DIRT2: Hands On, Devs Speak, Expensive Chair

By Jim Rossignol on May 26th, 2009 at 4:10 pm.


On a recent visit to Codemasters I had a chance to play DIRT2, and to talk to the lead design team. They explained to me how the game is intended to appeal to a wider, US-dominated audience, and how the core of rally-game realism remains in this rather more excitable racer for the extreme-sports generation. There’s also a lovely picture of me sat in one of the most expensive gaming peripherals I have ever been strapped to.

Things kicked off with me feeling rather old. I had no idea that rally had finally penetrated the American entertainment consciousness. Suddenly the snazzy, colourful presentation of the new game began to make sense. This is a racer that intends to chime in with the huge engine of US TV, rather than simply court the classical mud-mastery of international rally. My instincts recoil from that kind of glitz, admittedly, but the Codies team talked the talk, and showed me a ridiculously solid-looking racer too. Off-roading with noise and energy drinks might just work.

Matt Horsman, who is the lead designer on the project, put things into perspective: “DIRT was the basically the most authentic offroad racing experience of a couple of years ago. We added offroad racing classes from the US, official rallycross, and overall more variety so that a wider audience would be interested. With DIRT2 we wanted to increase the fidelity, and then look a bit more at what the Americans do with the X-Games, and the American Rallying Championship. In the US rallying is seen as the new extreme sport, and you’ve got people like Dave Mirra, the BMX champion, Ken Block, the skateboarder and snowboarder, all those kinds of guys, participating in the new rallying events. It’s new to those extreme sports audiences, even though the rest of the world has been rallying for thirty years. They’re using the same sort of cars, Subarus and such, but the open class is less restricted on horsepower than World Rally Car.”

This begins to explain the angle that DIRT2 is taking: the austere DIRT menus have been replaced with a rock ‘n’ roll backstage-at-the-event system, with your core menus inside a heavily decorated trailer – your base for international racing operations. Up close it seems far more digestible than I’d expected, even though I loved that original clean-white menu system.

Horsman continued: “As you might expect, the presentation for all this is much more exciting than it has been in Europe. We’ve traditionally had one guy commentating and a camera on various corners, but in the US they have helicopters tracking cars, cameras on wires above the track, big crowds, and so on. It’s very much tied into the “cool” branding of the extreme sports, and DIRT 2 reflects that.”

Adam Askew, the producer, chimes in at this point: “The presentation, as you’ll see in the menus and such, reflects this more youth-orientated branding, but the focus of the game remains on realism, and on off-road racing being incredibly exciting as gameplay.”

Which means the game is, once you get into the driving seat, every bit as down to earth as the original title. “Every location in the game is real, all the vehicles are real, and handle realistically. We’ve got nine locations: three European, three Asian, three American.” And, Askew later reveals, you can elect to use any vehicle on any track. So racing down terrifying gritty tracks tracks in a racing truck is now a possibility. I see glimpses of Battersea power station rallycross events, and a series of Croatian classic mountain rally trails.

The team are proud of the new racing environments they’re creating, although it’s hard to know whether to care about authenticity. What matters is that the tech is so robust, and the feel of the game so positive. This is, in part, down to Codies having a single tech platform which is developing in multiple threads across the entire company – the guys developing tech for Operation Flashpoint are giving it back to the guys developing DIRT2, and back again. One team’s smoke effects will lighten the burden of another team’s realistic dust needs. Not only that but the DIRT2 team has been on the ground, collecting assets, as Askew explained. “We send the artists and designers who are actually working on these levels to those locations, to really capture the “feel” of environment, and you’ll see that they have done that brilliantly.”

For Askew, this attention to “real details” is part of making the game more approachable. He doesn’t see realism as necessarily making simulation games difficult to get into. If you make the game look fun and colourful from the front end, people will be compelled to try it out. “It’s all about the presentation,” he explained. “The packaging amounts to a storyline that pulls you through a game. It’s something that simulations do not do, but something we’re getting increasingly good at. We’re the missing link between people who just want to have a blast in a racing game and the people who want to take games a bit more seriously. The presentation we’re working on is about making a player’s progress through the game into an event – the original game had great races, but they weren’t really connected together. The front end hi-tech design was great, but it distances players from their experience. Racing games have been too austere: they need to learn from action games. Expectations of games are changing across the board, and racing games need to move with that. Look at the personality and character design that gets put into Tomb Raider or Gears Of War – racing games generally don’t have that, you’re in one car, and then in another car, with no connecting apart from the name of the driver. You’re not connecting with a personality.” DIRT2 is addressing that issue, says Askew.

