The term "budget game" will probably always have a negative connotation for many gamers, thanks to the kind of low-quality shovelware we keep seeing on store shelves. But discerning gamers know that "budget game" isn't always synonymous with poor quality. Along with Croteam's superb Serious Sam series, Australian developer Ratbag has been proving for years that some budget games can be just as good as their full-priced brethren, which might very well lead you to suspect that full-priced might really mean overpriced. Ratbag has carved out a fine reputation with a series of racing games built around its proprietary Difference engine, games like 1999's well-regarded Dirt Track Racing. And just like its predecessors, Dirt Track Racing 2 gives you unassuming but challenging racing, where hometown heroes powerslide through the mud on tiny tracks.
In Dirt Track Racing 2, you'll find something like a cross between rally racing and NASCAR racing. Like in NASCAR races, you'll race on closed, purpose-built tracks. Here, most of the 14 tracks are oval variants with a few particularly dangerous figure-eight tracks thrown in for good measure. True to the game's name, you'll be racing across bumpy dirt surfaces, often wet ones, regularly sliding through the corners like a seasoned rally racer.
As if roaring sideways through turns in an 800-horsepower car weren't enough, you'll be doing it on ridiculously small tracks. Many just break the half-mile mark; some are only a measly quarter-mile around. The margin for error is slim at best, and since the game doesn't have any long straightaways, you'll be wrangling with your car nonstop. So, while dirt track racing might not be glamorous or prestigious, it can still be a fun challenge.
You'll get to test your skills in quick race and career modes, as well as in online multiplayer mode for up to 10 players. In quick races, you can select any car and track in the game and set the number of competitors and laps, the track wetness, and the AI difficulty. Unfortunately, the cars are all generic, so don't expect to find any high-profile real-world cars, except by implication. Whatever car you select, you can expect a real challenge. The computer-controlled drivers are no pushovers, especially at the highest difficulty levels. When the race is done, you can watch and save a replay, though the replay suite isn't particularly powerful.
Along with the quick races, you can play through a surprisingly deep career mode similar to the one found in the original Dirt Track Racing. You'll start with a small amount of cash to purchase your first basic car. As you win races, you'll accumulate money for repairing damage, purchasing better parts, and buying new cars. As you prove your worth on the track, you'll even gain sponsorship deals.
A major part of Dirt Track Racing 2's formula for fun is its tiny tracks coupled with powerful cars and strong AI competitors. Another factor in that formula is its convincing physics modeling, something Ratbag games have always been known for, even though the game's physics may not reach the level of subtlety and sophistication found in Papyrus' Grand Prix Legends or NASCAR Racing series. Still, it successfully portrays the power of the cars and the difficulties in keeping them under control as you whip them through turns. You can select the level of handling realism, as well as three levels of damage modeling: none, arcade, and simulation. If you choose simulation modeling, car parts will crumple and bend and have an effect on handling, though the modeling is still too relaxed and often requires you to really slam your car into something to put a serious dent in it.
To help you get the most from the game's physics, you'll get a full array of car-tuning options for the wheels, suspension, chassis, and gear ratios. These options are unusually detailed and should keep gearheads happily occupied for a long time. The wheel-tuning options alone let you tweak toe-in, wheel offset, brake strength, tire pressure, tire compound, and tire size individually for each of the wheels, as well as stagger and steering lock, though for some reason, you don't get any explanatory tooltips on the tuning screens.
Visually, Dirt Track Racing 2 doesn't offer any major improvements over previous Ratbag games. It's true you'll see more details in the cars and tracks and some new particle effects. But on the whole, the graphics still suffer from the usual blandness you might have come to expect from one of Ratbag's racers. Part of that can be chalked up to the subject matter. Just how good can some tiny little dirt track look, and how eye-catching can generic stock cars be compared to an F1 car or a Le Mans prototype? Still, one interesting visual effect that sets the game apart is the simulation of mud splattering on your helmet visor and obstructing your vision. Interestingly, you get a limited number of visor "tear-offs" to peel away the grime.
Like the graphics, the audio in Dirt Track Racing 2 isn't all that impressive, though it is functional and effective. One of the more prominent audio features is the reactive race commentary, but it's actually pretty limited and doesn't offer much helpful information. You'll just hear some disembodied voice yell things like, "No car can stand a beating like that!" and "What was he thinking?"
Dirt Track Racing 2 has its share of high and low points, same as any game, but the most important complaint you can raise against it is that it's essentially the same game Ratbag has been making for years now. If you already own the original Dirt Track Racing, Dirt Track Racing: Sprint Cars, or even Leadfoot, you won't find much that's substantially new here. If, on the other hand, you've never played any Ratbag games and are looking for a solid racer with an unusual subject and unusual quality for a budget game, Dirt Track Racing 2 is well worth trying out.