Tuesday, December 29, 2009

DiRT 2 Review

DiRT 2, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Improved driving physics, interesting racing modes, more exhaustive multiplayer features, GRID's rewind feature makes races less frustrating, slick presentation with appealing graphics
The Not So Good: Inconsequential damage, inconsistent AI
What say you? Enhanced in every area, this racing sequel is a far more complete product: 7/8

I did not care for DiRT. Between the handling of the race cars that certainly fell on the arcade side of things, with completely unrealistic grip and braking, and the lame multiplayer features, there was certainly room for improvement. Say hello to improvement! DiRT 2 is the appropriately named sequel that continues Codemasters's's's crusade to control all racing games with four-letter names. Held out for three extra months to add shiny new DirectX 11 features that nobody will notice, this off-road racing game concerns itself primarily with rally (personal favorite), buggy, and truck adventures through the sands. Has the game done as a true sequel should?

DiRT 2 continues the trend of recent Codemasters racing titles by featuring some outstanding graphics. Every aspect of the graphics is top-notch, starting with the detailed and varied environments with lots of animated (and destructible) trackside objects. The crowd visually reacts when you get too close for comfort, and the background blend well with the exotic locales. There are also some nice lighting effects that impact the gameplay (shadows makes driving more difficult). Each of the game’s cars are detailed as well, although they respond a bit too dramatically to damage. The graphics package is surrounded by detailed texturing and nice special effects involving the water and sand you will be driving through/in/around/over. The slick menu transitions are a bit unnecessary, but they do give you something to look at during loading times. The sound design has also received some improvements, with less repetitive voice acting bits from the roster of real drivers lending their likenesses to the game. Your mentors calling you by name is an added bonus that adds to the overall immersion of the title. The cars also sound plausible enough while you are roaring around the track. Overall, the presentation in DiRT 2 has improved since the original game by an acceptable margin.

The first thing you'll notice when you start up DiRT 2 is that you need to have the disk in the drive. Sigh. This is why I almost prefer getting my press materials digitally. You also can't skip the opening movie sequences the first time you play; there's nothing like entering your first race before you've had the opportunity to change your controls or the graphics options. The single player game is the DIRT TOUR (capital letters makes it more EXTREME), where you complete a semi-linear series of events on your way to racing supremacy. Experience earned during races for finishing well or completing missions (for damaging objects, driving distance, passing, or drifting) are used to increase your level and unlock new tracks and venues at additional difficulty levels. DiRT 2 also has Games for Windows LIVE! achievements on top of the missions for no apparent reason whatsoever. You can also form relationships with other drivers that will produce one-on-one or timed challenges and team events to compete in.

DiRT 2 takes a couple of standard racing modes and adds a couple of innovative wrinkles. Traditional one-car rally and trailblazer (hill climb, basically the same thing) are present and accounted for, along with straight-up multi-car (usually eight) races in landrush or rally cross mode. You also get the last man standing mode, where the last place car is eliminated every once in a while. Additional and more interesting modes include raids, multi-car rally events with split routes and multiple paths, gate crasher, which gives you targets to hit during a rally race, and domination, which rewards points for the fastest times in each sector. This is a much more complete package and makes going through the career mode much less repetitive. Playing a race at a higher difficulty level decreases the amount of replays but rewards you with more cold, hard cash to use on new automobiles. Eventually, you'll advance to the X Games and earn notoriety among the fifteen people that watch the event worldwide. The menu system (which does not support a mouse...bah!) has a slick presentation that makes it easy to see events you've completed and with neat-o stats that display while loading, though it displays locked achievements in a clear act of mocking.