Codies producer also thinks that the game will appeal to players on a more basic, collect ‘em up level, and a social level, as they round out their career as a driver. “You’ll see events become a part of your life in the game – trinkets on the dashboard, souvenirs in your trailer, and so on. But more than that we want players to see their rivals as more than a list of names. We’re looking at this banter system that will allow other cars to communicate with you in the race – and there will be less of them, too, so that players can remember who beat them, or who they beat. We want you to have interaction with these other drivers over contact on the track – building teams becomes important later on.”

But I couldn’t help thinking, wouldn’t rally fans be alienated by all this extreme sports stuff? Horsman says not: “No, because the racing is still so authentic. You can still pick simple or technical co-driving calls, and so on, so experienced rally gamers are still catered for. We’re still about realism, with proper weight handling now obvious in the way the cars drive – the cars are handling better than ever before, thanks to our continually developing tech. But remember that this is an off-road racing game. The 2005 Colin McRae was a rally game. It’s fair to say that the genre is now moving into larger markets.”

And I am moving into another room, where the DIRT2 devs strap me into a $15,000 force-feedback racing chair from D-Box. It’s the familiar force-feedback racing wheel and pedals, only this time bolted into a chair that is sat on four pistons which throw you about as you play. The photography here doesn’t quite capture my being flung into the air by the impacts from the chair. I did not shame myself entirely.

Anyway, hands on and it was clear that the game was as precise and clean a racing experience as ever. The visuals didn’t seem to do much to top what we’d already seen in DIRT2, aside from being astonishingly bright and clear, although I was informed that this was a work in progress for the PC, and that higher end systems would be rather more glossy and GRID-beating at release, not to mention supporting very high res systems. I guess we’ll see. (The images here are the currently release “target renders”, rather than accurate to release-build visuals.)

The four-wheel drive of the Subaru I was driving was lovingly simulated (as is my horrendous spills into nearby trees) with a remarkable sense of applied power as you throw the car around the corners of the Croatian rally course. For the simulation set the game is as precise as previous incarnations, with the shifting weight of cars as they move around inclines and corners being the focus of Codies’ physics attention in this new game. It seemed pretty awesome to me, except when I pushed it so far that I flipped the car entirely. Happily, the chair did not flip over in sympathy, and I survived the experience. Of course at home, like most racers, I played DIRT on a game pad. But even with this wheel-chair monstrosity the same kind of fierce, fresh feel to the track was evident in DIRT2. I enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – the previous game, and I do get the feeling that DIRT2 is going to fill the same whole, only with a lot more fireworks and flash-photography.

Ultimately, I suppose there’s no real doubt that this will step out as the king of off-road racers when it is released in September. (Which means it took just a year to develop. Blimey.)

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44 Comments »

  1. sigma83 says:

    Slick chair!

  2. Grammer Pedant says:

    “We’ve got nine locations: three European, three Asian, three European.” ??

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    It’s “grammar”. (Fixed) :P

  4. Jonas says:

    I like the beard! (<- not sarcasm)

    Oh yeah and that chair looks pretty cool too.

  5. AndrewC says:

    I remember the kerfuffle when DIRT had the Amurrican co-driver being all ‘totally dude’ and ‘awesome’. ‘Colin McRae is BRITISH!’ came the possibly nationalistic cries. I thought that was a bit of a daft response.

    But there was a teaser trailer out a few months ago that I’ll assume RPS didn’t link to out of questions of taste rather than laziness that was a first person shot inside a trailer with naked ladies in the shower just coo-ing about how great you are and throbbing penis-cars and loud rawk and omg the retardo-teenage wish-fulfilment nearly killed me.

    So yeah, that trailer got me worried.

  6. bighatdino says:

    I think rally hit it big in the States the year Colin McRae took on Travis Pastrana in a stadium-based super-special at an X-Games. Colin rolled to much cheering, and Pastrana won to just as much cheering.

  7. nakke says:

    “DIRT was the basically the most authentic offroad racing experience of a couple of years ago”
    Ummmmmm. No. I wonder if this is still pivot-based goodness. It doesn’t matter as much in a rally game, though, but still silly that they’ve continued to use it.

  8. Nallen says:

    “the game is even precise than previous incarnations”

    Yay :) lets all bash Jim.

