If you’re of the opinion that great rally drivers are born rather than made, then it’s not difficult to imagine that Colin McRae flew out of the womb sideways at 80mph, and flew out of the delivery room in a graceful arc.
As a driver, he was a traditional flavour of bonkers behind the wheel – driving as fast as he possibly could, often crashing spectacularly and, if the hand of fate plonked him back on his wheels after his airborne barrel roll, carrying on again with his commitment undiminished. Sadly Colin’s gone to the great special stage in the sky, but there’s a new breed of extreme sports nutcases carrying the torch, and it’s their combined spirit that lives on in Dirt 2. After years literally lost in the wilderness, rallying is sort-of fashionable again.
The original Dirt was already inching toward the door when it came to traditional rally. There was still the token inclusion of Welsh forests with unpronounceable names, but thundering V8 trucks had rolled onto the scene and direct, door handle bashing competition was introduced. Dirt 2 is the logical conclusion – the fantasy world tour that off-road racing should be, with a festival atmosphere, far more exotic locations and very little regard for safety.
From the moment you launch the game, you’re plunged into a grubby RV that’s parked up in a bustling paddock area with fans hanging over the barriers with muffled indie music coming from the sound system. You can practically smell the sizzling hot dogs covered with that cheese that inexplicably remains liquid at room temperature.
Guiding you around the place are the disembodied voices of various endlessly chipper extreme sports stars. If you’re easily irritated by kids with more money than sense, you’re going to find it all a bit wearing, but we’re actually fond of them – not least because they refer to you by name (just like in GRID), and their constant compliments satisfy our desperate need for validation as a good driver. They’re so charming and affable that even when you’re on the track and deliberately T-boning them off the side of a cliff they’ll use their final moments on this mortal coil to reassure you over the radio that there are no hard feelings. Most importantly they create a sense of personality in the racers you’re competing against, and allow you to fabricate rivalries with the guys who consistently beat you.
This jolly band of happy campers follows you to a series of beautifully realised international destinations. Dirt 2 is a stunningly attractive racing game and every environment, from the baking Moroccan desert to a hazy downtown Tokyo, is rammed with visual texture.
Your first stop is the Battersea Power Station in London, and it’s packed with baying fans, bathed in sunlight and full of incidental details. When we revisited the location at night later in the tour, with the place lit up like Donald Trump’s Christmas tree during a power surge, we genuinely drove straight into a wall like a crash test dummy because we were busy marveling with child-like awe at all the pretty twinkly bits. While you’ll usually be whistling past most of this stuff at a bowel-loosening rate of knots, it all combines to ensure that Dirt 2’s circuits are drenched with atmosphere.
The vehicles don’t come off too badly either – crank up the visual settings and they become shinier than Kojak’s bald dome, and when you eventually come to an abrupt halt against the scenery (which you will) the entire thing crumples into a ball in a delightfully convincing fashion.
What’s worth noting is that while Dirt 2 was delayed to include DirectX 11 the game looks deeply sexy even when using DirectX 9, and runs at a heady pace on relatively creaky equipment. The fact that Codemasters have married this kind of visual splendour with a sensation of speed you’d struggle to match if you attempted re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere is an enormous technical achievement.
Of course racing game fans are a strange, many tentacled breed and, as RACE On proves, they’ll put up with visuals rendered in fingerpaint as long as the handling’s up to scratch. Dirt 2 doesn’t venture too far into the realms of terrifying simulation – you’re not going to have to worry about damper settings and toe in – but the handling has been much improved since the previous game.