Tomorrow, Telltale unleashes the season finale of The Walking Dead, and things are looking grim. If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out The Walking Dead, you’re missing one of the most innovative and terrifying games in recent years. On more than one occasion I found myself shouting at the screen while I struggled to hang onto my damp controller. The tension is palpable and constant, and like the comic book and television series, no one is safe. No one.
This Codemasters game came out during holiday 2009. Thanks to a sale on Steam this holiday season, I was able to pick up this game for less than five bucks, and it is worth every penny. So why are we talking about DiRT 2 now? Because it does a lot of things right – as an arcade racing game, an extreme sports game, and as a PC racing title. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s definitely worth your time.
I enjoy arcade racing games. I’m not a car aficionado, and I’m only superficially knowledgeable about people, brands, and tracks that appear in these games. But it’s wildly satisfying to run perfect laps, trade paint with other cars, and acquire new vehicles. DiRT 2 is one of those extreme sports titles where you, as a new-comer to the scene, rise through the ranks, meeting other extreme, famous dudes and ladies along the way. The presentation is similar to way the Skate and Tony Hawk series operate. You make friends in the community, compete in XGames competitions, collect name brand gear, and tour around the world. DiRT 2 features a number of different race modes including Rally and Baja disciplines. There are nine different locations to visit and a couple of different core tracks at each location. As you win more races, you are eligible to compete in top-tier races and tournaments. Oh, and this PC-Steam title is LIVE enabled, which means you can earn achievements. How convenient.
First, the difficultly of creating “difficultly” in racing games
Let’s lay some groundwork for this review. There are a lot of problems with racing games. In many arcade racing games, you race in a field of 8, but the only thing that ever matters is coming in first place. The NFS series, for instance, tracks your progress in Wins and Losses. First place is a win, anything else is a loss.
Realistically it makes no sense: if a NASCAR driver manages to finish every race in a season in 2nd place, they’d more than likely walk away with the Cup, although that would be peculiar. Also, the other 7 AI cars will sometimes operate as a team: the back six try and spin you out while the guy in front creates distance on you. That’s just cheap programming. Speaking of spinning out, did you know that you can run a full 200 laps in EA’s NASCAR games, only to be spun out on the final turn and saddled with a loss. It takes about 2 and 1/2 hours, and there are no “save” points to restart from. That’s some bullshit.
There’s also the “NBA Jam” aspect to racing games. It wouldn’t be any fun if you spent an entire race at the back of the pack with no way to catch up, nor is it challenging to be a full minute in front of the pack. So the pack catches up and slows down to keep you in the action. Kart racing games are notorious for this. So, you’re either racing against the game’s pre-determined target lap times, or just making sure you can spin out the AI in first place before crossing the finish line, its really that simple.
Finally, there is what I like to think of as parallel realities in racing games. If you restart the same race 10 times, and the result is the same each time, you might start to wonder if anything you do in this game can actually affect the outcome. Surely, one out of 10 times there will be a wreck, or a different finishing order. Now, I’m not looking for a wreck to help me get through a race, I’m just looking for some variety. I want to see the AI taking different paths, I want to see them bumping into one another (not just me), I want to see different finishing orders – especially if there are multiple races in one event.
So, what should the difficultly slider do in a racing game? Should the AI finish races faster, make fewer mistakes, finish in the same order in each race, or just try to spin you out in the final lap? There’s a delicate balance between fun, “realism” and difficultly.
Back to DiRT 2
DiRT 2 solves a lot of these problems with “replays”. If you fuck up in the middle of a ten minute race, you don’t have to start all over. With a quick press of the instant replay button, you can rewind time (almost like Prince of Persia), back up a few moments and try again. At first it feels like a gimmie, but its not. Think about it, if you wreck, you’ll just start over anyhow, and as many times as it takes until you learn that section of the track. Either that or you’ll just throw the controller down and quit.
This just speeds up the process and keeps you in the “fun zone”. As you increase the game difficultly you reduce the number of times you can rewind in a single race, and the AI gets incrementally better. However, in DiRT 2 you can run a race multiple times and actually see the AI wreck out. Each iteration of a race feels different, which adds some personality to the other drivers on the track
“You totally nailed that one, Chief!”
“Uh, thanks, guy I hardly know.” Anyone that’s played one of these sport career games can attest that athletes don’t necessarily make great voice artists in games. Actually, most of the time they’re turrible. With DiRT 2, the voice acting sounds sincere… it sounds like acting, not being read off a script page. The personality integration is also totally non-intrusive. This isn’t one of those games where the “T-Mobile Product Placement Sidekick” automatically opens to retrieve a voicemail or read a text. Seriously, no one gives a shit.
With DiRT 2, you leave a race and return to the “infield” area, a name a picture of an athlete appear in the upper left-hand corner – you hear a few words of encouragement and are then free to go about your business. Oh, and the lines they speak are normal lines, “hey, great job out there”. Awesome! There’s very little douchebag-ery to be found with the character personalities. There are enough different personalities that these somewhat vanilla lines don’t get boring either, nor do they get in your way. Simple, non-intrusive, fun. Thanks, Codemasters.
PC Gaming is still awesome…
If you don’t believe me, compare a few recent games like Bioshock and Fallout 3 to the console. Console has the popularity, but PC still has a visual edge. So, you shouldn’t just port the code from the 360 to get a few extra sales… I’m looking at you, Red Faction: Guerrilla. That game suffered from v-sync problems and memory management issues, even at the lowest settings. I had to finish that game “windowed” for the best stability. DiRT 2 runs almost maxed out, still at 60 fps, with very very few slowdowns and only a single lock-up in a 5 hour session (which probably had more to do with my system than the game itself). Codemasters uses some additional audio technology for sound virtualization, and supports some other useful functionality like Alt-Tab and Alt-Enter. Loading is done on the fly, meaning that there are no pointless loading screens with repetitive “tips” or “facts”. Saving and loading are discretely hidden between transition from setup to racing by displaying stats about your progress, and messages from the personalities in the game.
Overall, DiRT 2 is a great example of racing done right. There’s enough variety in the different types of cars and races that keeps repetition to a minimum. You can customize the experience to your preference, realistic or arcade-y, although it’s not a true sim like the GT series. The various character personalities are a nice touch, without being annoying, and are integrated tastefully between races. PC support is impressive, the game runs at nearly 60 fps at high detail on an average system with a discrete graphics card. Even at $20 bucks on Steam, it is a game to keep on your radar as a good chance of pace from the RPG and FPS games we tend to gravitate toward. Happy gaming.