Driving at high speed at the very apex of control has been one of the most reliable constants since videogaming began, be it on manicured, gently cambered tarmac or – in the case of rally sims – dirt. The thrill of the chase, the battles with physical limits of grip, the careful balance between risk and reward: none of this is new or revolutionary, but they’re all notions that have sold racing games at a steady flow (and with increasingly realistic manifestations) since the 8-bit years.[advert]Codemasters’ mastery of the genre is without doubt, and although it’s been far too long since the last Race Driver the studio has, of late, produced exemplary reproductions of both the glitz and slickness of Formula One and the multi-faceted disciplines of off-road racing in the form of the DiRT series. They’ve always been comprehensive, busy games with a refreshingly generious emphasis on content, but – and especially with the latter lineage – some have felt that the content was perhaps spread a little too thinly.
DiRT 3 continues this recent tradition, its transatlantic influence present in everything from the interface voice-overs to the choice of tracks, vehicles and race types: Codemasters might have come true with their promise of more solitary, driver and road rallying but there’s still a huge slice of American attitude that’s soaked throughout the game. Whether you think that’s a positive or a negative is a battle you’ll have to fight yourself, but you can be sure that you’re unlikely to ever get another pure rally title from the publisher.
In the end, of course, the variety plays in the game’s favour. By splitting the single player mode so neatly into seasons, sections and then events, the player can opt to dip in and out of their favourite disciplines at will, assuming they’ve amassed enough points from earlier races. It’s possible to skip some events entirely, then, but completists will find themselves trying out the rather more esoteric genres soon enough and with multi-car rallycross nestled against hill climbs and drift challenges there’s more than enough to go around.[drop]It’s a fairly freeform affair, the career mode, with an obviously prescribed structure breaking down into relatively non-linear sections that come together in the final of each season. It’s all dressed in Codemasters’ typical flair, although the overly ambitious first person interface has been dialed down to an attractive but easy to navigate pairing of flashy triangles and straight-up, bold menus. It does all mean that the loading times are longer than we’d like before you get onto the gravel, but nothing too distracting.
In addition to the main single player mode are an open duo of single races and the much more enterprising time trial mode, which includes leaderboards and downloadable ghosts to ensure as much competitiveness as possible without something like Autolog. There’s a wealth of multiplayer too, and in addition to a most welcome split screen option for two players on a single console (something all too rare these days) there’s a full rack of online options, with some new choices in the form of the evergreen capture the flag and a rather in vogue zombie-type thing in amongst the usual race types.
Perhaps the most interesting new addition is Gymkhana, Ken Block’s calling card and what the majority of DiRT 3’s pre-launch marketing has been pointed at. It’s essentially a show-off mode, combining tricks like smashing through targets with precision throttle and drift control, and whilst ridiculously tricky to master at first quickly becomes second nature as you spend more time with it.
It’s clever, not least because it’s entirely different from the rest of the game, but also because whilst the result (a score) is just as tangible as a time, it’s the way that score is garnered that provides the most excitement. Great players will be able to make use of the ramps, cones and targets in almost balletic fashion, racking up highscores and then posting the proceedings directly to Youtube from within the game for all to see. Participation is forced during the single player mode, but it never outstays its welcome.[drop2]It’s in the traditional rally mode that the game most impresses visually, however – the frame rate most consistent and the subtle motion blur that plays off against sharp textures and great draw distances gives the game a somewhat filmic quality. Crashes are the graphical highlight, not least because the realtime damage model gets a chance to flex its muscles but also because the developers have employed all manor of visual cues to attempt to portray just how bone-cruncingly dangerous this sport can be. They’ve succeeded.
And those shooting for a perfect run (or, indeed, those at the mercy of a brutally direct set of AI opponents) can make use of the instant rewind function, which, carried over from previous Codemasters games, gives the player the opportunity to go back a few seconds and try again. The number of times you can do this depends on the current level you’re playing at (the most basic mode with the most assists give you five rewinds) but when used sparingly it’s a great feature – it’s penalised during the career mode, points wise, but not so much that you wouldn’t use it when really required.[boxout]DiRT 3 is good, solid racing. It’s confident without being overly so, instead preferring to let the sheer amount of race types and events do the talking, and whilst naturally we’d have been happier with more emphasis on the rallying the series (pre-DiRT, at least) was formed on, it’s not hard to appreciate that the wild diversification shown here means that the potential audience is wider. Regardless, when it comes to all-out foot to the floor racing, Codemasters still have that magic touch, and whilst this doesn’t quite reach the lofty brilliance of F1 2010, it’s definitely up there with the best the genre has to offer.
- Frequently gorgeous graphics
- Gymkhana is a nice new addition
- Sublime, albeit hardly sim-like control
- Lovely UI
- Weather effects are great
- Too few locations
- Frame rate takes a dip in multi-car events
- Some of the event types really aren’t that much fun
- Point-to-point courses are mostly too short
There’s a lot to like about DiRT 3 – it controls superbly (twitchy and direct but without losing the sense that there’s some serious physics going on) and, once you dial down the assists, actually offers a surprisingly deep, technical ride. It never pretends to be a sim, though – tuning is basic and the cars come as they are – but it’s certainly not using cheap arcade mechanics either, instead somewhere in-between the two as the series always has. DiRT 2 fans will dig this the most, but the new Gymkhana mode will attract a whole new audience too.