This doesn't happen very often in videogames. Usually, you'll get a single great franchise from one racing stable, like Sony's Gran Turismo. Less often, you'll get one developer creating several great racing game franchises such as Sega's arcade gems Daytona, Sega Rally and OutRun. But this is something different. Codemasters has taken its two most beloved motorsport brands, fused them together in all but name and created... a dirty great monster:
How Colin McRae and Race Driver became DiRT 2
What you've got here is essentially Race Driver GRID torn from the tarmac and thrust into an ultra-competitive off-road environment. This is a Very Good Thing because not only is GRID one of the best-looking games ever made, it's also one of the most enjoyable racers we've ever played.
Picking up where McRae left off, the new 'names' and much of the inspiration behind Dirt 2 are flamboyant thrill-drivers like Ken Block and Dave Mirra. The influence of these extreme drivers on the ethos of the game has resulted in a massive leap over the original DiRT, which now looks tame by comparison.
It's a natural progression of the series that reflects the late Colin McRae's real-life career which had been moving away from familiar point-to-point stages of the WRC and taking in more spectacular off-road disciplines like the Race of Champions and Paris-Dakar Rally. We've put together a video to show how effectively the game embraces the dynamics of modern motorsport (and tried to do some Ken Block manoeuvres on the way).
So the X-Games and international glory are your goals in this exciting new world - stadium-based scrambles by day or night in London or Los Angeles, eight car landrush stages through Malaysian jungles or dusty races through Baja sandbowls. The emphasis is on head-to-head human competition rather than beating a pulseless clock, fuelled by the voices of your competitors flicking you a verbal bird as they go by.
The game starts you off with a few races and a smattering of vehicles to choose from, gradually unlocking stages and throwdown challenges as you progress, until you're competing in the X-Games, World Tour events and eventually a special race series against Colin's family and friends.
Events are accessed via an inventive front end 'hub' - an impressively-rendered and authentically grease-caked motorhome, complete with a TV that shows real music videos. It's a shame the game forces you to come back to this trailer between races (a simple 'next event' option would have been welcome) as the pause for loading is long, though well masked with stats, freeze-frame photo transitions and information on your progress towards achievements.
Above: The view from your motorhome, not exactly picturesque, but authentic
Front-ends? Menu screens? We know what you're thinking. This is all well and good, but what really makes this game so damn special?
Let's just say it straight. No other racing game has the attention to detail that DiRT 2 has in terms of vehicle control and graphical accomplishment. It's insane. A random example: the friggin' tyres actually squash against the surface of the track. We didn't even know that was possible on current hardware, let alone done with this shrug-of-the-shoulders modesty. Gran Turismo 5 Prologue has a quality sheen, sure, but never the velocity or mayhem of DiRT 2's engine.
Above: OK, now you're just showing off
It's hard to imagine what else could reasonably be improved graphically before the next generation of consoles hit home. It's the tiniest subtleties which really catch your eye: like when a wing mirror detached by a crash continues to reflect or a wall topples over when you glance off it - elements that normally become showpieces in lesser games but here are just run of the mill background elements. At this point a video is the best way to do it justice.
And then there's the peerless handling. The sensation of breakneck speed, twitchy steering and perceptible change in the friction of the various off-road surfaces are enough to let anyone have collision-filled fun with the game, while for pro racers, the combination of manual gears and the handbrake button allow for an exceptional degree of control. Hitting the handbrake into a hairpin to get the back to step out then downshifting to second and using the engine's torque to powerslide through the turn makes you feel like a driving god.
Expert or not you can't approach Dirt 2 like a normal racer. There's a glorious sense of unpredictability in the way races pan out, that for the most part laughs in the face of racing lines and apexes. The perilous road surfaces and often narrow, unpredictable courses see to that.
Then you've got to contend with a muddy puddle obscuring your view at a crucial bend or hitting a bump in the road at too high a speed and finding yourself embedded in a roadside tree. It's constantly challenging but always entertaining - if it all gets the better of you, you can just hit the show-stopping rewind button and try that failed powerslide again.
If we were looking to pick holes we'd say races involving slower vehicles with their ultra-spongey suspensions were the least enjoyable on the tour, reminding us of Race Driver 2's Land Rover races, which were a low point in that game. However, it's a minor inconsistency in an otherwise brilliant and varied set of racing disciplines - especially as you can stiffen the suspension in the car's settings.
Dirt 2 reminds us that Codemasters is undoubtedly among the top three console driving game experts in the world today alongside Polyphony and the Forza team. As it stands though, on Dirt 2's showing, with it's seemingly effortless graphical prowess, satisfying vehicle handling and ostentatious events it's currently residing in the number one slot. With so many race types, DiRT 2 may be an off-road 'jack of all trades' but it is unquestionably 'master of most'. And that's what makes it 2009's first must-have racing game.
Race Driver GRID?
You want a definitive answer? Yeeee....... no. DiRT 2 is superior in almost every respect - the game engine is more refined, the presentation's even slicker and the events work better as a coherent whole. But GRID is faster, more adrenaline-fuelled and requires more knowledge of driving to do well. If you already own GRID, DiRT 2 is sufficiently different to warrant owning both. So buy it.
Yes. MotorStorm on PS3 may still be a looker, but the racing is slower and less varied. While the crashes still look good in slow-mo, the lack of a rewind option and uncompromising AI opponents mean that it's much less forgiving. The track design is inferior and the similar festival feel is more detached, so even though you can find it in the bargain bin now, DiRT 2 is worth the extra cash.
Sega Rally Revo?
Yes. Rally may have an advanced track degradation system and comparable graphical sheen on the surface, but there's less attention to detail, poorer crashes and only one event type. DiRT 2 is so far ahead, it's like it's on a next-gen system. Having said that, there is more scope for learning the shorter, circuit tracks in Rally and trying to master them, if that's your thing.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Dirt 2 plunders the best bits from two great racing series to create what is essentially Colin McRae: GRID. The quality is so high, you'll wonder how your console is doing this at all, let alone so seamlessly. A racing classic that does Colin McRae's memory justice.