I'm a big fan of the Colin McRae Rally series of video games and racing games in general, so when a teaser build of DIRT 2 popped through the VideoGamer.com letterbox I revved my engines in glee. Not much can beat the feeling of powersliding a Subaru around a long, tight corner, gravel being churned out behind your tires, spectators getting the perfect view from the most perilous positions imaginable. Something could hurt this though - say, for instance, a trendy front end and lots of people talking as if they're the coolest people to walk the Earth. Has Codemasters' attempt to make DIRT a fashionable game backfired?
Right off the bat the difference between this and the original DIRT is plain to see. Gone is the simple, stylish, easy to use grid event structure, replaced with a white canvas with events popping up as they're unlocked. This is housed in your tour caravan, complete with info on various in-game tasks to complete (distance travelled, height jumped - that kind of thing), stats, info on your relationships with various other characters in the game and a list of co-drivers. In our preview build the rest of the menus were locked away, but the final game will include a suite of multiplayer options so you can play with friends online.
Step outside the caravan and you've got a raft of other options to choose from. The My Rides menu lets you look over the cars you own, and those you don't, letting you spend hard earned cash on new rides if you fancy something different. There's also a notice board, which we assume will give you vital in-game updates, but it's locked in the build we played. Finally you can see your currently selected car and head off to the race event.
When you're ready to actually start an event you're greeted with a set-up screen that lets you customise your experience slightly. The key things here are difficulty, vehicle damage and vehicle set-up. Difficulty is quite self explanatory, although the harder the setting the more money you can earn and the less flashbacks you can use. That's right, flashbacks from last year's GRID are in DIRT 2, so if you make a mistake you can rewind time as if it never happened. Vehicle damage can be set to be on or only visual, meaning you can be driving a heap, but still running in peak condition. And set-up is just whether or not you want to tinker under the hood or not.
Key to progression is XP, earned through race performances and any in-game tasks you complete. As you level up you open new events, and so on and so forth. It's not a new mechanic, but it's presented in a flashy style that might not be everyone's cup of tea. Our biggest gripe with the presentation at the moment is the few moments you're forced to look at the festival atmosphere after an event before returning to your caravan - it just makes things feel slightly sluggish when you want to get on with the next race.
In terms of what race types are on offer we can only really comment on what we've played. Rally Cross is present and correct, as we experienced in races set in Battersea, London, and Shibuya, Tokyo. These circuit races against AI drivers are pretty brutal affairs and nothing like rallying as you might imagine - assuming you didn't play the previous DIRT. Standard Rally events are also on offer, with the preview build offering a gorgeous stage in Croatia to scream around at an insanely high speed as mountains tower in the distance and the sunlight beams down a glorious orange glow on the scenery. Even though the game as a whole seems considerably edgier than previous McRae titles, it's good to see that the core rallying experience will still be well represented.
Baja racing will also play a major part, with the buggy like vehicles racing around wide tracks in an attempt to cross the finish line first. These events are more likely to see drivers crashing into each other as the cars handle somewhat more loosely, but they're good fun and certainly different to the rest of the race types on offer. The final event type we got our hands on is Trail Blazer, a high-speed point to point rally event that seems highly reminiscent of some of the events in the superb, now dead series, Rallisport Challenge.
With only a handful of events on offer it's hard to get a good feeling for how the final game will shape up, but on the track everything appears to be in order. We're far from convinced about the presentation elsewhere, though, with the festival atmosphere and in and outdoor locations feeling a little unnecessary in our books. Hopefully the sublime visuals, thrilling racing and presumably strong online features will make this something that's easy to over look.
DIRT 2 is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 on September 11. A PC version will follow with DirectX 11 support.