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Dirt 2

I never played the first entry in the Dirt series. I haven’t been paying much attention to Codemasters at all, but when I downloaded the Dirt 2 demo and ended up playing it over and over again, I knew that I had happened upon a gem. It was fun just to create replays to watch because of their visual appeal and intensity. The crashes have the ability to be extremely intense. Intensity; that’s what Dirt 2 brings to the racing scene. While Burnout brings crashes into a suspenseful, hypnotic rhythm with its dramatic music and instruction to drive dangerously, Dirt 2 focuses on many different small touches to the experience that bring around a sense of realism and danger in even the simplest of driving maneuvers.

Trucks drive toward the camera on a desert playing field.

Like with Metroid Prime, there are too many excellent intricate touches to the engine and aesthetic choices to document here. The game is beautiful; the graphics are perfect without being insanely detailed, and the game’s performance is great, not to mention that I haven’t experienced a single crash or issue. The game’s level of polish is much, much higher than most games, including the effects and interface. The game’s cockpit views are slightly lacking in detail, but with the effects present they portray an excellent sense of driving on Dirt 2’s rough terrain. Even something as simple as water and splashing up onto your windshield creates one of my favorite effects in a video game; it adds to the gameplay by obstructing your view, creates an admirable obstacle, and yet because the graphics are so high-quality one is able to see slightly through the mess to maintain a driving line through the courses in the short moments it takes for the windshield wipers to brush away the obstruction.

Mud on the windshield completely obstructs the player's view.

An effect like this ups the amount of excitement and intensity in this genre immensely. This is the kind of thing that scares me the most while I’m driving, but in a game it’s much easier to appreciate the absolute excitement that comes along with being unable to see where one is going. I can’t stress enough what a great touch this is to the game. I’m even disappointed when I drive poorly enough to break my windshield, because then I can see better.

An NPC in the passenger seat reads notes about a track off of a notebook for the player's use.

The greatest thing about Dirt is its seamless experience. It’s the exact type of game I would think of when someone uses the meaningless “next-gen” nonsense to describe a game. I think when most hear that, they think “HD” or more simply “looks amazing.” But Dirt 2 uses the technology available to do far more than simply look great; the complex visual and audio effects (and even complex force feedback for certain steering wheels) add to the game in new and interesting ways, but even further the entire user interface is excellent. On loading the game, the player sees a magazine with some stats and random generic news items while their save file is loaded. From that, the player is then shown the trailer where they live, in which different areas represent different menu options, and a map laid out on a table is the interface into races in certain parts of the world as part of the “Dirt Tour” (Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie do something similar to a homey effect as well). But where BK fades to black to load up the game world, Dirt transitions from the car you picked to a snapshot of the car you picked on a map, to race information and lineup, to achievements, to a snapshot of the race environment, to the race. It’s incredibly seamless, and the audio utilization during the sequence is equally important; one can hear music in the background during race selection, and when the loading sequence begins an ideal portion of the song that could be heard in the background is played at an increased volume.

This sort of seamless ideal is also present in the gameplay, even when the player totals a car, because a rewind system lets the player select a moment to resume the race at from a few seconds before the crash. This is available on command as well, to help improve turns and times, and the interface, like the loading screen, keeps the player as present in the action as it is possible to be without actually racing thanks to the effects at work. It’s also possible to play without this mechanic, because the game is very customizable.

A crash viewed from afar.

The HUD is almost entirely left up to the player, so that certain sections can be enabled or disabled at will, and with a game like Dirt playing with no HUD at all is quite a fun experience.

A side shot of the player is seen from inside the player's car.

Quite simply, I haven’t played many racing games that I’ve found as exciting as Dirt 2. It’s an outstanding example of excellent user interface, which is both simple and manages to provide all of the options I wanted. It’s also an example of how great the entire experience of a game can be; some games demand one wait through terrible loading screens, but Dirt 2 keeps things interesting, and there really isn’t a dull moment. The style of the game is present at every moment in time, which while not exactly up my alley is expertly crafted with visuals and music, a perfect realization of the tone that the developers were aiming for. The lack of snow environments is glaring, and there is not as much content as one would hope, but I never felt dissatisfied; rather, I wished for more.

Rating: Excellent

Notes

Dirt 2 is also quite an experience in 3D, which I had the pleasure of trying. I’m sure that with something like a Logitech G27, appropriate cabinet, and 3D glasses, the experience would become visceral and overwhelmingly exciting.