"DiRT 2": One Wild Ride

"You scared?"

That's the question I was asked about a dozen times as I walked out onto the X Games rally course to hop into Matthew Johnson's rainbow ride. Johnson was going to take me through one lap of full-speed, sliding-around-turns-at-more-than-50-mph rally action, but the funny thing was, I wasn't scared at all.

Not until someone started talking about the car catching on fire.

It's one thing to crash. They were giving me a helmet and a neck harness just to be on the safe side. But when the PR guy said they might give me a special suit to put on in case the car caught on fire, that's when I started to have second thoughts.

I tried to laugh it off at first, but I swear, not three minutes after I was told about possible fires, a car sped by, and as I watched, I could actually see flames shooting out from the bottom.

Next thing you know, I'm jumping in Johnson's car … and I never did get that fireproof suit.

"You ever been in a fast car before?" Johnson asks me as he revs the engine.

"Only when my wife drives," I say (no joke, my wife drives to the grocery store as if it's the Daytona 500).

He looks at me and laughs, then hits the gas with such force that we are rocketing down the straightaway. Next thing I know, we're hitting a turn sliding sideways and as I check the speedometer, it's at 50 (Johnson later explained that we were actually going faster because that's just how fast the tires were spinning through the slide). As we continue to shoot through to the end of the course, I seriously can't wipe the smile off my face.

First thought: My wife would've killed me if we had crashed and/or I somehow had caught fire.

Second thought: Can I do it again?

It was definitely one of the most fun sports experiences I've ever had in my life (and a little more violent than I anticipated as there's nothing to hold on to inside the car and I was getting thrown around more than I expected, even with all the belts and buckles). But it really put into perspective what goes on in these rally races I previously had experienced only in video games.

Watching my every turn (and one of the guys who kept asking me whether I was scared), was Matt Horsman, the lead designer for upcoming rally game "DiRT 2."

"You're crazy," he says with a laugh. "I want to go next."

I sat down with Horsman the next day to talk about his game and how it compares to what I just experienced on the track for real.

ESPN: Why do you think so many action sports athletes like Dave Mirra and Travis Pastrana are now drawn to competing in rally?

Matt Horsman: I think the draw is in the danger. You get guys like Mirra and Pastrana and Ken Block, and they're driving sideways through a forest at 90 miles per hour — that's damn scary. It's an adrenaline rush. And I think Travis and Dave like the safety of the car. When they normally fall off their bike, they break limbs. In a rally car, they're a bit safer.

ESPN: Mirra, Pastrana and Block are all featured in "DiRT 2." What types of races should gamers expect out of the new game?

Horsman: We wanted to focus on putting the most aggressive off-road racers in the most exotic locations. We do stuff in the game that you just can't do in real life, so we've got a track in the Moroccan desert and one in the Malaysian jungle. We've built a fictional stadium in L.A. with these huge, massive jumps. These all just help add an extra fun element to the game.

ESPN: The game's physics and graphics are amazing. How long have you been working on this engine?

Horsman: The game is being developed by Codemasters in the U.K., and we have this proprietary engine called EGO. The first game to use this engine was the original "DiRT," which came out in 2007. The next game we made was "GRID," so right after "GRID" was done, we took all of that tech, and for "DiRT 2" we added more and more layers.

Now we've got real-time reflection maps, so when you're driving along, you can see the scene on your bonnet and all the flashing lights and the trees. The cars now have twice as many polys than they had before. We have nighttime stages now and a deferred lighting system, which means we can have about 100 different lighting sources on our tracks now. In "GRID," we only had one — the sun. That's all we had. For "DiRT 2," when you're driving at night on the L.A. stage, you'll see spotlights that follow the car and fireworks going off. We spent a lot of effort trying to make everything come alive, and I think it shows.

ESPN: Ken Block actually worked as a consultant on the game. How important was it to get his input?

Horsman: He was fantastic. Ken Block rang us a couple of weeks after the original "DiRT" came out because he knew Colin McRae, who was involved in the game. Ken wanted to be involved in the game, and so did Travis and Dave Mirra and Tanner Foust, and they were all a great help. Ken Block came over to the studio to meet with us, then we would actually send him builds of the game throughout development and he would offer feedback about the handling and the jumps. Jumping is his forte, so he was a great help there.

ESPN: I saw you had a little pair of DC shoes hanging from the mirror in Ken's virtual car in the game. What are some of the cool little things that you can put in your "DiRT 2" ride?

Horsman: We wanted to add fun little elements that we thought players would enjoy, so you can unlock these little dashboard items throughout the game. We have ones that stick to the dashboard and some that stick to the windscreen, as well, and if you're playing on the Xbox 360, one of the first ones you'll unlock is your avatar. You can have your avatar hanging from a string so when you're driving along you can see your little avatar swinging and looking at you wondering what you're doing.

ESPN: What is "DiRT 2"'s career mode going to entail?

Horsman: You start the game and watch Ken Block and Travis battle it out in the finals of the X Games. After the race, Travis Pastrana rings you up and tells you that you've seen what they could do, now they want to see what you can do. So they give you a Subaru and Ken Block invites you to London. You battle Dave Mirra in the first race, then he invites you to go to Baja. So the whole game is about you meeting these superstars and forming relationships with them, then they invite you to travel around the world. Travis brings you to Malaysia, Ken wants you to go chill out in Utah, and the whole game you're going on tour with these guys, and in the end, you're the one racing at the X Games in America, in L.A., and you're trying to go for the gold against Ken Block and Travis.

ESPN: Are you taking one car through career mode, or are you upgrading after each race?

Horsman: In "DiRT," we didn't really let you use the same car throughout the game. You had to switch and get rid of it. So for "DiRT 2," the car you start with, you can basically finish the game with and still be competitive. The Subaru you get at the start of the game, you can upgrade it performancewise. You start in the rookie class, then you get to pro and all-star, so the car increases in power and increases in speed. You can also take that car into different disciplines. So the first car you get is a rally car, but then you buy different discipline packs for it like rally cross, which is where eight drivers go around a short track. You can basically pay your mechanics a bunch of money and they'll convert your car to do rally cross or to do trailblazer, where the cars go 150 mph. Again, there's a pack for that, as well, so if you're a big Subaru fan, you can use your Subaru throughout the game.

ESPN: What plans do you have for "DiRT 2"'s online experience?

Horsman: Every single-player game mode, every discipline is fully online now. We have competitive multiplayer, so you can battle it out where the game picks the tracks so no one can cheat. And we also have jam sessions where you're the host so you make the rules where you can have any car, any track, and you can invite your friends. We also have team support where you can go in with teams of two or four and battle it out against other teams. We've given the community all the tools they need to go out and just have fun with it.

ESPN: What's your best advice on how to drive in the game?

Horsman: Be aggressive. Some people don't use the throttle too much and they slide around the corners. The thing about the game is that you really need to yank the steering wheel, get your back end out and power through the corners. That's how you do rally. As you saw firsthand in the car, you're pretty much going sideways, and that's how you do it in the game. Be aggressive and trust the car.