Dirt 2 Hands-On Impressions

We race, drift, and crash our way through four events from Codemasters' upcoming rally game.

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With E3 2009 looming on the horizon, Codemasters recently gave us an updated look at Dirt 2, the upcoming rally racer carrying on the legacy of the Colin McRae series. It was our first time seeing the game since it was unveiled at a press event this past February, when the English publisher discussed some of the engine enhancements and a new focus on what it is calling an "action sports lifestyle." With this most recent look, though, we've now had the opportunity to go hands-on with the game to see how those changes are falling into place.

The four events we played provided a good mix of new and old. We'll go ahead and dive headfirst into the new stuff. As part of that action sports vibe Codemasters is looking to achieve with Dirt 2, rally cross events (multilap races on closed-off courses) have been spruced up with a more vibrant atmosphere. We raced in a pair of rally cross events in Tokyo's Shibuya district, as well as London's Battersea Power Station, and they definitely had a lively feel to them. The engine supports audiences of 100,000 fans, meaning people are packed like sardines onto the sides of every turn and straightaway. They'll react to how well you're driving, throwing out dramatic "oohs" and "ahhs" any time you trade paint with another driver or nudge a wall. That, combined with the ambient music of the event, makes for a pretty festive atmosphere.

But more importantly, changes have been made to the driving engine. Most striking is how the visuals have been given a noticeable upgrade to such things as lighting effects and the quality of vehicle models--all while maintaining a solid, steady frame rate. Furthermore, there's a wide variety of surfaces you'll be driving on, and they all have a distinct feel when handling your car. The big new surface comes in the form of puddles of water. Dirt had rain effects, but no giant puddles to blast through at full speed. In Dirt 2, these pesky bodies of water often collect right at the ideal line through a corner, so there's a big risk-reward decision to face because they'll dramatically slow you down (and drench your windshield if you're using the cockpit view). There's a particularly nasty pool of water on the Shibuya track that comes right before a huge turn, which leads to a jump that takes you back over the pool. If you fail to launch over that jump with enough speed, you'll tumble back into the pool--it's a pretty fun little sequence.

Dirt 2 will have a more traditional look and feel when you get outside of rally cross events and into some point-to-point races. One race we tried was a standard rally in the Croatian countryside. It's a race against the clock through a narrow series of switchback turns overlooking a dramatic cliff, which you can very easily tumble from if you're not paying attention. Although your overall finish time determines your success here, there will be other racers on the track--all with staggered start times. That means you could easily be passed up by another driver if you do poorly, which happened to us on our first run through the event. It was embarrassing to say the least.

The other event we tried was a rally raid in the California Baja against a collection of off-road trucks. Going from the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Evo used in the other events to this big, powerful off-roader was every bit the stark change you’d expect, but the track was quite a departure from the other ones as well. Toward the beginning of the stage, there were a few risky shortcuts available to take, and at the latter end was a stretch that went along a gorgeous coastal cliff overlooking some rather nice vistas. We’ll go ahead and admit that we were distracted by the visuals to the point of letting our truck veer off the ledge.

Indeed, Dirt 2 is already very pleasing to the eyes. The particle effects of the various bits of mud and dirt that get kicked up as you careen around the tracks have an authentic look, while the backdrops you’re racing in look equally realistic (right down to the hazy Shibuya air and the Thames peeking out in the background in the Battersea track). Audio is equally impressive, with engine sounds growing more sickly and worrisome as you take increasing amounts of damage.

Battersea Power Station is one of the new locales.
Battersea Power Station is one of the new locales.

With the handful of events we played, Dirt 2 has reaffirmed its status as a worthy sequel. What’s left to see is how much the new dedication to an action sports lifestyle will add to the overall experience. Will it pull off the difficult task of drawing new fans while keeping racing purists content? We should have a better idea of that when we get to see the Career mode, which is said to be a more story-driven experience where you take an RV on tour to various exotic events. So keep an eye out for more on Dirt 2 leading up to its September release.

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