    Does the chair add anything or is it like those absurd ‘bullet impact’ vests from a few years ago. You know one of the things that make games a lot more user friendly than real war…and motor sport? they don’t HURT and aren’t hugely expensive.

  9. Radiant says:

    Rossignol your wrists are HUGE.

  10. Sir Digby says:

    Ever tasteful to the series namesake I see…

    I hope it’s better optimized for the PC than DIRT 1 was though.

  11. Howard says:

    I’ve no problem with all this “update the franchise” and “make it more accessable” stuff. That’s all fine and good. My concern is that Codies still think that DiRt nailed the Sim feeling of rally driving.

    It did not. While it was a fun enough game (that I still play I hasten to add) there was a definite feeling of “Hovercraft Sim” to its driving model that always made it feel a bit childish. I was hoping that as they have their engine already nailed and being developed by multiple teams (as you said) that they could spend a bit more time on the realism but it sounds like they haven’t. Such a shame as when Codies get it right they produce some cracking racing games. I grant they are never gonna be as “Sim” as GTR et al but they still used to be good.

    Think I’ll be giving this one a miss…

  12. Xercies says:

    I don’t know, i feel dread when they said they wanted it to be cool and at a teenage audience(Nothing wrong with the teenage audience its just some companies have an expectation of what the teenage audience means). But I would like a decent rally game again, Colin mcrae Rally 4 is getting a bit old for me now.

  13. Jim Rossignol says:

    @nallen: the chair was fun feedback, but $15k of fun? No.

  14. Johann Tor says:

    What a cool old-school write-up!

  15. Heliocentric says:

    Grid was brilliant, if this game is just “More Grid on Mud” then that’s fine by me. So the chair isn’t worth 15k, but i wonder if the lower end variants are worth anything.

    Failing that I might need to employ some amateur electronics to put some oversized rumble pads in a chair. So powerful you need to bolt the chair to the floor, and wear a seatbelt or you’ll fall out.

    Oh yes…

    I grabbed Toca 3 in the GOG sale, it really was Grid 0.5, the games have been steadily progressing down a track towards ease of use. Shame Grid didn’t have the range of Toca 3.

    Following is an excerpt from the Toca 3 Wikipedia article:
    * Classics: The Classic Discipline allows you to compete in some of the most famous racing cars ever raced. From the 1930s Championship winning Mercedes W25 to the powerful muscle cars of the ’70s.
    * GT: Race some of the most prestigious and exotic sports cars in the GT discipline. Take part in multi-class races, and get to grips with some of the most powerful racing cars in the world of motorsport.
    * Oval: From dirt ovals, to the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, experience the excitement of the world’s fastest professional motor sport.
    * Touring car: The Touring car discipline is about aggressive, high-octane, pack racing. Ultimately aiming to earn a place in either the DTM or V8 Supercar Championship Series.
    * Off-road: From Rally, to Baja, Nissan Dakar to Rally Cross, experience every Level of Off Road racing in the Off Road discipline. The challenge in this thrilling style of racing is not only master your vehicle, but also the environment.
    * Open Wheel: Perhaps one of the most technically difficult disciplines, Open Wheel demands that drivers fully understand the nuances of each Track and vehicle. The secret here is all about the racing line, and taking great care to avoid contact in these powerful, but fragile machines.
    * TMS: Comepete in a series of time trial events at the 400-acre (1.6 km2) Beford Autodrome Complex. Each Event Take place in a Different and circuit at the site.
    * Honda: This Discipline features a selection of unique and challenging Championships, pitting players in a number of different Honda vehicles, including a lawnmower (a possible reference to one of Codemasters’ earlier titles “Advanced Lawnmower Simulator”).
    * Toy: After beating World Tour, you unlock a championship where you can race RC and slot cars.

  16. Ploddish says:

    You look a lot more rugged than I imagined you.

    Not that that’s a bad thing. And not that I’m insinuated that all games journos are bumfluff covered whippersnappers.

    Posh watch too! Sorry, wait, what was this post about again? Driving? What?

  17. The_B says:

    That picture of Jim seems to be missing something.

    Ah yes.

    “Do not be afraid, I AM FROM THE FUTURE.”

  18. Vinraith says:

    If it makes you feel any better, Jim, I’ve long been the only American rally fan of which I’m aware. *I* had no idea anyone else in this country had taken notice of it either. Then again I generally think European racing is more interesting than American, if for no other reason than that people in this country seem to be obsessed with driving around on oval speed tracks. What fun is that?

