Following the tragic passing of rally legend Colin McRae in 2007, it was uncertain whether the videogame franchise first started on the PlayStation and PC way back in 1998 would continue to bear his name. With Colin McRae: DiRT 2, Codemasters has wisely decided to retain the moniker and license, choosing to drop subtle tributes to the man himself where appropriate. More crucially though, this is the first McRae title to lack his unique influence and input, which is why it’s all the more astounding that DiRT 2 is as accomplished a racing game as it is currently shaping up to be.
With the finished product a mere month away from release, we’d normally be gearing up for a review but instead we’ve managed to get our grubby mitts upon some tantalising preview code. What we’ve been given is a glimpse at the in-depth career mode, which takes place entirely from a first-person perspective, immersing you in the energetic build up to a race.
Head-to-head tussles are all part and parcel of DiRT 2’s energetic off-road racing experience.
Outrageous jumps are always fun to pull off. Just be careful with your landing.
From the very moment you set foot into DiRT 2’s extreme racing world - where former BMX and Motocross stars rub shoulders and wheels in frantic competition for the chequered flag - the atmosphere is bolstered enormously by constant chatter between you and your rivals. You’re asked to input your name and details into a form in your own private trailer, before choosing an audio tag for your name (in our case ‘Rich’ is a perfect fit) so that your racing buddies and contenders can directly shout at you whenever you smash into them during a tussle. Which will be often, believe us.
You’re then given Colin McRae’s old Subaru Impreza STi, in a nice nod to the titular rally icon. As an introduction to DiRT 2 it’s both a fitting homage and perfect beginning. So with your own ride and a map laid out in your trailer, you’re ready to pick where you want to race from multiple locations all over the world. Your first race, the ‘Battersea Blast’ in London is a standard two-lap affair against seven other rivals to get you started. You can select the level of difficulty from easy, casual, serious, savage, extreme and hardcore as well as the effect collision damage has upon your vehicle at the beginning of each race. You can also choose if you’d like the option of tweaking your car’s set-up, which we’d heartily recommend since it adds an extra layer of depth and strategy.
You can adjust several different aspects of the car’s performance depending upon the type of track you’re racing on, so loose suspension and a higher ride height is better suited to rough terrain and shorter gearshifts mean you’ll accelerate faster around winding tracks with fewer straights. As far as tuning options go, there’s less depth than some previous McRae titles or indeed a detailed simulation like Gran Turismo or Forza. Still, Codies are to be applauded for coming up with a system that strikes a happy medium between petrolhead obsession and casual car enthusiast.
Several sliders make it simplicity itself to alter the various components of your vehicle, from the differential to the brake bias; all of the vital stuff is accounted for. While there’s little clue as to what sort of track you’re preparing your ride for beyond the video footage looping behind the menu, being able to restart the race instantly, free of lengthy loading times, makes experimenting with and eventually finding the optimum set-up a process that’s happily free of frustration.
Nonetheless, we’re not entirely sure why a readout of track statistics before each race isn’t included to help inform your decisions when getting your car ready. It would completely remove the need to keep restarting in order to simply test yet another configuration. Past McRae titles have had the foresight to include this feature, so were we writing this preview further from the impending release date we could speculate that Codies might see fit to add this once more for DiRT 2. However, September 11th is pretty close now, so it’s hard to see how they can possibly cram it in with so little development time left.
It’s an incredibly minor niggle and as we’ve already mentioned, its non-inclusion does little to detract from the overall excellence of the game. The same superlative driving model from the first DiRT lets you throw your car around the tracks with reckless abandon while providing plenty of feedback to make this the closest you can get to driving an actual rallying monster without leaving the comfort of your sofa.
Although you can write off your car, it's not the end. Select instant replay and you can flashback to an earlier section. You normally get three flashbacks per race playing on the "serious" difficulty.
Rally time trials aren't the only racing events on offer. You also get to race rugged trucks across treacherous, sandy terrain where a sheer drop off a cliff edge is never far away.
Presentation throughout is uniformly slick too, even if it does err too close to the ‘gnarly’, Americanised extreme sports style that now seems to characterise the series. Globetrotting from London to Japan, Baja, Morocco and Croatia means there’s plenty of variety in the races and the consistent reward of XP and money for finishing races means there’s always more than ample incentive and propulsion to keep on racing. Levelling up unlocks extra races, new liveries and tongue-in-cheek accessories (awesome fuzzy dice, anyone?) to keep you hooked, so there’s always something to do.
It’s tough to resist breaking out the superlatives to give a decisive review right now for DiRT 2. There’s more than enough evidence in the preview code we’ve played to suggest that this has all the flair and panache we’ve come to expect from the franchise, building upon an IP that has come to represent the very best in off-road racing games. And almost every off-road discipline is catered for, from point-to-point endurance to time trials, rally and beyond. So get your pre-orders in now people, because this is without doubt, racing at its most sublime.