Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: Single player, 2 player split screen, 1-8 player online & system link. YouTube uploads.
DiRT 3 is the latest instalment in the Codemasters series that can trace its roots back to the original Playstation’s Colin McRae Rally games. DiRT has moved away from the serious sim nature of the old games, diluting the standard Rally formula with new events and gimmicks. The last game was set in a never ending Extreme Sports Festival, like some previously unknown circle of Hell, which has thankfully gone from this instalment. DiRT 3 adds the Gymkhana event, made famous by Ken Block’s YouTube advert for DC Shoes. This involves scoring points by performing stunts around a series of obstacles, building up combos by stringing them together without crashing, much like a real life version of Project Gotham Racing. There are also timed point-to-point events, including traditional Rally (complete with excellent pace notes) and Trailblazer events (like Rally without a co-driver using specialized hillclimb vehicles) as well as circuit-based Rallycross, pitting Rally-style cars directly against each other, Landrush (which is basically the same, but with purpose built trucks or buggies), and Head To Head, which is a Rally Super Special Stage in all but name.
Although the handling will feel a little odd at first to DiRT newcomers, after a while it becomes second nature and importantly it never feels wrong or inconsistent, just different. If anything, the handling seems to be optimised for Gymkhana; I’ve never played another game where it was so easy to drift a car around so many different sized circles. It may not apply to many who play DiRT 3 but driving also feels very natural with a wheel, although force feedback seems both weaker and less detailed than in DiRT 2. For some reason the 360 version doesn’t support either a clutch or a shifter even with a compatible Fanatec setup. The only option is clutchless sequential shifting, even though manual with clutch is supported on both PC and PS3 versions with the exact same wheel.
There are a huge range of driving assists available—with everything on, you barely need to be watching the screen to win a race, making this a racing game that literally anyone can pick up and play. The game also includes Codemasters’ familiar Flashback feature, allowing you to rewind several seconds of a race after you make a mistake, up to five times per race. For the full experience, you’re better off switching all the assists off and customising the difficulty level of the AI drivers. The only problem with the otherwise excellent AI in the game is that it can be a little inconsistent, running on some tracks much better than others (snow races at Aspen seem a lot easier to win than any other events.) Even when you’ve found a difficulty level that gives you a decent challenge, it’s not uncommon to scrape a second place in one race, and then win the next by 13 seconds with no change in driving style or magical increase in ability inbetween.
Graphically it might not have the level of detail found in GT5, but this is a game about the thrill of careening down a dirt track on the knife-edge of control, never more than a split-second from disaster, not about taking pretty pictures of the gear knob on a CGI car. Nor is it about exploiting your inner Ash Ketchum (Pokemon), with nothing to keep you playing apart from a borderline OCD that forces you to collect hundreds of cars you’ll never even want to drive. While the car models might not look the best standing still, once they’re in silky-smooth high frame rate motion you’ll never notice and the game gives a brilliant impression of speed. Lower poly counts don’t mean lack of attention to detail in the models. As an example, anyone who’s ever driven a proper Mini at speed will recognise the way the wipers start to flap alarmingly on the Monte Carlo winning ’60s Rally model, making the in-car experience all the more authentic. The way the cars take damage is great too, right down to body parts falling off in little pieces instead of flapping about in a big chunk and falling off in one go, although the level of damage you can take before being forced to retire (or even losing performance) is very generous, even on the hardest difficulty settings. You’ll also notice that the tuning options actually make a difference to the handling and things like changes in ride height and wheel camber are instantly noticeable from outside the car too.
The backdrops you race against are something else entirely; imaginative, ambitious and fantastically realised, particularly the point-to-point style stages – everything GT5’s Rally stages weren’t. Racing through the African Savannah from the in-car view is just spectacular. Somehow Codemasters have managed to give the illusion that the 3D terrain you’re racing on isn’t merely a ribbon of drivable track in the middle of a scenic backdrop but part of the real world, thanks to 3D terrain complete with trees that sway in the breeze, watering holes and rocks stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction without a hint of pop-up. The latest 2.0 version of the EGO engine really makes it seem as if you could turn off the track and just keep driving over the horizon at any time—if only the pesky game wouldn’t keep resetting your car when you fly more than a couple of meters off track.
It sounds fantastic too; from the whining gearboxes to chirruping turbos to the rattle of gravel bouncing off the underside of your car, everything sounds exactly right. You can easily tell when your car has sustained serious damage just from listening to it whistle, wheeze and scrape in strange new ways, with the sounds actually getting louder when you smash a window out or lose a door if you’re using the in-car view (and you really should, because it’s the best in any driving game yet.) You can even recognise the different types of snow from the sound they make, from the wet squelch of melted slush, through crisply crunching drifts to the lightest of powder. It makes a nice change not to have to turn off some hideously inappropriate in-race music too – by default? there isn’t any. Unlike many racing games of late it’s almost as if Codemasters actually play their game before putting it on the shop shelves.