  19. ACESandElGHTS says:

    Rossignol: Excellent presence of mind there to effect half a pose/expression for the camera. So many look like deer in headlights.
    Love me some rally games. Can anything step up to RalliSport 2 for being so beautifully adapted for multiplayer, leaderboards, etc.?
    I was dead-set on buying DIRT, then Forza 2 seemed to step in the way, partly because of DIRT’s lack of multiplayer options.
    Codies: Please make all modes multiplayer, thank you.

  20. Schmung says:

    Dirt had incredibly nasty handling it has to be said. GRID was jolly fun though, so there may be some hope for this and it’s been a good long while since my rally lust has been properly sated. I just hope that they sort out the handling.

  21. BrokenSymmetry says:

    DiRT still has the most beautiful front-end I have ever seen in a game, and now Codemasters denounce that as “distancing”? That is just as weird as Bizarre Creation’s Martyn Chudley denouncing the magnificent PGR as “hating its players”, and seeing Blur as the answer to that. What kind of identity crisis is going on in the racing-game world?

    Anyway, DiRT’s Australian rally tracks are the most beautiful environments I have ever raced in, and I played DiRT as a pure rally game, ignoring all other race types. Let’s see if that is still possible in DiRT 2, but it doesn’t seem likely…

  22. Gravey says:

    @AndrewC: What if we set that trailer to the theme from Hawaii Five-O?

    @ACESandEIGHTS: I believe RC2 is hands-down the best, most accessible, most fun, most focused rally racer to date, and it’s a real shame it’s not backwards compatible when RC1 is. Of course what the world needs now is RC3, sweet RC3, but DICE obviously have their hands full with every possible permutation of Battlefield. For reasons that escape me.

  23. ACESandElGHTS says:

    @Gravey: Indeed — of particular beauty were the British tracks, and I swear I could smell the moist, molding leaves and dewey meadows in that game. I was deeply disappointed with its lack of back compatibility, and you’re right, we do need a large RalliSport 3 dose, like, RIGHT NOW. I’m somewhat developer-savvy, but never saw the Battlefield–Ralli link. That’s disappointing. I once started a small-time forum rumor about RalliSport 3 and people were falling all over themselves asking for proof — that’s how badly it’s needed.

    @Broken Symmetry: That DIRT front end was nice. Funny how that was a selling point, but it really does make a game all the better when menus are laid out in a pleasing style. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that DIRT 2 is all I could ever want in a rally game.

  24. Ginger Yellow says:

    Horsman continued: “As you might expect, the presentation for all this is much more exciting than it has been in Europe. We’ve traditionally had one guy commentating and a camera on various corners, but in the US they have helicopters tracking cars, cameras on wires above the track, big crowds, and so on. It’s very much tied into the “cool” branding of the extreme sports, and DIRT 2 reflects that.”

    Aaaargh. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, given how fun Dirt was, but Aaaaargh.

  25. hahaha says:

    Did they say anything about adding 2 player (for console) or even PC (I recall Colin 3 had it)?

  26. Ziv says:

    “But I couldn’t help thinking, wouldn’t rally fans be alienated by all this extreme sports stuff? Horsman says not: “No, because the racing is still so authentic. You can still pick simple or technical co-driving calls, and so on, so experienced rally gamers are still catered for”
    no. I’m sorry, that’s gonna fail, no one has ever managed to do such a switch (except seinfeld).
    btw. cool watch, what is it?

  27. fabamatic says:

    They are lying, I’d rather play Collin McRae Rally 2005 than DiRT. If I’d want to play a “light” car game I’d go for Outrun…

  28. Gravey says:

    @ACESandElGHTS: Continuing the RC2 love-in… Mirror’s Edge is the closest DICE has given us to a racing game since. Watching wheels kick up leaves that you (certainly me, and apparently you as well) could practically smell still makes me giddy. Or the thought of it anyway–now the closest I can get is re-reading Kristan Reed’s review on Eurogamer, which I do from time to time. God I loved that game.

    RC2 also had the slightly more x-treme American-appealing slant to it, with its hard-rockin’ wheel-to-wheel intro to sucker in the rally-dubious, but then hit them with, yes, nice clean menus.

    Also, best loading screens, in any game, ever. Because in addition to being informative, you could tune your car, or switch cars totally, during them. That’s why.

