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DiRT 2
Graphics: 9.5
Gameplay: 9
Sound: 9
Control: 9.3
Replay Value: 8.8
Rating: 9

Well, with Gran Turismo 5 not hitting its much anticipated December release, that means that the fight for racing game of the year becomes that much more attainable to all of the other racers that made it this year. Wait, pump the many qualifying racers did we even get this year? Sure Gran Turismo PSP was fun, but it was missing a plethora of options failing to compete with the big boys. So that leaves Need for Speed: SHIFT.

Actually, it doesn't. You see, while Need for Speed: SHIFT may have gotten a ton of press, the more and more we played it, the more bugs we discovered. So, even though SHIFT is a great game and we love it, it's not alone in the race for glory. Exactly two years to this day, the original DIRT arrived for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Essentially a continuation of the fabled Colin McRae franchise Codemasters has built, DIRT was a solid game, but came up short in numerous areas that prevented it from being spectacular. And after spending time with its followup, I feel like DIRT 2 takes all the wrongs from the first game, corrects them, and then some.

So, first off, DIRT 2 pays notable respect to the rally legend Colin McRae, who passed away after a tragic helicopter accident with his son and two family friends on board in 2007. Upon beginning the game, you will hear an introduction from Ken Block, and later on, former BMX champ Dave Mirra will take over as your career adviser, of sorts. Mirra will provide you with updates throughout the Dirt Tour career mode, and along the way you'll form alliances with other well established, real-life rally drivers. Another two-wheeled stunt devil, Travis Pastrana, will chime in frequently, as well.

Now, the first car you're given is a Subaru WRX STi which you will be able to use to compete in rally and rallycross races and accumulate cash. When competing in events, races will boast one of seven different classes. Classes include: Rally, Rallycross, Trophy Truck, Class 1 Buggy, TrailBlazer, Stock Baja, and Raid T1. There's a healthy assortment of vehicles to choose from, and a good chunk of race events to put them through. I personally prefer the sport-bred machines such as the Evolution IX and X, WRX STi, 350Z, BMW Z4, Solstice GXP, etc. But I will say, all of the vehicles are a blast to pilot, even the heavier trucks, including the Hummers, Honda Ridgeline, and the Bowler Nemesis.

You may quiver at the thought of RWD cars such as the 350Z on a rally cross, sliding around a mountainside thousands of feet above the rest of the world. To that I say: grow a pair. When I first realized the game had a 350Z I thought the car would behave extraordinarily wild on the tracks, and was a bit reluctant to drop the $150,000 for it. But, the moment I took my first turn in the car, that's when it dawned on me...this game is absolutely amazing. Clearly throwing a RWD car like the 350Z would induce oversteer, but the level of feedback the game offers you is immense and you're able to control your cars so well and precise that it's somewhat addictive.

I then put the controller down and started whipping the car around with the Logitech G27, and I was in even more heaven. Just how good is the game's implementation of the Logitech wheels? I'll put it to you this way, I was able to get within two-seconds of my DualShock 3 time on Hairpin Run with the G27...after only two attempts. I accomplished nearly perfect precision with the steering wheel, and on top of that, even earned a special trophy for not hitting or crashing the car once - not even a scratch. With a steering wheel. There is something telepathic with how well the G25 and G27 work - it's an absolute dream. My one and only complaint is that there is no clutch support for the game, which is a shame. You can use the paddles, or row using the H-pattern shifter, but the game just sees the clutch pedal as a brake pedal. Odd.

I have to say that the physics engine of the game is really spectacular. It's not geared towards ultra realism, but it feels like a perfect mix of being accessible and yet not overly arcadey. Believe me, if you're taking a turn too recklessly, you will suffer the consequences. You still have to maintain a lot of composure on the courses, because Sega Rally this most certainly is not. Slamming into objects will demonstrate just how brutal and gorgeous the damage in the game is, which doesn't punish performance as much as it did in the first game, I noticed.

On the other hand, as I mentioned before, DIRT 2 does boast much improved physics, which benefits the gameplay tremendously. Where as in the first game the action felt too slippery, DIRT 2 really provides that feedback and almost makes you feel your tires chewing into the terrain you're crossing. The communication between gamer and game is just that fantastic, and it's really hard to convey with just words - it needs to be experienced. Again, if you can afford it, take that level of fun further with a G25 or G27 wheel. Trust me.

