From the first moment you start playing DiRT 3, it is hard not to be impressed by the presentation and polish that went into the game. You can start nitpicking soon enough if you like, but developer Codemasters knew what they wanted you to experience, and they take you by hand to guide you through the world they have created. It is an immersive experience, and one where you can suddenly realize that hours of your life have been sacrificed to this game. And there are worse ways to lose time.
While the DiRT games have generally been well made, they tended to attract a niche audience. Rally car has never had the widespread appeal that other racing styles–and by extension their representative games–have garnered, and while the McRae titles were solid, they were never really able to break through to the mainstream audiences. Following McRae’s death in 2007, the franchise continued under developer Codemaster’s eye, and the McRae name was removed. The influence of the older games in the series can still be felt, but DiRT 3 is its own animal. You won’t have to rely on the navigator to tell you where to turn (although that is still an option), instead you can sit back and enjoy the driving mechanics that are tight and responsive.
The third game in the DiRT franchise is not just a worthy successor to the previous DiRT titles, but to all the Colin McRae Rally titles in general. It builds on the things that worked and jettisons many of the problems of previous titles that prevented the casual fan from embracing the series. A lot has changed since the original game was released in 1998, and the emphasis has shifted from a rally racing simulator to more of an arcade style-racing experience, but the spirit of the franchise remains alive. As a result, DiRT 3 is far more accessible than previous incarnations, which will win more fans than it will alienate. It also happens to be one of the best racing games on the market.
The campaign begins
From the moment you begin the game, DiRT 3 takes your hand and leads you through your options. When you first start there really aren’t many choices—you can select singleplayer to attempt a time trial or race a single race, head online for a variety of multiplayer options, or head to the DiRT Tour (the campaign of DiRT 3) where you will spend the vast majority of your time.
A team of race professionals helps you along every step of the way and explains what is going on. It is a tutorial that is built into the game, but it is handled with a natural ease that makes it feel like you are being gently guided into the game. The presentation is handled well enough that you don’t feel like you are being herded towards the first event, even though you are. If it were a movie, the pacing would be spot on. The voices are never more than that, and they do grow old after awhile, but they are helpful as you ease into the game, especially for players new to the series.
Along with the navigator, you will have an agent that tells you about the leveling system, which is how you receive offers from new teams to drive new cars. In this, DiRT 3 stumbles a little bit. When you reach a certain level, you have more car options. on paper it sounds fine, but in reality, the choice of what you want to drive is essentially taken away from you. There will be a few options, but there is almost always one car that won’t necessarily be better or worse than the others, but it will offer you more points for racing with it. The agent, as well as the idea of a garage are both essentially wiped out in one fell swoop. For those that aren’t familiar with the rally car models, or just don’t care about the ride as long as it is fun to drive, this will mean nothing at all. In fact it actually simplifies the experience. For others it will rob the game of some depth and repeated play potential.
The first few events are straightforward enough, and if you are new to the series and play on casual—as the game recommends for noobs to the series—it turns on several assists that help you to race by braking at the correct time. A line to follow is also present, and while interesting, the casual setting is really just a tutorial, because it makes the game far too easy. The jump in difficulty from casual to the next level up is fairly stark and may take a few races to get used to, but the idea of the casual setting is to get a sense of how the game moves. And that is what sets DiRT 3 apart from the majority of racing games and makes it so much fun to play—the way it moves.
By their nature, rally car games move differently than games on asphalt, naturally. That may seem obvious, and it is, but it is also a fundamentally different way to play a racing game. Taking into account the traction is a major factor of the game. It will force you to react in ways that are at first counterintuitive to a typical racing game, as you learn that speed is almost secondary to maneuverability. Sliding around an icy corner too fast will always result in you slamming into the wall and damaging your car, so you need to relearn the typical driving patterns to account for drifting and slide.
Drifting plays a big part in the game, but not just in races and specific drift events. DiRT 3 welcomes gymkhana to the series for the first time, but probably not the last. For those unfamiliar with the word, go ahead and google it. The videos of some of the top professionals are borderline unbelievable. The idea is to drive through an enclosed race course where the goal is not speed, but points gained through obstacles. Drift around a marked circle, gain points. Hit marked signs, accrue bonuses. It requires skill and finesse, but it adds a layer to the standard racing and trick driving titles. It is not a major focus of the game, but it adds a bit of variety that longtime fans of the series should enjoy, as well as those new to the franchise.
The campaign mode is broken into seasons that you unlock by earning progress points. You don’t necessarily need to win each event to unlock new tracks, but finishing at the top will open them up faster. There are four blocks in each season, including a season finale race. The number of events in each season varies, but with four seasons, there should be plenty to do. Each season also offers a little bit of everything from drift challenges to time events, but rally racing is far and away the most common event. The races themselves are generally competitive and the tracks change things up so often that it keeps things fresh. The type of vehicle you use is also going to change by the race, which leads to some interesting rallies. The opponent AI is spotty at times and they will frequently attempt to kill themselves in spectacular wrecks, but it is mostly solid.
