It was with a great deal of expectation that I entered into DiRT 3, the sequel to the excellent, albeit 'overAmericanised' DiRT 2. Codemasters promised a wealth of content, and a return to the rally roots of the series, including the infamous 'Group B' monsters of the 1980s. At the same time they dropped the 'Colin McRae' moniker used in both of the previous titles, and ushered in 'Gymkhana' pioneer Ken Block, ensuring their new-found American audience weren't left out in the cold. 'You can't please everyone,' as the old saying goes, but Codemasters have given it a bloody good try...
Your introduction to DiRT 3 starts in much the same way as its predecessors, asking you to fill in your personal information and allowing the game to refer to you by name, prompting a series of unsettling moments as your virtual tour managers apparently converse with you directly. It's a nice, if slightly unnecessary feature, and one that has become something of a staple for Codemasters' rally franchise. The downside, unfortunately, is that the relentlessly positive attitude of your virtual mentors very quickly begins to grate; your initially rather sultry tour manager quickly turns into a deluded superfan, yammering on about how great that eighth place performance was. You're also asked (by the ever-excitable series mainstay Christian Stevenson) to sign into, or create your own Youtube account, which allows you to take advantage of the new video upload feature Codemasters have been parading, but more on that later.
The stark visual style is in keeping with the series top-notch presentation, and DiRT 3's menu system really is a triumph of ergonomic design. Cars slide gracefully in the background, throwing golden prisms into the air, a motif that carries through to the 'DiRT Tour' sub-menu, which displays four unlockable seasons each contained within an unfoldable prism. Selecting the first prism will grant you access to your first set of events, and provide a taster of what the rest of the game has in store.
It is here that we are first introduced to Ken Block's beloved 'Gymkhana' discipline, an impressive spectacle that consists of performing well-controlled drifts and spins around various objects in an arena-like environment. It is an incredibly daunting prospect, no less so after your first event, by which time you'll have thoroughly destroyed a car or three. Stick with it though, and the first time you execute a perfect doughnut around a digger's outstretched arm you'll be hitting the replay button and uploading it to Youtube.
The Youtube feature itself, while a nice idea, feels somewhat under-implemented. You hit the appropriate button during a replay which brings up the 'edit' bar. Then, simply select a starting point for the video with your left bumper, and designate an end point anywhere up to thirty seconds afterwards with the right. You can slow-mo the footage if you so desire, and hit the submit option. That's really all there is to it. Submitting the perfect gymkhana run becomes impossible with only thirty seconds of available footage, and instead you're forced to pick a specific trick or two to show to the world. Given a few more options for video customisation and a little more lenience with the time restriction, Codemasters could well have been on to something fantastic. As it stands, it's a half-feature and ultimately, just a quick and clever marketing tool for the company.
Once you've dipped a toe into the Gymkhana discipline and uploaded your successes or failures to Youtube, you're free to pick and select which events appeal most, and there's an impressive selection to choose from. Rally events populate the majority of each season, with Trailblazer, Land Rush and Rally Cross all making a return. In addition to Gymkhana, 'Head 2 Head' races (better known as 'special stages' in previous rally outings) also make an appearance, used mainly as a knockout tournament to decide the winner at the end of each season. Events and seasons are unlocked by winning and earning points in available races, therefore allowing you to skip any disciplines you might be less prone to enjoying and focusing on those you are.
Cars this time around are unlocked not with cash, as was the case in DiRT 2, but gifted instead through sponsorship deals upon levelling up. Bonus objectives are assigned to each vehicle to be completed during the race. Reaching a top speed of 90mph, completing a lap in under a specified time: each car has its own objective and its own subsequent XP reward. Newly acquired machines award a greater amount of bonus XP upon completion of the objective, and seems to be Codemasters' way of addressing the 'sticking to one vehicle' problem that plagued DiRT 2. This might irk those who want to drive their Mitsubishi Evos or Subaru Imprezas on every stage but is, for me at least, an ideal way of urging players to experience each of the vehicles and accompanying challenges available in DiRT 3's impressive stable.
