Let's get dirty!
At the beginning of the game, the raft of changes since the first DiRT quickly become apparent. Gone are the traditional menus, instead replaced with an interactive motor home where you choose events from a world map and view online multiplayer options on a wall chart. Venture outside and you'll see fans and mechanics wandering amongst a bustling paddock area. Here you can view and buy cars while a band plays on stage in the distance or you just watch the world go buy.
And what a gorgeous world it is. DiRT 2 has arguably the most accomplished graphics of any racing game since Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. Codemasters' EGO Engine pumps out some phenomenal visuals, boasting twice as much detail as the first DiRT. From epic sweeping canyons, to packed grandstands at closed circuits, it's a joy to behold. You'll never see any hitches in the framerate either. It's an incredible achievement.
Perhaps most mind-boggling is all the attention to detail at the side of the track which you'll notice more and more as you play through the single player game. Night tracks have fireworks exploding in the distance, flags blow in the breeze, mud and dirt builds up steadily on your car during races. In first person cockpit view you can even have your avatar hang from your rear view mirror as a lucky charm and water splashes on the windscreen look so realistic you'll have to pinch yourself to make sure you're not really there. The game also boasts some superb real-time damage modelling, so expect some rather epic crashes!
The game's incredible presentation is wrapped around a deep and rewarding single player game. The handling model for all of the vehicles is significantly more realistic than the original DiRT, which was often guilty of "floaty" car physics. In DiRT 2 there is much more emphasis on controlled braking for corners and precision drifting, things which are commonplace in the real world of rallying. There are now notable differences in car handling depending on the road surface as well. This is particularly evident on courses which are made up of different track types, such as gravel, mud, sand and asphalt.
In terms of length in the single player, you can get to the end credits in around 6 hours, but by that point you will only have experienced about one third of the game's events. It will take well over 10 hours to complete the rest.
Events range from point to point rally stages, to rallycross races on closed circuits and truck & buggy races. There are a few different variants for each of these as well, such as a rally event where you must hit gates to stop the clock and elimination events, where the person in last place at certain points in a race is removed. Most of the car events are a huge amount of fun and there are circuits in all four corners of the globe, so the environments never get dull. However, the truck and buggy events can become a bit tedious and though there are a lot of world locations there are very few tracks in each one, so if you spend a long time on in one country the circuits start to get a little repetitive.
During the career you earn experience points which determine your driver level. As this develops you'll unlock liveries for cars and new events. Cars can be upgraded, allowing low level rookie vehicles to be used in more difficult races later on. You also earn money which you use to buy new vehicles, of which there are 35 in the game.
You'll meet a variety of famous faces from different off-road disciplines as you play, including rally driver Ken Block. The game suggests that you can make friends or enemies with these people depending on how you drive in races against them. However, even if you ram them off the road every time you meet them they seem to become your friend eventually anyway. The celebrity racers will also challenge you to one-on-one "throwdown" races during your career. They're a nice little diversion from the other events but they don't add a whole lot new to the experience.
If you played the first DiRT you'll probably find that DiRT 2 is a little more difficult. There are more difficulty modes to choose from this time around to help you adapt, though there are less incentives for increasing the difficulty, because the differences in EXP and money awarded between levels is much smaller than in the original.
Online you'll find a significantly improved set of multiplayer races. Gone are the disappointing time trials. In their place you'll find that you can now race in every event type from the single player game. There is also a separate set of experience points called "online fame" to show the world how you shape up against the competition.
The most interesting online mode is the tournament mode. These are weekly challenges set to the players with your final position deciding how much experience you earn. First and second earn huge amounts of online fame points with the top 10% earning a little bit less and everyone else getting some just for taking part. You are entered in tournaments automatically if you complete the goal required. For example, if the tournament is based around setting a laptime on a specific track and you play the track in the single player, you will be told after the race that you have entered an online tournament. At the end of the week whoever is top of the leaderboard for the specific challenge wins the tournament. It's a similar idea to the "challenges" mode in Rock Band 2 and it should help to keep the DiRT 2 community alive much longer than the first game's.
DiRT 2 is definitely one of the best racing games on the current generation of systems and it's an triumphant return to form for the Colin McRae series. If you love racing games and you love rallying then you owe it to yourself to give this a go. There may be competition to come from Need for Speed: Shift and Forza Motorsport 3, but DiRT 2 is a very different, very polished experience that you'd be foolish not to try out for yourself.
You should also check the game out if you're a fan of Colin McRae, the man. The game includes a fitting tribute to the late world champion and is the first game released in the series since he died in 2007.