    This is what DIRT2 has to compete with: increasingly utopian memories of RC2.

    /sighs wisftfully, heads to EG…

  29. Pedant says:

    @Article (as is my horrendous spills into nearby trees)
    @Correction (as were my horrendous spills into nearby trees)

    Just spotted at bottom of page:
    Statistical chance of typo-free post: 0.669%
    :D

  30. Heliocentric says:

    @pedant
    You misunderstand, he wrote it live, that’s why he crashed.

  31. Rei Onryou says:

    Jim’s beard leaves me with funny feelings in my tummy. Is your beard single?

  32. Heliocentric says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EA_Digital_Illusions_CE

    Dice made Benefactor? Holy shit that game was amazing.

  33. url404 says:

    @BrokenSymmetry

    Here’s hoping they classify Australia as part of the “Asia” region and it’ll get a look in.

    They really are scaring me off a bit with this whole XTREME!!! angle (I was thinking that makes me feel old but in retrospect I’ve always been annoyed by that sort of thing).

    Ah well, Colin McRae Rally 2 will always have the soft spot in my heart but I may be alone in that.

  34. DerangedStoat says:

    I get the impression that they are trying to muddy the water between ‘simulation’ and ‘realism’. Now I have no doubt that, as they claim, they are going to make the cars and the environments as realistic as possible. But a simulation (aka ‘realistic handling’)? ha! Pivot based physics do not make a good simulation.
    Now I’m all for having accessable physics available for the people who want it, but for the love of god, if you are going to claim to be a simulation, please at least give us a ‘Richard Burns Rally-esque’ mode with proper physics!

    Personally I don’t care for the Xtreme! attitude or the storyline, and I think the whole concept of opponents talking to you during a race is cringeworthy, if a character keeps beating me, I’m going to notice them regardless, and I don’t need or want them begging for attention during a race. The appeal to me in all racing games, is trying to master the handling and circuits.

    I’m also hoping the Australian tracks from Dirt make a return, in particular something similar to the one through the eucalypts with all the shadows across the road. That track was by far the most intense.

  35. Thiefsie says:

    I loved playing dirt with the MS force feedback wheel (360) – I must finish it sometime. I put so many people down in front of that with the wheel who don’t play games and they had a blast, unlike PGR4 where precise control is a bit more of a necessity. God I love simulated cockpits – biggest let down for Forza2 for me.

    RBR is still the best rally sim though… it’s purely phenomenal. – it’s the IL2 of rally…

  36. Thiefsie says:

    No Seatbelt? For shame…

  37. Stem says:

    Didn’t play Dirt as my system wasn’t up to it so I stuck with CM2005 but looking forward to this as Grid was excellent. Did you manage to sneak a peek at OFP2 while you were there?

  38. Ian says:

    Jim looks mentally unhinged in that picture.

    Is that normal?

  39. Switchbreak says:

    Coming from the US, I didn’t even know Rally Racing was an actual thing until I read this article. The only times I’ve ever heard of it was in the context of video games.

  40. recnelis says:

    > Rossignol your wrists are HUGE.

    Jim must use his wrists a lot!

    I didn’t like the vehicle physics in DiRT, and the steering felt incredibly light with my Logitech wheel. It felt marginally better with a 360 controller. This time, I’ll wait for a demo before considering a purchase…

  41. Caveat says:

    I just recently started playing Dirt because I finally picked up a Xb0x controller for my PC. Is definitely fun. As for the physics, the plain fact of the matter is that there’s really only one or two rally racing franchises. So if I have to pick between a game with crap physics and no game at all, I think I’ll stick with the crap physics.

  42. Clippit says:

    I don’t care about Codemasters making dumb games for dumb people (yes I am a snob), but I am a bit disappointed in RPS for this writeup. Where’s the critical evaluation of the claims presented? Without that, you’re doing little more than providing ad space for Codemasters. Is it good or bad that they’re taking this approach? Is the X Games a good or a bad thing for the various “sports” involved? What, if anything, is to be made of the shift from simulation to action-oriented games, within this franchise? Instead of a strong emphasis on “presentation”, might it be interesting to have an emphasis on “interpretation”; a racing game where the player is allowed or encouraged to have their own interpretation of the content?

  43. Pyrrhuloxia says:

    Jake Gyllenhaal writes for RPS?

  44. Fargate says:

    It sounds like Codies knows as much about American rally as they do about driving physics.