A racing game is about balancing the desire to slam the gas and rocket ahead at full speed while knowing when to cut off that wonderful feeling in time to make a tight turn. Wait too long, and you’ll be spinning out or worse—just another another wreck to dodge. Sometimes additions can be made to the formula like Burnout: Paradise’s open city or Mario Kart’s power-ups, but the core design is still about negotiating turns with speed. DiRT2 is a strong addition to the genre with only a few minor problems that generally can be resolved by can be turning off a feature or that only apply more to beginners than they do to veterans of racing games.
The game allows you to create your own persona to participate in racing events around the globe. I wouldn’t actually even call this a rally game, instead, that’s just one type of racing style amongst many. A race style called domination, for example, involves four mini-races on the same track with the winner being determined by the car with the best position overall. Trailblazer is an off-road style where you move on and off road, adjusting driving style for each surface. As you race, you win cash and gain experience, which gives you access to new vehicles and courses. Courses occasionally repeat but will do so only in a different style of racing. The setup works. You’ll find yourself hopping around to different exotic locations, choosing a racing style that you enjoy in order to grind out money and experience or giving that one course that gives you trouble another go. Progress far enough and you eventually open up the X-Games, which are several races strung together for a big pay-off. Handling and physics can be adjusted through the game’s difficulty along with AI. Set to easy, and the physics are fairly forgiving. You can whip around a turn while barely tapping the brakes. Crank it up and the game will expect you to drive more conservatively along with giving all of your opponents have Speedracer level driving skills.
Racing games usually have get an easy pass when it comes to providing pretty scenery and graphics. You don’t have to worry about the player staring too long at backgrounds when they are focused on the cars, but even by those standards, DiRT2 is gorgeous. The mountains of Croatia, Malaysian jungles, and Chinese rice fields are all rendered beautifully as you tear around the course. Some courses are based on real fields while others involve gritty, modified cityscapes like in Tokyo or London. Like the racing styles, the game keeps things varied and interesting in each setting.
The most interesting addition to the racing formula is the rewind ability, which allows you to turn back the clock if you total your car. Except that it doesn’t really work all that well. Unlike Prince of Persia, in which rewinding twenty seconds can put you back into a safe position, in a racing game ten seconds often isn’t going to help. If you misjudged the turn and are hitting it at an excessive speed, rewinding to the point when you’re just approaching the turn is too late. You don’t have enough time to brake or change your approach. The problem is magnified by the fact that you can only use rewind if you wreck your car. Often a turn won’t end with you wrecking, just spinning out or getting turned around in the mud. You’ve still effectively just lost since victory is decided by fractions of a second, but instead of being able to rewind time, you have to restart the race. The rewind only kicks in if the wreck is total, not whenever you want. The point of the design is to make it so the game is more fluid and forgiving, but instead, it usually ends up just being an irritating recap of your mistakes.
The in-game dialogue and characterization is also a bit misplaced. For a game that has you racing in Colin McRae’s old car at the start, it’s a noticeably American line-up that you race against. Some of the writing is just silly like, “Welcome to Croatia! People like to race hard here” but it starts to get dysfunctional during actual play. When you ram or wreck another car, your opponents will calmly intone “Don’t worry about it” or “You’re going to pay for that”. This lack of emotive expressiveness disconnects the game from reality at times because I’m pretty sure someone like Ken Block would be cussing me out for edging his car into a boulder instead of just mildly stating, “Watch it”. This strangeness reached hilarious levels during one race when I sent Dave Mirra to his death by knocking him off a cliff and he asked, “Did you mean to do that?” He even made buddies with me afterwards. Turning these voices off is an option, but it also turns off your co-pilot during rally events. You get used to relying on the map since most of the events don’t offer a co-pilot anyways, but the need for advice when making tight turns and evaluating speed is necessary for the rally courses, making this a weighted choice.
I was thoroughly out of my league for online play, but most of the single-player transitions over. Aggressive ramming can be turned off so that when a car collides with you it turns transparent, and you keep racing. There is no split-screen, which is a travesty, so racing with a buddy can only happen if they have their own copy.
Other features in the game exist but mostly seem transient. There is a buddy system to allow you to team up in events with your favorite racer, but I never really understood how it worked. There is no complex upgrade or modification system, you just choose different cars based on speed, acceleration, and driveability. By all accounts, it’s a simpler and better designed racing game than DiRT, offering more variety and options that cater to a wider audience. If you like racing games, you’ll like DiRT2.