"Rallying as a global sport has changed," says Matt Horsman, chief game designer on DiRT 2. Standing as we are in blazing sunshine by the rooftop pool of a hotel in downtown LA, cocktails in hand, it's hard to disagree. It's a world away from the nipple-hardening winds, soggy sandwiches and desolate dawns of a Euro rally.
Which is the traditional style of rallying Codemasters first exploited over a decade ago with the endorsement and assistance of a fearless Scottish pro racer called Colin McRae. DiRT 2 is the latest title to bear his name, albeit posthumously now, following his untimely death in a helicopter accident in 2007.
It's the final weekend of July and LA's Home Depot Centre is hosting X Games XV, extreme sports' insurance-nightmare Olympics for bikes, boards and bangers. This is the third year rally racing has featured, and the first year Codemasters has included the X Games in its flagship racing series. Which has gone down like a slashed tyre amongst some hardcore McRae fans, if reaction to the announcement in forums is anything to go by, with accusations of dumbing down, Americanisation and such bandied around biliously.
But, Horsman maintains, not only does this reflect rally's evolution and growing prominence, particularly in the US, it was also driven in no small part by McRae himself. His astounding roll and recovery in the final of X Games XII gave rally its big box-office moment in the US. On a more mundane level, it's a simple business decision for Codemasters, which wants to make more money Stateside - prior to the original DiRT, sales were declining year-on-year.
But in the face of strong criticism - the ferocity of which has taken the developer by surprise - Horsman moves to reassure. "In the game, the European fans shouldn't worry too much because we've got a lot of traditional rallying," he says. "Staggered starts, eight cars on-track at a time, traditional tracks like Croatia, the Malaysian jungle. DiRT covers all bases. Extreme sports, super special style, traditional stuff - it's five o'clock in the morning and you are racing pretty much alone through a forest." How are those nipples looking?
This weekend is all about the X Games, however, and the new wave of McRae-inspired stars like Ken Block, Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra, competing for medals on the real track and in the game. Codemasters is unveiling its X Games content - and multiplayer - with the pro drivers along for the ride (for a full report on the event and the X Games, look out for an EGTV show later today).
The rally course at the X Games is predictably built with an ADD-ridden TV audience in mind. The blockbuster moment is a 70ft do-or-die jump across the centre of the Home Depot Centre stadium which each driver tackles once on alternate laps. There's an optimal speed to hit the slope and precious little margin for error: there are no McRae rolls during this year's competition, but body parts are blasted to oblivion and bumpers torn from bodywork with anything less than a perfect landing.
It's these make-or-break milliseconds that manufacture most of the drama in the race, and it's captured with flair in DiRT 2's fictional homage, the Estada Del Ray stadium, based in the Marina Del Ray area of Los Angeles.
Testy chicanes and dirt surfaces are complemented by zippy tarmac sections between expansive, twisting bends that test both resolve and reflexes. Close to the end of the circuit, a perilously tight corner snaps suddenly into a short straight leading into a ramp which, hit at speed, launches your car up, up and away; then down, down and.... And, either you make it and lurch forward with a victorious surge; or the car angles absurdly and flings you into a clown roll that wrecks your race.
As with the Home Depot Centre jump, the line between success and failure is agonisingly fine: screw up the lead-in corner and you won't build enough speed; come out of it wide and your jump angle will whip you off at a tangent. On the one hand, yes, it's just a jump in a racing game. Big deal. But its dramatic potential is fully realised by the precision afforded by the driving model, and a seasoned awareness that not all jumps are created equal. Block, who knows a thing or two about jumping in cars, closely advised Codemasters on angling this one to create the kind of game-changing moment with which real drivers are painfully familiar.
That's a lot of words on a single in-game jump. But it's a jump which, throughout an afternoon's play, duly causes disproportionate waves of frustration, joy, despair, agony and excitement. Mainly the agony and despair bits in my case, if I'm honest. And this is particularly apparent during the media multiplayer tournament, where no race is settled before the final jump, feeding the hopes of the trailing pack, while breeding doubt in the leader's mind.
