DiRT 2 Demo: The Good, Bad and Pretty
We were very excited to try out the latest demo of DiRT 2 over the weekend, because we are huge fans of the original rally game. Our time with the upcoming sequel left a bittersweet taste in our mouths, because it improves on some ways over its predecessor, but it falls short in others. We are very pleased with the level of polish the game has received, particularly in the menu/music/interface department. In other areas we're not sure we are happy with the direction developers at Codemasters have taken.
The demo features two playable events: a dusty sprint around a track full of modified racing buggies in Baha Mexico, and a mostly solo race against the clock in the arid wastes of Morocco. The final version of the game will feature a total of nine different regions to race in, with hundreds of events spread across these areas.
We first jumped into the Land Rush race in Baha Mexico. Land Rush events pit the player against other opponents for two laps around a closed track, although as far as we could tell this event is only loosely based on real-world racing. Like so many things in this game, the developers have gone for a more extreme - and less realistic - depiction of off-road racing. On the other hand, we definitely found the closed-course race to be entertaining.
Right off the bat, it is clear that the emphasis is on fun, rather than on realism. Opponent AI controlled cars will talk to you and taunt you over the radio (something we're pretty sure doesn't happen in real life) and laugh if you crash your ride. Fireworks explode around you as you pass a certain section of the track, and pools of standing water have been left on the track to catch your wheels in strategic places.
Control of the cars has been tightened up, but not necessarily in a good way. When landing from a particularly impressive jump, the tires will quickly grip the track and point the player on their way. There is no bouncing or sliding uncertainty after a jump. Players can throw their cars into a controlled drift by tapping the handbrake around turns, but this seemed to slow down the car and cause more trouble than it was worth. Basically we were able to win by muscling around other cars, keeping the pedal down, and pointing our car straight through the turns. There didn't seem to be much technical skill required to win, just a fast car and reflexes. At higher difficulty settings, opponent AI cars are faster but not necessarily smarter, so you will need a faster car to beat them.
Graphically the game is quite colorful and runs at a very solid 30 frames per second (we tested on the Xbox 360 only). Textures are very high-resolution and look great, particularly on the sandy surfaces and scrub brush surrounding the course. This is definitely one of the prettiest offroad racing games we've seen. Owing to its new 'eXtreme' style, there was perhaps a little bit too much lens flare on the two tracks we tested. This became a problem particularly during the Morocco sprint, which took place at dusk and was bathed in a bright red sunset. The lighting effects actually interfered with our ability to see the track properly and anticipate upcoming turns.
The Trailblazer event in Morocco features a staggered start, with modified rally cars competing to get the fastest time on a long, straight course. The game says that staggered start allows players to catch up or overtake opponent cars, but this should not actually happen because the track times at the pro level are so close (this is the reason they use staggered starts in real life, to separate the cars). Playing against the computer we were able to overtake two cars that were driving ridiculously slow on the second difficulty setting. Cranking the difficulty up to "serious" made things better - we never encountered an AI controlled car, which is how it should be.
Controls on the Morocco course were different from the closed track. Our car seemed to have too much grip on hard pavement, and not enough on the loose gravel. The car would easily fly in a straight line off the course unless we inched around tight bends. Without having any real desert rally experience under our belt to compare with, we can only reference the first DiRT game, and say that the car handling is very different. We haven't warmed up to it yet, but we possibly could once we get a look at how the other cars handle.
On one occasion that we flew off the track during a turn and smashed into a palm tree, the game helpfully gave us the option to rewind time and continue going. This "flashback" feature is a new gameplay innovation in racers that purists hate but casuals appreciate. It means that you can continue from the middle of a good race after a spot of bad luck. We're pretty hardcore racing fans, so we don't really see the need for it, but it doesn't really bother us and seems to be implemented well.
With its arcade sensibilities, flashback rewind system and over-the-top visuals, the new Colin McRae DiRT has more in common with recent games GRiD and FUEL than it does with the sport of rally racing. Whether this appeals or disappoints will really depend on the individual player, but we can see many long-time Colin McRae fans turned off by this demo. We much preferred the Morocco time trial to the Land Rush event, because the latter seemed too random and unrealistic. The handling for vehicles in both events felt off to us, but this could be a result of the cars chosen for the demo and not indicative of the final game.
Needs more lens flare.
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