Version tested: PlayStation 3
Taking the beloved Colin McRae franchise into the murky mainstream was always going to bloody a few noses, but few would dispute that Codemasters has done so with a certain amount of panache. By turning the serious business of rally driving into an exciting, glitzy, multi-discipline showcase, it opened up the brand to a wider (read: American) audience while retaining the core challenge and refined design that made the series such a success in the first place.
Having built on that success with the benchmark-setting Race Driver GRID, expectation leading up to the release of DiRT 2 has been justifiably high - if tempered by the frowning hardcore, who still loudly bemoan the series' wholesale surrender to the lure of the Yankee dollar.
Certainly, the influence of the consistently excellent Race Driver is everywhere in DiRT 2 - most notably in the adoption of its 'flashback' mechanic, where pausing and rewinding a short section of the race allows players the freedom to instantly rectify mistakes. For some, this will represent the final straw; one concession too many to neutering the challenge for an attention-deficit audience that has no truck with such old-fashioned notions as practice, skill and persistence. On the other hand, removing unwanted repetition reduces game rage no end. Just think about the trauma you'll be sparing your loved ones. And pets. And pads.
Codies has also improved the front end no end, and goes much further in trying to make you feel part of the race-day proceedings. Rather than presenting the action with simple tiered menus, the game places you right at the heart of the event in a 3D representation of your surroundings. Moving between menus sweeps you around your motorhome in first person, flitting between your career 'planner', posters on the wall and your desk. Once you've made your selection, you move outside to face the cheering throng and the rock music throb. Choose your ride, and the event gets underway for real.
There are nine contrasting, globe-spanning locations: you flit between the barren rock of Utah and the lush tropical climes of Malaysia, while also roaring around makeshift circuits set in the skeletal remains of London's iconic Battersea Power Station. With urban stadiums in LA and Tokyo complementing the more traditional rural rallying in Croatia, China and Morocco, there's certainly no lack of variety.
Likewise, the off-road variety of the events themselves remains a key part of the package, allowing Codemasters to consistently freshen things up with new racing disciplines and vehicle classes. Essentially split into lap-based or point-to-point events, it's a much more consistent experience this time around, with every mode genuinely enjoyable in its own right.
In total, around 100 events present themselves over the course of the game's exhaustive career mode. These start with simple one-off rookie races, before building up to multi-tier race events of Pro and All-Star rank, alongside the multi-discipline X-Game showcases and the gruelling World Tour marathons, where five races in a given race type must be ploughed through before you emerge victorious.
Traditionalists are well-served by the inclusion of a series of top-notch rally courses which show off Codies' supreme EGO engine with particular aplomb. A brace of exciting point-to-point variations will also please fans of the old style, with the new 'Trailblazer' mode removing the comfort blanket of pace-notes to tension-inducing effect. The chaotic 'Raid' mode, meanwhile, replaces rally cars with buggies and trucks, as you race seven others simultaneously across typically hazardous terrain.
Elsewhere, five lap-based modes complete the package: Rally Cross, Last Man Standing, Gate Crasher, Domination and Landrush, and unlike the original, there's barely a weak link among them. Last Man Standing, as the name implies, is a tense and riotously entertaining affair, with the driver in last place eliminated one by one, until only one remains, while Domination combines performance in each of the four lap sectors with your overall finishing place to determine the winner. Both are hardly original in the genre, but work like a charm in the context of Codemasters' super-responsive, drift-heavy handling and emphasis on speed.
Rally Cross and Landrush, meanwhile, take a more traditional race-based approach, with the latter preferring the weight and grunt of trucks and nimble buggies to the powerhouse rally cars of the former. Gate Crasher is the game's sole novelty mode, with a solo race punctuated by the need to repeatedly crash into small 'gates' to top-up a countdown clock. It does add a bit of light relief to the relentless tension you're subjected to elsewhere.