Beyond the LA stadium we try, the X Games discipline forms a big chunk of the career mode. Its aim is to tease you with the exploits of the sport's fanciest show ponies, encouraging you to work your way up to challenge rally's new superstars.
So before you even get to race, you're shown a video of Block and Pastrana 'avin' it large in the final of the US X Games. To get there you must battle through the European leg, with a final at the visually stunning Battersea Power Station circuit in sarf London. Succeed and your entourage shifts to Asia, climaxing in a race around downtown Tokyo against the likes of Tanner Foust and Dave Mirra, the forerunner to the grand finale in Los Angeles against the big guns. "It's you trying to get the gold rather than watching those guys on TV," Horsman explains.
More than just the addition of a new discipline and new locations, the X Games has informed the design of the entire front end of the game. As detailed in our E3 preview, the previous menu-based system has been ditched in favour of a coherent and consistent world that is meant to make the player feel more immersed in the game and more "emotionally attached", as Codemasters has it, to the cars themselves.
So wherever you go to race in the world, your trailer comes with you and pitches. And shifting between menus and modes also involves switching between areas in your base camp. Outside is where you select cars; inside is where you choose circuits, styles, check on leaderboards and stats and so on, with updates on the movements of both AI racers and your mates communicated via magazine reports. It may not be the fastest way possible to navigate, but it's slick enough and visually compelling.
Four-player races over system link are great fun. And while we're limited to trying out just a handful of multiplayer races at the event, every mode in the final version will be fully playable online. Codemasters wants to please everyone. Pro Tour Mode is meant to service the hardcore, with game-selected circuits and anti-cheat methods implemented; Jam Session is for lightweight Sunday drivers, where the player hosts and can pick where, when and what to race; and private sessions, Party Play and Team Play are also supported.
In single-player there are 100 events across nine racing disciplines, including Rally, Rally X and Trailblazer. "Over 40 licensed vehicles" feature, reckons Horsman, including the Subaru STi used by Block and Pastrana, the Mitsubishi Evo 10, Class 1 buggies and trophy trucks.
Nevertheless, Codemasters would sooner the player be a one-car kinda guy than an insatiable, bonnet-humping speed slut. So you are encouraged to build an attachment and expertise in a single vehicle which you can keep for the full duration of career mode, and the game showers you with amusing tat to clutter up the dashboard, like furry dice, hula girls and - in a neat touch exclusive to 360 owners - your avatar dangling from the wing mirror, all visible using the in-car view.
DiRT 2 is gorgeous in motion, whether thrashing around Battersea Power Station after dark as fireworks bloom, spotlights swirl, lasers criss-cross and thousands of spectators (up to 100,000 per course) roar you along beneath the amplified ravings of a DJ, or you're zipping through the tight lanes of a deserted Asian idyll with mountains looming in the distance.
Car handling has been reworked from scratch, Codemasters says. This was apparently in response to criticism from the community, with a particular focus on ensuring there isn't such a dramatic loss of speed when sliding sideways through turns. Its hard to gauge how much has changed without putting the sequel and original side-by-side, but with DiRT 2 the third game from the same team (after DiRT and GRID), these guys are amongst the best in the business at core driving mechanics.
As to whether it's a realistic experience, the ultimate compliment is perhaps Ken Block's aptitude when racing like a racer rather than a game. Moreover, Codemasters claims that at a recent event where the game was linked up to ludicrously expensive hydraulic racing simulator, the professional rally drivers beat everyone else by a significant margin.
A feather in the cap for Codemasters, for sure. But if you don't sniff petrol for kicks, what matters is that it's fun, responsive and an undoubtedly positive experience during the first couple of hours of play.
But thrilling moments, slick presentation and a robust driving model are only part of the equation. They need to be matched by effective balance and pacing in the meat of the game's single-player mode, in both progression and engagement with other drivers, of which the studio is making a big deal. And we can't call that until we've dug deep into a review build, so hang tight. Impressive in practice, let's hope DiRT 2 makes a clean jump in the final.
DiRT 2 is out on PS3, 360, PSP, DS and Wii on 11th September, with a PC version due later in the year.