Like a mud-spattered Audi Sport Quattro E2, Codemasters' rally games just keep on going whether the ground is heavy gravel or wet mud. They've been at this for a long, long time. Mostly, they've been successful.
With Dirt Rally 2.0, Codemasters has been very successful.
This probably isn't a huge surprise. They were big boots to fill - the first Dirt Rally was, in my humble opinion, one of the best driving games of the last few years. It looked beautiful, the cars handled well, and there were enough customisation options for gearheads to get lost in while the rest of us could just sling our cars off icy precipices in hilarious ways.
Dirt Rally 2.0 is exactly like its predecessor. Make of that what you will. In terms of racing enjoyment, it's very similar to Dirt Rally 1. It's fun! This isn't a bad thing! You can only re-invent rally driving so far, you know? For the most casual player, this is just a bunch more maps for Dirt Rally. Gorgeous maps. Poland, in particular, is captured with the loving detail and sense of place the Wales maps from the first game enjoyed. Weirdly, the Poland maps feel like they've imported the maps from Kingdom Come: Deliverance, taken out all of the old-timey buildings and geezers on horseback and stuffed the gaps with cheering men in flourescent tabards.
Poland aside though, I suppose if any criticism could be leveled at the maps it's that they are mostly quite similar. Argentina and Spain both have rocky canyons and mountain passes that set them apart from the others, but aside from the mud being a little redder in the Australia courses there's not a huge amount to separate them from the New Zealand levels. The russet autumnal hues of New England stand out a bit, and I guess it's really a characteristic of rally driving that you're not going to find any city maps. There is a marked absence of snowy and icy levels, although I'm assured they're on their way in a soon-to-be-released addon pack.
And now, on to the thing that I feel is the high point of Dirt Rally 2.0. The wonderful navigator. Effort has definitely been made to ensure that the navigation sounds more natural and smooth this time, and the vocabulary has been expanded to incorporate more of the impenetrable jargon of rally pace notes (including 'and', which apparently means something important to some drivers somewhere). Best of all, though, is that the navigator has a soothing welsh twang that makes listening to his dulcet tones extremely painless. He exudes a warm calmness that belies the frenetic sideways-sliding nonsense that is usually happening on the roads, giving the illusion that everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to be just fine.
Of course, it rarely is. I begin every round as a starry-eyed driver eyeing the muddy winner's podium with sincere intent, then by the third 'caution left one don't cut' there are pieces of my car scattered throughout the countryside and I'm desperately trying to lurch to the end without exploding. As was the case with Dirt Rally 1.0, the early classes of vehicle are relatively easy to chuck around the course, but once you move up a few classes those confident handbrake turns that should swing the back of your car impressively around that hairpin in a satisfying shower of gravel actually leave you sliding sideways into a gaggle of curiously unafraid spectators. There is a learning curve that is challenging yet manageable.
And even when you've sharpened those skills up, there are daily and weekly challenges that have online leaderboards that coldly show you how bad you actually are compared to the general rally game-playing population.
Thankfully, the whole crew management thing has been simplified a little, which is definitely a good thing. It's great to sneak a few little unlocks in there under the guise of crew skill upgrades, but you don't play rally games for their accurate simulation of the life of an HR manager. Repairs and upgrades to the vehicle are similarly simple to understand, although the available tweaks and tuning options are clearly explained for those of us who wouldn't otherwise have a clue what they do. There are tons of them too, so the mechanically-minded can fine-tune their experiences to their heart's content. Again, this is an example of deep gameplay with a manageable learning curve.
Aside from straight-up rally courses, there are a handful of rallycross courses as well, stadium-enclosed routes that can provide as much mud and opportunity for horrifying crashes as the longer road courses but with the added lunacy of four other drivers.
I had a little trouble with the free play feature. When you get enough money to get a new car, the first thing you want to do is take it for a spin. So begins a series of menus as you try to find a course you can race it on. Cars are split between rally and rallycross, and it's all a little confusing at first. I'd have appreciated a button that just said something like "I'm really excited about my new car that I just saved up for! Let's just chuck it onto any old appropriate course and let me do a few miles". Actually, that might be a little too much text for a button.
I sort of have to criticise, you know? It's the job. Truth is, though, I've really enjoyed every minute I've spent with Dirt Rally 2.0, just as I did with 1.0 before it. The handling is gorgeous, the routes are truly beautiful to look at, and the management is ...manageable. The cars all have tons of individual character, the rallycross feels scrappy and frenetic and everything just comes together wonderfully. Codemasters, eh? They really have the hang of this thing.