weighty and satisfying, but without feeling like unresponsive bricks like in other racing sims like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport. If you've played Grid or the previous Dirt title, you'll probably have no problems jumping right into this game.
Dirt 2 doesn't allow players to fine tune their rides with parts and upgrades (aside from generic and mandatory upgrade packs to enter higher level races), but does allow for some fine tuning of things like suspension which allow you to pick acceleration over top speed or understeer over oversteer. It's pretty easy to set up your car to your driving style of choice. As your car accumulates damage throughout the race, you'll also find your car slowing down or pulling to one side, but overall the damage model is subtle when it comes to the handling of the cars themselves. You'll also notice a definite difference between the many surfaces you'll be racing on in the game, from concrete to dry dirt, to water, to mud, it all pulls your car in realistic and responsive ways.
Another major strength of Dirt 2 is the wide variety of racing modes, including straight races, timed rally races (that include a helpful co-pilot to tell you about upcoming hazards and turns), domination (which takes your average placing in each section of the track into a cumulative finish), and last man standing (which drops the last place racer as the clock continually ticks down to zero).
The game's presentation really tries to make you feel like part of a community of racing camaraderie. You'll make friends on and off the track with all the pros in the game, and they'll give you plenty of encouragement and tips as you progress through the 100 or so racing events throughout the career mode. The AI in the game reflects this camaraderie. The AI will typically follow some pretty set racing lines, but they're not above wrecking spectacularly or cutting off your attempts at squeezing into first place on a tight turn. The AI feels mostly organic, but with a touch of roboticism that plagues most racing games.
Tracks feel very well designed, with lots of tracks ranging from breezy to vicious. Whether racing in the jungles of Malaysia, the industrial hedonism of Japan, the canyons of Utah or the wide open dust trails of Morocco, it really feels like you're travelling around the world with the huge variety of tracks available, dozens in all.
Beyond unlocking new races and money to purchase new rides, players can also unlock liveries (which are essentially sponsorship plasterings all over your car), and toys to place on your dashboard like bobbleheads and other knick-knacks.
If multiplayer racing is your game, then Dirt 2 will be your new best friend. Multiplayer options are numerous and just as enticing as the career mode. You can select to play non contact timed races, or go all out with up to eight racers on the track at once. I found the competition online to be vicious and cutthroat, but I appreciated the fact that multiplayer was based far more on driving skill than simply having a faster car than everyone else. It's a shame that there was no split screen multiplayer though.
Dirt 2 finds itself near the top of the graphical heap when it comes to racing titles this generation. The cars are wonderfully lit and modelled, and get appropriately dirty (if you're good) or smashed to pieces (if you're like me). The tracks themselves are outstandingly put together, with tons of little details that you'll undoubtedly miss as you scroll past at breakneck speed, but you'll appreciate when watching the replays. Even more impressive is that game never suffers any noticeable frame rate hitches or screen tearing. Dirt 2 is a beautiful game that could very well represent the new standard for visuals in a racing game.
Audio doesn't fare nearly as well. Both in and out of race comments from your fellow racers get repetitive quickly, and the voice acting sounds rather uninterested. There is no music during the races, which I found rather odd, but it was nothing that a few custom soundtracks couldn't fix (at least in the Xbox version). At least the engine noises all sound appropriate and throaty, and crashes will have your neighbours cursing that fancy subwoofer of yours.
If you have any interest at all in rally racing, then Dirt 2 is simply a must play. Even if your interests in the racing genre lie in other disciplines, you'd still likely do well to give Dirt 2 a try. By combining fantastic presentation with impressive racing action, Dirt 2 could very well be the sleeper victor in a very crowded genre.