For all the fuss that was made pre-release regarding the Group B cars, very little is made in the game itself. It was only when I checked my garage through the main menu that I realised I had access to the Ford RS200 and Audi Quattro: two vehicles I had been eagerly awaiting the chance to jump behind the wheels of. A little more fanfare would have been appropriate, with a Group B rally at least being highlighted by the otherwise omnipresent tour managers. It feels like something of a missed opportunity; Group B is often considered the pinnacle of the sport, but here feels more like 'just another addition' to the garage.
LandRush is, as was the case in DiRT 2, still one of the weaker disciplines, with the gargantuan trucks simply being less enjoyable to drive. There's an added weight to them this time around and more responsive handling, proof that Codemasters have tried to address the issue, but their lack of speed and tendency to barrel-roll out of jumps and spin on tight corners dampen the experience somewhat. Every other game mode though has been tweaked to near-perfection. Rally is split up into several stages this time, as it should be, it's just a shame that the damage-and-repair systems from the first DiRT title fail to make an appearance. Codemasters have stated the focus this time was on the racing, and not micro-management, but it lent an air of authenticity to the original's rally offering, something that's still somewhat lacking here.
The introductions of weather types, surface changes and night-time racing all serve to add another dimension to the already staggering number of tracks, and ensure a new challenge each time a stage is repeated. Water pools on the dips and banks during wet stages, slowing and throwing the car respectively. Deformable snow drifts assault your car during poorly judged corners in the cold, and the deceptively grippy snow contrasts heavily with the more inconsistent slush laid intermittently around the circuit. Night-time races up the fear factor, with nothing but your headlights (and occasional co-driver) to guide you through a series of narrow, twisting roads that scream past at well over 100mph.
The environments themselves are beautifully rendered, the cars even more so. Snow collects on the bodywork, rain spatters the wing-mirrors, mud coats the bonnet, all as the race progresses. The damage models are, as ever, astonishing in their destruction; doors crumple, windshields fragment and wheels detach themselves. Eager fans dot the rally circuit, diving out of the way just in time to see your car sail over the crest they occupied mere moments ago, trains pass by as you spin your way through the Battersea Gymkhana arena, and fireworks light the Monaco skies, giving the locations a real sense of life.
Accompanying the lush visuals is some truly outstanding sound design. As surfaces change during the race you can hear the packing snow turn to watery slush beneath your tyres. Crashes are made all the more tangible by sickening crunches and contact with other cars brings forth agonised wails as metal meets metal. The experience gels so completely together that I could forgive my dad his geeky ability to identify the vehicles by their engine noise from the room next door.
Once you've had your fill of everything DiRT 3's 'DiRT Tour' has to offer, there's always the chance to jump online and compete against others across every discipline available in the single player, as well as a few new additions in the form of 'party mode'. These see you take on less serious, objective-based races including 'Outbreak', which tasks you with avoiding a single 'infected' car for as long as possible. It's a lot of fun, and being chased through a cargo container barely wider than your bonnet at high speed is a hair-raising experience. 'Invasion' orders you to smash as many cardboard robots in the time allocated as possible, and crowns a winner based on the points accumulated. 'Transporter' is a typical Capture-the-Flag mode, placing pick-up and drop-off points randomly through the map and watching you duke it out with your opponents to get there first. While not a game-changing concept in itself, 'Party Mode' does provide a great distraction from the point-to-point races, at least for a little while, and it's another example of Codemasters' cramming DiRT 3 to bursting point with content.
It's hard to see where Codemasters can take the next iteration of their seminal rallying franchise. DiRT 3 offers everything you could want from a racing game in abundance. Thrills, spills, and zombies; DiRT 3 has it all. They can take their time thinking it out though, because we'll all be occupied with their latest release for a long, long time to come.
- An astonishing amount of content already, with DLC to come
- Weighty yet responsive handling, excellent car physics
- Slick interface, taking DiRT 3 online is seamless
- LandRush and truck events still lacking in comparison
- Group B appearance not as monumental as it should be
- Tour manager voiceovers irritatingly positive
The Short Version: Codemasters have crafted the definitive rallying experience. Comprehensive DiRT Tour backed up by great multiplayer ensures a huge amount of bang for your buck.