As an all-round package, DiRT 2 fits together extremely well, with palpitating progression consistently rewarded with experience points, new cars, liveries, toys and challenges at almost every turn - regardless of which skill level you decide to plump for. You never find yourself short of avenues to explore, and if you tire of any given discipline at any given point, you'll always have a bunch of other racing styles to focus on in the meantime. Codies even thoughtfully allows players to switch difficulty at any given point, with the only real penalty being the amount of cash you earn from races. Without ever feeling like you're being completely let off the hook, DiRT 2 is one of the most accessible racing games imaginable. Just as it should be, a more concerted challenge is there for those that require it, but it's never an obligation. Entertainment, however, most certainly is.
Key to this level of entertainment is the overall look and feel of the game. Handling has always been one of Codemasters' undoubted strengths throughout the evolution of its racing titles, and DiRT 2 does not disappoint in this regard. Although purists would no doubt sneer at the game's move towards the more 'arcadey' end of the spectrum, in terms of sheer pick-up-and-play accessibility, it feels like the team has again nailed that comfortable mid-point between objective realism and flat-out fun that any driving game needs. Regardless of whether you're wrestling with the contrasting demands of a Baja truck, buggy or rally car, there's always an assured sense of being in control.
Visually, too, DiRT 2 has come on leaps and bounds in the past two years, with a rewarding backdrop of contrasting tones and hues that demonstrate the progress the Stoneythorpe studio has made with its impressive EGO engine. Whether charging headlong through the cloying tropics of Malaysia or the parched desert starkness of Utah, the settings are never less than stunning. Especially noticeable this time around are the extra fine details; the beautiful lighting, the dust clouds, the lush foliage, all rendered at a rock-solid 30 frames per second. Add to that some of the most impressive crunching damage effects yet in a driving game, and you end up with a consistently satisfying spectacle.
With that in mind, it does seem strange, then, that a few features present in previous Colin McRae games are conspicuous by their absence. Varying weather conditions, for example, don't figure at all, with not a single drop of rain or flake of snow to disrupt visibility or track conditions. And although certain tracks (such as those in Malaysia) feature evidence of wet weather, Codies has made no attempt to implement track deformation. In addition, although the damage modelling effects have reached new levels of realism, the removal of the need to repair your ride between races results in a much more reckless approach to driving, knowing full well that not only does the damage have zero effect on your chances of winning a race, but that none of this damage will carry on to the next race. In this case, DiRT 2's accessibility is taken to an unwelcome extreme. The same could be said of the game's strict adherence to short, sharp, sub-four-minute races: would it have hurt to have a few epic stages towards the conclusion?
On a more positive note, Codemasters has at least taken a slightly less US-centric approach to presenting the game this time around. You might ruefully recall the nauseatingly excitable comments from Travis Pastrana in the original DiRT, which gave the game all the subtlety of a brick in the face, but this time his exuberance has been dialled down a notch, much to our relief. Elsewhere, the co-driver pace note duties are now shared between a Scot and an American, and it's much less grating on the ears as a result. Top marks, too, to the folks responsible for the rock-heavy soundtrack, which must rank as one of the least offensive we've ever heard in a racing game.
A special mention, too, should be made of the game's flexible multiplayer features. Although the absence of split-screen play is an annoyance, the online and system-link play is exceptional, and retains all of what makes the offline single-player so entertaining. Essentially, all of the game's offline event types are present and correct in the game's ranked Pro Tour online mode, so you can take on up to seven opponents in any mode in the exact same way you would offline, with team-based racing for up to four players. And for those who fancy breaking the game's rules, the unranked Jam Sessions mode allows you to tinker with all manner of elements to create your own custom race as you see fit. Want to race trucks on a rally course? Go for it. The game warns you if it thinks you're doing something silly, but the point is, it's fun to try.
Although DiRT 2 won't satisfy the hardcore's demands for a return to the serious tone of the old-school Colin McRae titles, this is nevertheless a fine sequel to an admirable title. Adding GRID's flashback feature allows the game to hit that sweet spot of accessibility without blunting its appeal, and allied to a plethora of consistently entertaining race disciplines and locations, it's an absorbing and technically accomplished experience from start to finish.
8 / 10