Editors' Note: The Game Room has moved and now lives in Extra Mustard.
Dust in the wind: The in-game graphics are extraordinary. The cars look spectacular, with no detail overlooked. Exposed engines on dune buggies vibrate in their chassis, paint rubs off of bumped fenders and parts fly off when struck. As the game's title suggests, most of the tracks are on dirt, mud or gravel, and the road deformation, water and dust effects are all entirely convincing. Fortunately, the framerate is rock solid as well (with one exception, but it was very isolated). A special note must be made of the game's cockpit view, which looks phenomenally realistic and is basically unplayable unless you're superhuman.
Mobile home menus:Dirt 2 makes an awesome first impression, with a novel menu and event selection structured around the driver's touring trailer. The interface eschews traditional hierarchical menus by mapping functions onto their real-world equivalents -- racing events are chosen from a world map on your trailer's table, vehicles are chosen from fliers on a table outside, and so on. It's small, but the effects add some snazz to even the most routine parts of the game. The level of polish is striking and permeates the rest of the game.
Event horizon: Some racing fans may lament the varied focus of the game at the expense of a pure rally experience, but for the rest of us, the variety of events keeps the game from getting too repetitive. The game offers elimination, a timed "gate crasher" mode, truck races and rally variants, including a classic rally mode with a co-driver. Hardcore fans may not be completely satisfied that more of the events aren't pure rally races, but the variety of events and vehicle types keeps the game interesting.
Where's the hula girl? The more you play, the more you unlock, and the game is constantly opening up new events, cars, vehicle customizations, locations and real-life drivers who want to challenge or buddy up with you. A lot of it is, to be honest, pretty silly -- do you really care about unlocking a pair of fuzzy dice in your virtual rally car? -- but there is something propulsive about getting virtual tokens after nearly every race you win. You win, you level up, you open up new races, you win some more, the cycle continues. The "just one more race" factor is high in this one.
Going the wrong way: Driving these cars isn't like a typical road race game. Braking is as important as acceleration and, since you're almost always on dirt or mud, it's easy to lose control of your car even on straightaways (and there aren't many of those). When you first start playing, you'll spin out and crash constantly, but as you unlock cars with better control, and actually learn how to drive, you'll start to win races. It's not the game's fault; it's yours, as the tight controls demand subtle movements and advanced planning to cut tight corners efficiently.
Be kind: Part of rally racing is a constant sense of almost being out of control, and Dirt 2 captures this feeling perfectly. When you do crash, and you will, Dirt 2 offers you a chance to rewind several seconds before the crash and take a mulligan. It's a welcome feature, as the AI is punishing enough that you're unlikely to recover from most serious crashes, though hardcore fans will probably balk that the feature exists at all. The higher the skill level, the fewer the rewinds you're allowed.
Check out Dirt 2 in action:
Was that a bush? It's a minor point, but the roadside details aren't quite as impressive as the cars and the tire-streaked roads themselves. Foliage doesn't deform as it should when driven through and bystanders don't hold up to careful scrutiny. Very minor, but in a game that looks this good, little details stick out.
Same as it ever was: Despite the variety of events, there's only so much difference among them. You're driving a car (or a truck or a dune buggy) down a narrow raceway trying to either beat a timer or other vehicles. The developers did their best to work in some variety, but each event feels somewhat similar.
Deja view: By the time you're a few hours in, you'll start to notice some unfortunate track repetition. There's some visual variety once you open up Japan and China, but, most of the tracks look samey and you'll race on them over and over. Given that most of the tracks are just dirt paths through generically rocky landscapes, some track remixes would have been nice.
Feels like the first time: Rewind is a boon, but some of the crash sequences are lengthy, and the rewind functionality is so short, that sometimes you can't rewind far enough to actually avoid the accident. Fortunately, this circumstance doesn't happen often, but it's frustrating when it does.
If you're into rally racing or looking for an alternative to Burnout, Dirt 2 offers some thrilling moments. It's probably not the hardcore rally sim that diehard fans are looking for, but it's a great-looking, great-playing, highly-accessible package that will give most race fans a welcome change of pace.