Although there’s a decent selection of classic and modern Rally cars (and some of their drivers as opponents in the later stages), there are some obvious gaps in the lineup for future DLC. Career mode now consists of a series of slickly designed menus, getting you into the action with the minimum of fuss. You’re guided and encouraged by the disembodied voices of your management team; a friendly English woman, an Australian mechanic and an annoying American from the Burnout Paradise DJ school. As you progress, you’ll take on four seasons of increasingly tough events. Race Points and Driver ‘Rep’ are awarded for placing near the front in races, with extra Rep available for completing specific goals in a race. There are also optional ‘DC Challenges’ for extra Rep, including Gymkhana Time Attacks, simplistic Drift Challenges (where you get as many points for spinning out of control as for skilful drifting) and Smash Attacks, where you have to destroy polystyrene robots. Points unlock new events and Rep levels you up, unlocking new vehicles (or new sponsors on old models, more often than not—there are only really a couple of dozen different car models). The system works well, never leaving you more than one victory away from unlocking a new event or levelling up, so no Gran Turismo-style grinding here!
The main issue with career mode is that it seems a bit shallow; for about 70% of the game events only consist of two stages, not really giving you time to get your teeth into any particular discipline before it’s time to move on. The problem is lessened by the time you reach the final season (with four stages in an event) and you can unlock race-type specific World Tours, letting you stick with your favourite racing styles for longer, but it never goes away completely. It’s also not until the final season that the races actually get long enough for you to have to start worrying about running out of Flashbacks. Once that happens, every race becomes much more tense and exciting—sure, you could just not use the Flashbacks, but who can really resist when the game prompts you every time you wipe out? Short events make the game ideal for quick pick up and play blasts (or if you have ADD), but that’s not really what you want from a career mode, especially when every race type could make up an entire game standing on its own merits.
If you prefer to get DiRTy with friends, there’s also a great range of multiplayer options, including an online DiRT Tour, taking you through a never-ending series of competitive events from the single player game, scoring Rep and increasing your MP level with Fans, an MP-only Rep equivalent. MP is handled well, with Gymkhana, Rally and Trailblazer seeing all competitors racing simultaneously, appearing as ghosts to each other to avoid having to wait for your turn, while Rallycross and Landrush are standard full contact. There’s never much hanging around in lobbies between races, so you’re likely to have to wait for a race to finish before you get to join in. Unfortunately, generous damage modelling, low-grip surfaces, and the hectic nature of the circuits mean there’s a lot of overly aggressive driving. Lower level drivers always start from the front of the grid, making them sitting ducks. The Flashback system is also available in MP, where it immediately resets you at full speed in the centre of the track wherever you were a second before you activated it. To say that this is open to abuse in MP would be a massive understatement—luckily you can limit it as one of the many options when setting up a race lobby. There are also a range of other MP modes, including Cat & Mouse and car-based Capture the Flag variations, although finding a match in some of these can be very difficult. Cat & Mouse is generally well populated and fun, but it’s also the only mode where lag became obvious. With 8 cars on track deliberately ramming each other to bits, it’s not entirely surprising. It was never bad enough to get in the way of the fun, manifesting as the odd jerky crash, or parts suddenly falling off a car some time after it had crashed. Once you tire of faceless strangers ramming you off the road, there are also system link and split screen options. Split screen works very well, the only obvious graphical difference was the lack of an in-car view—otherwise it’s the same experience as it is full screen, but with the added advantage of being able to punch the guy who keeps charging into you at the first hairpin.
DiRT 3 has what is I believe a first for an Xbox 360 game (PS3 Just Cause 2 had it) in a YouTube upload function. As long as you have a valid YouTube account you can upload 30 seconds of video from any race or event at normal speed or slow-motion. Great for parading your best powerslides or crashes to buddies, but it does take 10 minutes or more to do, depending on the quality of your connection and how busy the server is.
Despite marketing claims of ‘more Rally than ever before in the series’, DiRT 3 feels more like a spiritual successor to the Rallisport Challenge series than Colin McRae Rally games of old. From the handling to the presentation and the events on offer, this is an arcadey-feeling game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you were expecting a sim you’ll be disappointed, but as an arcade racer with more than a hint of realism, it’s great fun.
- Cars look and sound great. - Super scenery. - It’s fun. - Group B cars.
- Career mode is of a good size but still seems a little shallow. - Could do with a few more cars. - No current WRC cars.