I had always avoided racing games involving 'Rally' in them. For the most part I always got frustrated when playing them because there was little room for failure when it came to over compensating a turn or bumping into a vehicle. Basically, I blame Sega Rally for most of my distasteful woes towards this genre of racing. Sega's popular Rally game brought confusion, cursing and eventually the throwing of one's controller.
Enter Dirt 2 into my gaming equation. Dirt 2 is a Codemasters published, Ego developed title that helps me forget that I ever hated this type of racing.
Wow, that's deep
Starting off with gameplay, Dirt 2 doesn't redefine how Rally is done, but rather it sort of revises it. The first thing you'll notice in the game is how incredibly easy it is to control your vehicle. You've got R2 as your accelerator and L2 as your brake. For a Playstation 3 experience these buttons are nothing short of comfortable when you have to intensely walk the line with your driving skills. Maneuvering the vehicles in the game is nearly perfect. You don't experience much drifting or delay; rather you are given complete control over the vehicle with a bit of computer help to keep you on track. That doesn't mean that you can't screw it all up and run into a wall, but it does mean that if you sneezed during gameplay your car/truck won't be taking a giant leap off the road. You have complete control over your vehicle using the right thumbstick; the process isn't oversensitive. Now when you occur damage in the game, this all changes.
Once you start bumping into vehicles, or slamming into walls, you'll find that the vehicle is much harder to control. Credit Ego's dev team for taking the time to perfect this process. I had always wondered in racing games why a car that collects damage wasn't affected properly during driving. It would only make logical sense that if your car slammed into a wall the steering and alignment would be severely off. So many games throughout video game history really failed to do this sort of 'next step' when a vehicle gets damaged. I know that Gran Turismo never really got into that side of the game; neither did Sega Rally. It was refreshing to see that Ego went beyond just simply making dents on the body or having a windshield brake. They took damage to the car/truck onto a wholly other plateau; one that this reviewer certainly welcomes.
Speaking of damage, during gameplay should you befall the worst and slide off the side of a hill or smash your car to oblivion (or both), the game allows you to use a flash back. The flash back permits you to rewind the game to a specified user point and have another instant crack at avoiding total carnage. Literally, you will rewind the replay of your car/truck going off the road or smashing up and restart at an earlier point in the race. Flash backs are limiting, but they are very useful, especially if you have messed up towards the end of a race.
Shifting gears here (no pun intended) you will find a wonderful leveling system. Harking back to Gran Turismo's already established system of metals (Gold, silver, bronze, tope, etc.) how you place in a race dictates how many experience points you obtain (XP). Earning XP earns you more unlocked racing events and countries (which, I'll get to in a second) and creates a deeper experience in the game. There's nothing quite like getting motivated to win more races that equals out to more rewards. For the standard racing game you don't see this a lot. For me, this particular point is what drives me (no pun intended) to play Gran Turismo religiously. The leveling system also drives me to play Dirt 2 just as much.
Outside of leveling, you also get rewarded for winning races. You can earn more 'Liveries' (more vehicles to choose from), more 'unlockables' (such as fuzzy dice and different car horn sounds) and more events to attend (X-Games anyone?). You're basically doubling up on your motivation to complete and continue the game. There's nothing more outstanding than a game that can properly motivate you. The first day I couldn't put this game down due to the leveling and winning. Watching Japan open up with four races before your eyes is something that keeps you going in a lowly car racing game.
Nothing wrong with a little showmanship
What really makes me thrilled about this game, outside of what I just mentioned, is how the game is presented. The menu system is simplistic in structure and complex in artistic flavor. The entire menu is built around a trailer that your character resides in. Outside of the trailer you can choose your car/truck, purchase more vehicles or modify your current ones. Inside your trailer you have a map laid out for you that keeps track of what countries and events you're allowed to attend. The fluid nature of the menu (going back and forth, inside/out) is something Ego can be proud of. As you tour countries, the outside changes to reflect the country's atmosphere and weather. If you're in a cold part of the world you'll find a few people warming themselves up by a barrel fire. Things like this shape the personality of the game and give it a little bit more depth.
The biggest plus for Dirt 2 is the vehicle design and environments. The vehicles are some of the prettiest that I've had the pleasure of seeing on a next gen console. I've played GT5: Prologue and a few other racing titles and none have compared to this one. I'm not saying that Gran Turismo 5 isn't going to look as good or better, but to this day there is nothing quite as sweet as seeing the vehicles in Dirt 2. They are so alive with both design and physics. When you're racing down a dirt track and you hit a bump, the car reacts with a bounce and tries to steady it. When you're zooming around the corner, you'll find your tires digging into the dirt and kicking it up. All the right moments mixed with all the right graphical looks equals a visual racing experience like no other. Speaking of visuals, the environments are freaking huge! From cities to out in the country area, you'll find endless landscapes mixed with very 'alive' surroundings. For example, Japan looks like Japan. A packed city of Shibuya with foggy air, detailed buildings and a live crowd; there's not much else to expect from Japan other than this.
Another impressive aspect of the game is the cast of players. Ken Block and other racers appear in the game quite frequently (even in races) and help you figure out the best route to take when you're trying to build up your racing resume. What's even cooler about this, besides the insane amount of voice-overs, is how they give you a chance to come race one-on-one with them to earn extra points. What's even deeper about the notion of racing one-on-one is that if you beat them then you befriend them and they help you get into other races. There are endless possibilities with this type of game.
Now, the only knock I have with how this game is presented is the loading time. It's slightly annoying to wait more than 20-30 seconds after accessing a raceway. In hindsight that's not bad, but for a game that demands so much hard drive space that's slightly unacceptable. If you're going to take 3993mb of HDD, then the loading times have to get faster. I can't even imagine how fast this wouldn't be without the HDD option.
So is it fun?
Are you kidding me? Did I really type that? Despite the loading times, the game is nothing short of excellent. You'll want to keep racing and you'll want to constantly get better with timing/position. One of the greater aspects of this game is the online mode, which places you head-to-head with other racers with the possibility of earning XP and ranking. You can play 2-8 players at a time online (too bad it isn't more) and there is barely any lag whatsoever. What's even better is that it's free on PSN (sorry XBL folk!).
Online aside, this game is nothing short of a blast. It's well worth the $59.99 to experience this amount of depth offline and online. With an insane amount of vehicles to choose from, a large amount of tracks to win, events like X-Games included in the game, there's nothing really to complain about. Dirt 2 has everything you want in a rally race-esque type game and nothing you didn't want (such as crappy controls and poor presentation).