The multiplayer features of DiRT were, for lack of a better term, “crap.” Thankfully, DiRT 2 has actually become a real online racing game as you can now bump into other vehicles! Yes, all of the single player modes are available for your enjoyment over the wonders of the Internet. You can do this in ranked pro mode, where the magic of Games for Windows LIVE! matches you up with other drivers and randomly selects events that can be vetoed down. I do not like being prevented from selecting the opponents I want, as the matchmaking will always select the first server. You will supposedly be matched up with gamers with similar driving styles (meaning wreckers race against wreckers), but since the online populations are so low I ended up seeing the same people over and over again. Things open up in jam sessions, where you can customize the events at your discretion. I dislike the thirty-second time limit for last place finishers, especially since the online racers seem to only play DiRT 2 all the time and I always finish more than half a minute behind. Sigh. Still, multiplayer is significantly more interesting and complete this time around.

Track designs have also been improved. Gone are the wide open spaces of Colin McRae games of old, replaced by realistically narrow layouts with plenty of things to get in your way. You have to be on your toes in the world of DiRT 2, and the varied terrain and exotic locations makes for some visually stimulating racing. Each of the game's nine regions gets somewhere between ten and fifteen races each, except for Utah, because they suck. The cars are also much more realistic in their handling attributes: they brake more slowly and have less grip, almost like you are driving on dirt. Weird, I know! Trucks, buggies, rally cars, and Baja vehicles are all available with different ratings in top speed, acceleration, and handling for each of the different makes and models. You can also unlock additional liveries (paint schemes) and horns for your customizing enjoyment. Setup options are very basic: just five settings each for gear ratio, downforce, suspension, ride height, differential, and brake bias. But this is the type of game where fine-tuning your setup isn't your primary concern, so these limited options are not a concern.

The game's HUD does a good job keep you informed of your car's position, damage, and the distance left in the race in graphical form. I found that my usual viewing perspective, the driver camera, was far too restrictive despite a more immersive experience. Unfortunately, I found the behind and above view to be far more effective in seeing what's around and coming up. Feels like cheating, though. The AI provides a good challenge, although they are not terribly aggressive and won't usually pass you unless you make a mistake. They can also be quite inconsistent: they are much better at pack races than the rally events. The same issue plagued the first DiRT game, so maybe it's just me and my l33t rally skillz. A significant addition to DiRT 2 is the replay feature, borrowed/stolen from GRID. Anytime you royally mess up, you can enter the replay mode and choose any place within the past ten seconds to start from. It's a very nice feature and I don't think this is much of a “cheat,” since you are limited in the number of times to do it and you'd just press “reset” anyway in other racing games; it's just saving you time and/or money. It certainly makes playing DiRT 2 much less frustrating, as I would much rather re-drive five seconds than an entire three minute long race. You won't really need to restart because of damage, though, as DiRT 2 is very forgiving: you can run into many objects before receiving a scratch. This is fine, but I would still like to have the option to require more precise driving at higher difficulty levels that reward more experience points and cash.

DiRT 2 improves upon the original game in every area. The two primary areas of concern from before, the bare multiplayer features and the unrealistic driving model, have both undergone significant changes for the better. You can actually race against human opponents over the Internet in real time (like a real racing title!), and all of the wacky game modes from the single player campaign are available, from the precise gate crasher mode to points-based domination races. Of course, you can also engage in more classic rally races and more traditional eight-car events. The narrow, realistic tracks take place in varied environments that showcase the graphics well, from superb textures to exaggerated damage and watery special effects. The single player dirt tour unlocks new tracks and cars as you complete events: nothing innovative here. You can earn additional experience by completing missions (like driving a certain distance) in addition to simply finishing well, so there is always a chance to advance even if you aren't constantly winning. Most importantly, DiRT 2 has found a happy medium between hardcore simulation and generic arcade game: the cars actually drive like cars on dirt, instead of having instant-stop brakes and superb traction. This is certainly not a realistic game because of the heavy amount of damage you can receive before feeling any adverse effects, but it is fun and not trivial to do well in a race. Borrowing/stealing the flashback replay feature from GRID is a smart move: this greatly reduces the time and frustration associated with completing races. The AI can be a challenging opponent, but they aren't terribly aggressive and are inconsistent opponents. Still, those looking for a quality half sim, half arcade off-road racer won't be disappointed in DiRT 2.