The better you do, the higher your Driver Rep will be, which is how you open up new vehicles to choose from. It is a good system for progression, but it almost makes the cars secondary. There is no real option to customize other than a few options which are more about preference than enhancement (ie stiffer suspension, firmer tires, etc), which may appeal to fans of arcade-style racing, but could alternatively alienate more hardcore racing fans that like the minutia of customization.
As you progress, you also unlock DC Challenges, the DC Compound and World Tours. The Challenges vary from drifting to jumping to time trails, the DC Compund is broken up into three stages–each with its own style of racing–and the World Tours test your skill at each discipline. Altogether, there is a lot of racing content in this game, and it should have you playing for a fair amount of time.
The online is solid as well, with a few games you won’t find in the single player game like capture the flag and tag. They probably won’t be able to support communities in themselves, but paired with the larger online races, Codemasters offered pretty much everything you might hope from an online racer. There is also a splitscreen multiplayer option as well. Its nothing special in itself, but not having it would have been noticeable.
Pimp My Game
The graphics in DiRT 3 are top of the line. The tracks have a realistic appeal to them, and there is even a layer of dust and/or mud that will cling to your car as you race. You can, and at least once or twice will probably find yourself staring at the background sunset or city as you slam into a wall, but its worth it. Speaking of, hitting a wall will send parts flying in a spectacular-looking way, and two areas suffer realistic damage—the wheel/chassis and engine/drivetrain. You can still complete a race with a damaged car, but it is much more difficult. For those that find themselves sliding into the wall more often than they would like to admit, the damage option can be turned off at the main menu.
The audio has also been polished, and not just the engine roar. The sound of gravel sliding out from under the car is hypnotic and actually helps you when it comes to things like drifting, and it is also a nice touch to be racing on a track and hear a fan yelling at you as their voice flies by. The music is also well chosen, and while some might not like the primarily techno and electronica selection, many will.
DiRT 3 also has an interesting mechanism built in that allows you to hit a button and immediately be taken to a video editor, where you can edit the last 30-seconds and upload it to YouTube. It is an interesting idea that may make its way to other games in the future, but the 30-second time limit is a bit too short to be much more than a gimmick–albeit a neat one.
But the looks, tracks, races and sounds are all just the details, and none of them would be worth a thing if the game physics and driving mechanics weren’t any good. This is where DiRT 3 earns its marks.
Everything else is just presentation, but thankfully the driving is tight and responsive, and the physics have a logic to them that makes perfect sense once you get used to them. You can’t drive on snow like you would on gravel, and neither are going to come close to handling like on asphalt. You have to learn how to handle these environments properly, but when you do, the thrill of hitting a jump at 100mph over a dirt track while shooting through a narrow path, or timing a slide on snow exactly right is unmatched.
It is a robust driving system as well that you can tweak with aids to help you as you like. If you want the full aids on, you can essentially just hold down the gas and steer for a win. Its a nice option, but one that makes the game dull quickly. From there you can tweak things like the the navigation line, the brakes and a few other things until you are comfortable. It might sound like a cheat, and maybe it is, but DiRT 3 is about one simple idea: Fun. the racing is just fun. Forget about the lack of cars and the uninspired voices telling you what to do. Ignore any real depth in the off-track stuff, and don’t even worry about the seasons. The races are simply fun thanks to what is arguably the best driving engine on the market today.
For those that are long time racing fans, DiRT 3 is a must have. There are a few downsides, mostly regarding the options with the cars and depth options. The arcade-friendly gamer may not care, but the gearheads out there will wonder why Codemasters bothered licensing so many vehicles when you will end up not using half of them. And those you do use won’t feel that much different to the others anyway.
This is DiRT 3’s biggest flaw. Unlike some of the other racing simulators, once you complete all the races and challenges, there really isn’t much motivation to play the single player game with new cars. You can’t do much customization to the vehicles, so you are never really encouraged to spend time with them if you don’t have to. A bit more in the customization field and players might have gone back through the courses with souped up rides just to see what they can do, but that isn’t really an option here. It is also fair to bemoan the lack of anything off the track—there is no garage, and while the agent and race team are always there, other than to act as a tutorial—which they do very well—they become bland and forgettable. That simply shifts the emphasis back to the racing though, which isn’t a bad thing.
But putting aside those fairly minor quibbles, the driving is just fun. It may take a bit of getting used to, but once you understand the physics it is consistent and it all makes sense. While the car selection is usually decided for you based on the rewards for each vehicle, the track and race types are enough to keep the game going for a long time. DiRT 3 is not a driving simulator, it is a racing game—and that is an important distinction.
If you are a gearhead, other than some fantastic racing, there may not be enough to appease your love of all things automotive. But in the sacrifice of the endless customization options some racing games give you, DiRT 3 is the most accessible off-roading game on the market, as well as one of the best racing games made.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Codemasters)