Multiplayer offerings are solid here, with gameplay for up to eight in either ranked or unranked matches, and you can even put together teams of four too. You are given the ability to do in-game invites, as well as view leaderboards. You can customize your online matches in pretty good detail, as the list of options is quite high, allowing you total control of how you want your races to be structured. Want to force everyone to drive manual? Force everyone to drive in the head cam view? You can do that, and more.

Without a doubt, what caught me off guard the most with DIRT 2 was just how gorgeous the game looks. Where as the first game boasted over exaggerated lighting that made it almost impossible to see ahead of you often times, and lacking texture work elsewhere, DIRT 2 has none of those issues. In fact, DIRT 2 looks like it almost runs on an entirely brand new engine, as opposed to its predecessor. It is, and it isn't. The EGO engine powers DIRT 2, but it is a highly modified version of NEON, the engine name associated with DIRT. The lighting for DIRT 2 has been completely overhauled, and it looks absolutely astounding because of that. The way the light drops on the cars, and especially the gorgeous scenery in the game is truly a sight to see, it's awe-inspiring. Replays, in particular, are a lot of fun to watch just to gander at some of the game's beautiful details. The environmental textures are without a doubt the best a racer has seen, thus far. Whether it's the ground, a tree, walls along the road, or rocks, the amount of detail in every one of them is really amazing.

The car detail is great too. Each and every car is brimming with quality, and is also layered with a dose of fantastic texture work. Cockpits are fully modeled, but aside from a few little bits and pieces and because these are rally-spec interiors, you're not getting stock looking interiors. Regardless, the cockpit view is superb and places the perspective just right, allowing you to use the view quite comfortably. Furthermore, the damage model is yet another facet of the game that is absolutely beautiful to witness, and not just because of how much you can damage your car, but how it happens. Simply put, unlike other racing games where the damage on the car is either rendered before or after you've made impact with something, the damage in DIRT 2 occurs as you make impact. That, right there, is nearly flawless collision detection at work.

In games like NFS: SHIFT, I've noticed in replays that my car's damage begins to occur when the car is still a few inches away from impact, or when its body panel has warped into an object - this is simply how collision detection is, it's very hard to perfect. But, from what I gather, DIRT 2 has got it down to near perfection. On one of the courses, I pulled off a masterful Ken Block drift around a hairpin and my front bumper was no more than an inch away from an object. In any other game, that'd have resulted in damage, in DIRT 2, it didn't. And on top of that, I went an intentionally crashed my car into a blunt object on the side of the road (a road stone in Croatia's Hairpin Run), and watched the car deform precisely at the moment of impact, and with fluidity too - as opposed to how other games have a single animation where one split-second the car looks fine, the next it's damaged. My only complaints about the graphics are this: some of the damage, such as the bumpers always splitting into three, seem a bit canned and not varied enough - it's a small gripe, but it should be said. And also, there is no road deformation. Otherwise, the graphics engine is one of the best out there, running perfectly at 30 frames without a hitch.

Audio is great, too. The cars sound lovely coming through the speakers, each one boasting their unique sound, with the exhausts crackling at downshifts, the engines screaming at redline, and the tires chewing their way through the terrain - it all comes together so superbly well that you're left to wonder how the inevitable third game will follow up. There's a soundtrack, but, by default it doesn't play during races, only replays and faintly during the menu navigation. Also, a number of the game's competitors, such as Ken Block, Dave Mirra, Travis Pastrana, and numerous others, lend their voice to the game too. I do think that the game would've been an idea candidate for a custom soundtrack option, though. Still, the soundtrack composed of engine notes and exhausts are good enough.

So, all in all, you can see that I've scored DIRT 2 higher than Need for Speed: SHIFT. But, there's one thing to remember, in my NFS review, I told EA that if they patched the game up and fixed some of the errors and glitches, I'd bump the NFS score to a 9, as well. So the war for best racer of the year isn't over, EA has three months to fix a few odd issues. Regardless of NFS, DIRT 2 is a pristine racing game. Nevermind that it's focused on rally, it feels so damn tight and responsive, on top of looking like a dream. It's one of the best playing game engines out there, and one of the best looking too. And to experience this with a Logitech G25 or G27 wheel is heavenly. This is definitely my biggest surprise of the year. You must own this.

9/27/2009   Arnold Katayev