Since Colin McRae’s untimely departure from this realm, the rally game series that was once his namesake has expanded its focus from straight-up rally to all manner of wacky racing modes.
While purists see it as a further dilution of their beloved sport, this broadening means these titles certainly have a wider appeal. While it's not as bonkers as DiRT 2, this year’s model should garner even more fans as it mostly drops the former’s extreme sports hyper-presentation style while retaining some interesting racing modes - including, for the first time, the car ballet known as gymkhana.
DiRT 3 begins with the player being signed up to his or her first professional team, although teams can - and will be - changed after every race so this step seems a bit extraneous. Toe-curling hey-dude-radical voiceovers – a hangover from DiRT 3’s predecessor – greet the player, but each new team’s unskippable enthusiastic patronising aside (“Being the fastest driver is a good strategy”), the menu presentation here is immaculate.
Tour mode takes place over four pro seasons, each of which is split into event tours. These tours contain four to six events each, and each event is between one to three races long. Event tours generally contain a grab bag of rally, rallycross, trailblazer (supercharged rally) landrush (truck and buggy racing) and head-to-head rally races, as well the aforementioned gymkhana. It’s jarring to be bounced around between Finland, Michigan, Norway, LA, Kenya, and Monaco within a single tour to complete these races, but once the racing begins, all will be forgotten.
The player's home base is the compound surrounding the Battersea power station in London, England. Several achievements are unlockable just by faffing about here, and the grounds expand as the game progresses, but the majority of players will only use this section of the game for gymkhana practice.
Vehicles in DiRT 3 look great. Car models from all rally eras have been lovingly recreated. A stable ranging from the plucky Mini Cooper 1275 "S" of the ‘60s through to last year’s RMR Hyundai Genesis PM580 via all the expected Imprezas and Lancers (a total of 55 cars in all); the player is certainly spoilt for choice. Car customisation is shallower than the hardcore will be accustomed to, with just gear ratio, downforce, suspension, ride height, differential and brake bias able to be tweaked, but the flipside of this is that each change makes for a noticeably different driving experience during gameplay.
More expansive are the assist options, and although it's impossible to please all of the people all of the time, the difficulty system here will certainly come close. A six-step overall difficulty can be set, but within that damage can be set to visual only or full; ABS, auto steer, corner braking and throttle management can be turned on or off; and a dynamic racing line that most racing game fans will be familiar with in concept if not name can be set to give braking hints, full info about line and speed, or switched off completely.
Further, co-drivers can be tweaked to give simple or complex pacenotes. With most assists on, even the most geriatric can expect podium finishes, and things certainly become tougher the fewer there are engaged, but it’s a great system that allows any player to find that sweet spot where the challenge level is high but not insurmountable. It also means that DiRT 3 can be played as anything from a light arcade-y racer to a pretty heavy simulation. Only the very skilful will attempt cockpit view with no assists, but for the rest of us, it’s something to aspire to.
Racing is a dream, for the most part. Numerous releases have gifted DiRT a beautifully refined underlying engine that allows for smooth, precise driving, great response, and excellent collision physics. The downside is that rookies have nowhere to point the finger but inward should they find themselves facing south in a northbound race, but everyone else will love the level of control afforded to them even in the lesser vehicles.
This sense of control is heightened by some great tactile cues via the controller – crossing from smooth tarmac to gravel to snow not only affects the way a car handles, but also the vibration sent to the player. This is hardly a new feature, but here – combined with some great sound design (especially the crunch of snow beneath tyres) – makes for an incredibly satisfying and empowering experience.
Weather effects are also convincing. Rain and snow will keep the wipers busy, and night-time stages and sun effects show that the lighting engine is also top-notch. Damage modelling follows suit, as do backgrounds. Screaming down the hairpin-ridden dockside streets of Monaco at dusk while fireworks explode in the background is exhilarating, and will have you wishing you either had a steering wheel and pedal setup, or extremely glad you do. Forests, deserts and villages are all equally well rendered.
Rocketing past this eye candy - as well as the majority of competitors - will accumulate reputation points which unlock more events, sponsors and vehicles. Extra reputation points can be gained for completing team-specific goals such as finishing a race with no damage or reaching a certain speed too. Conversely, reputation points will be lost for utilising DiRT 3’s flashback feature during racing – a nifty rewind ability that can be used up to five times a race allowing players to pull the action back to a point prior to a collision or particularly bad corner, for example.
DiRT 3 is not all sweet drifts and podium finishes, however. The vast majority of races are finished in a shade over two minutes, so late comebacks from early crashes tend to be rare. The level design is also somewhat lacklustre, particularly the tracks modelled after ones that exist in the real world. Some circuits do have their awe-inspiring moments, but by and large, they're too rare. Those who prefer arcade racers will miss having alternate paths through levels, and similarly, car nuts will be disappointed at the lack of customisation options when it comes to vehicle appearance.
The mandatory gymkhana events will polarise too. Initially tricky to get the hang of, these handbrake and donut-heavy challenges betray their shallowness the minute the player masters spinning on the spot. There simply aren’t enough moves that reward the player with points, which is a shame considering how manoeuvrable the cars are and as such how creative one can get when going from A to B. The ability to upload to YouTube is also a lost opportunity due to the 30 second restriction on clip length.
DiRT 3’s multiplayer modes will extend playtimes, however. Offered for the first time in the franchise, split screen allows two players to race up to six AI drivers with no discernible impact on the game’s presentation, and online modes Transporter (capture the flag), Outbreak (tag) and Invasion (an amusing tweak on gymkhana involving cardboard cut-outs of aliens) are all unexpectedly fun and suitably frantic.
DiRT 3 is an extremely flexible and polished racer that – despite some bland circuit design – delivers an extremely satisfying and assured driving experience. Coupled with amusing online modes it’s a no-brainer for racing fans, and the racer those who detest such games should investigate at the very least.