PC Preview

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

Jen corners the PC version

Colin McRae was a stunningly great rally driver. At the start of his career, he established himself as a giant killer, winning the Scottish Rally Championship in a distinctly humble Vauxhall Nova. He went on to be the first Briton and the youngest to win the World Rally Championship Drivers' title at the tender age of 27 as well as oh so many other significant titles. So it made perfect sense that McRae would be the face of Codemasters' series of rally driving games: Colin McRae Rally. Each title over the past ten years has been a critical success, and now we come to the latest in the series: DiRT 2, and the first since McRae's tragic death in a helicopter crash near his home in September 2007.

DiRT 2 is quite a departure from previous titles putting an extreme sports slant on things. Rather than using very clinical menus such as in the previous DiRT game, the career mode is based out of a tour bus, in a style that feels much like an MTV-themed sports game. It's something that I'm sure some rally fans may be disappointed to see but it does make for a prettier screen to look at considering you'll be there quite frequently. Races are depicted on a map which is a small but nice presentational feature as it beats staring at menus. There are nine different areas around the world to unlock in all ranging from the inner city racing of London and Tokyo to the sweeping canyons of desolation in Utah. With a large number of races to each country and 100 racing events in all, theres certainly plenty to do. This isn't a game that will be completed in a hurry.

New races and areas are unlocked through levelling up. You gain experience regardless of what position you finish in a race, although obviously it's preferable to win due to staggered amounts of experience depending on what position you place in. This is convenient if you start out on the highest difficulty though as you can still progress, just at a much slower rate than if you won every race. Besides offering typical rallying events, DiRT 2 also offers some more arcade style modes such as Gatecrasher and Last Man Standing. Gatecrasher is more akin to something you'd see in a Project Gotham Racing game whereby you drive through gates within a specific amount of time. Last Man Standing is just as it sounds with the aim to be the last one racing. There are also Baja racing modes which were the weakest of the lot. Baja racing in DiRT 2 consists mostly of driving around a dirt track in an off road vehicle with the handling being decidedly dodgy.

I've no doubt that Baja racing can be enjoyable but it felt wrong placed in amongst rallying, where every precise movement is vital to success. The wide variety of game modes is admittedly a perfect example of DiRT 2's confused nature. At times, especially on higher difficulty levels, it feels more like a serious sim when rally driving, however when completing Baja or Gatecrasher races, it all feels much more arcadey in nature. This does ensure that there's plenty of variety and the all-round racing fan will enjoy this immensely, but it also means that rally fans will feel like they're missing out on some pure rallying action.

Handling on the whole feels much improved from the previous DiRT game with cars feeling suitably heavy and unique. It really was noticeable changing from one car to another with some appropriate adjustment required to get the best out of it. There is of course a vehicle set up series of options to ensure that you can set things just how you like them, although this isn't strictly necessary if you'd rather just get on with racing. In keeping with the middle ground that DiRT2 has adopted, the handling is not so ridiculously precise that you will tear your hair out with frustration. It didn't take too long to be able to drift round a corner in great style, and as time went on, the drifts become increasingly more satisfying. The braking felt well-pitched with the need to plan ahead if a corner arises, but again not so much that it hampers the experience. Perhaps surprisingly this was even the case when playing DiRT 2 with the humble keyboard although obviously using either a 360 controller or wheel is much preferred; with the wheel being particularly accurate and effective.

Handling felt much the same regardless of the difficulty level but the effects of making a mistake were much harsher at the top end of the spectrum. For example clipping an opponent or obstacle during a race has a much more severe consequence than if you are playing on easy or casual. The main effect of playing on a hard difficulty is the competency of the computer AI. The AI is much less forgiving and is frequently very aggressive in its driving style. It was nice to see the AI wasn't flawless though with there being numerous times during my career where I saw my opponent total their vehicle.

Visually, DiRT 2 looks absolutely stunning with locations such as China looking particularly beautiful on a high spec PC. Codemasters seem to have truly pushed themselves to the limits with the use of the EGO game engine, and have improved upon the already excellent graphical detail featured in both GRID and the original DiRT. The only real flaw in the graphics is the blandness of the water effects. We may well have been spoilt recently with the likes of Uncharted 2, but DiRT 2's water really did look rather flat and was noticeably disappointing considering the vibrancy of the graphics on the whole. The lack of any weather effects is also a shame as I would have loved to have raced in a wet and windy scenario where my handling was negatively affected by such effects.

DiRT 2's full release promises both achievements under the Games for Windows Live flag as well as head to head multiplayer. During this preview I wasn't able to try the multiplayer myself but if it's anything like the console equivalent, it will certainly extend longevity with its fame points system, an off-shoot of experience.

Covering the middle ground and being both arcadey and sim-like does mean DiRT 2 runs the risk of being a Jack of all trades and master of none, but I can't see it disappointing too many people when it is released next month. It's a great deal of fun and with its form of constant reward through experience and unlocking a flurry of new events, there is certainly plenty to do and a great variety as well. DiRT 2 may not sate the appetite of the hardened rally fan but it is shaping up to be a very enjoyable title and a credit to McRae's name.

E3 Trailer