If review scores were handed out for slickness alone Codemasters' Colin McRae: DIRT 2 would be an easy 10. It positively oozes class from the moment the 'press start' screen pops up, whether it be the slick in-game menu system, the neat loading screen info or the simple fact that you can make the voice over man use your real name. This is about as polished as a video game can get and we're only talking about the menu system. Considering this quality shines throughout the entire game we have a clear contender for racing title of the year.
Your racing career makes up the core DIRT 2 experience, with the goal being to earn enough experience points through competing in events to level up and unlock new events. From the relative comfort of your tour camper van you can access a world map showing all of the countries that host rally and off-road racing events, so it's simply a case of picking and choosing what you want to do - perform well in the rookie events in order to move up to Pro level and beyond. With numerous difficulty levels, flashbacks that let you rewind time if you go head-first into a tree (the same system that Codemasters debuted in GRID) and optional performance damage the game is fully tailorable to your skill level, so beginners through to veteran McRae fans should find a suitable challenge in DIRT 2.
Money is handed out for competing in events, but there's certainly more emphasis placed on XP - while you can buy better cars for each event type and need to buy upgrades to compete in harder competitions, the gap between those and what you start with isn't nearly as large as it is in most other racers. XP is what really matters, and there are ways to earn it even if you find yourself languishing in last place and struggling. During the World Tour you are always working towards Missions, such as driving a certain number of in-game miles (200 miles nets you 2,500 XP), breaking environmental objects (smash 100 to get 2,500 XP) or driving on two wheels (manage a combined total of 100 seconds with two off the floor and you'll add another 2,500 points to your XP total). While not as XP rich as the harder events, these missions mean that you're always playing for a reason even if things aren't going well for you on the track.
The Colin McRae series has been about far more than traditional rallying for some time now, and DIRT 2 is easily the most diverse game yet. You get plenty of point to point rally events in places such as Morocco, Malaysia, China and Croatia, but these are just a small portion of what the game has to offer. Whether you're racing in a high speed Trailblazer event in Utah, an off-road event in California or a Rally Cross event in London, you'll never feel like you're being forced to do the same thing over and over. There are even game-like event types, such as the arcade-style Gate Crasher, in which you must smash into small boards in order to add time to the clock - the more time remaining when you cross the finish line the better.
To begin with the locations available to you will be fairly limited, but as soon as you start earning XP and leveling up you'll open up new locations and events. There are even team events (you'll make friends with the numerous racers as you compete against them) and the X Games to compete in once you've reached a high enough level. You'll open up X-Games Europe fairly early on, but it'll take a fair bit of effort to take part in the Asian and American events, but with plenty of XP on offer they're well worth it. The X-Games is a neat addition to the game, but their inclusion seems somewhat slight given that they feel almost exactly the same as the other events on the tour.
Something we haven't been able to test much is the included online and multiplayer functionality. There are leaderboards on offer for more or less everything, and you can compare your stats to your friends at the push of a button, but more important is the competitive multiplayer modes. Pro Tour is where you'll go for ranked racing and where you'll earn Fame points - the online version of the career mode's XP. For a more laid back online session the Jam Session mode allows up to eight players to mix and match tracks and vehicle types, as well as customise settings such as allowed vehicle grades, damage and catch up. Add to this regular tournaments to compete in and you've got a solid online package.
We touched on the sublime presentation earlier, but that was just the flash menus before you get into the game properly. Behind the wheel DIRT 2 looks phenomenal. It's easy to get carried away, but we've never seen a racer that looks this good. The point to point stages are the stars of the show, often with huge draw distances, environmental effects (such as low lying fog) and stunning scenery. The fact that it all runs at a consistent frame rate for the most part and looks pin sharp is the icing on the cake. It's a gorgeous game that will earn itself many fans for this alone. The audio work is top notch too, with a trendy soundtrack and decent voice work from the included drivers who often chirp up during events. If there are complaints they're minor, but the flashy menus frustrate occasionally when you're forced to look over a festival for a few moments after each event, and a clearer system for laying out events wouldn't have gone amiss.
Minor problems aside, DIRT 2 is everything racing fans will want from an off-road racer. The driving is fast, fun and be tailored to your skill level. Hardcore fans will work hard shaving split seconds off their best times, while novices can still work through the career and have fun with their fiends online. Wrap up this enjoyable rally experience with the best racing game visuals we've ever seen and DIRT 2 becomes a must-buy game. It's too early to give it the crown of racing game of the year, but it'll take something very special to outdo this classy Codemasters effort.