It’s probably worth prefacing this review by saying that while I’m not a huge fan of racing games in general, I am a huge Dirt fan. The last outing in the series was particularly excellent, offering players a stupendously fun off-road arcade-sim hybrid racer chock full of great tracks, cool cars, and gorgeous graphics. So of course I was hotly anticipating the release of Dirt 3, but at the same time wondering just where Codemasters would look to take the series.
The truth is that Dirt 3 is really just Dirt 2 with new tracks, locations, cars, and of course, the all new inclusion of Gymkhana motorsport. This is a good thing, because while the gameplay still looks and handles very much like it did in Dirt 2, Dirt 3 offers enough new compelling features to make it a worthwhile sequel.
The biggest addition to Dirt 3 is the introduction of Gymkhana. For those unfamiliar, Gymkhana is a relatively new motorsport which requires drivers to navigate urban obstacle courses. Drivers also have to execute a variety of manoeuvres, such as doughnuts, spins, drifts, figure 8 and more. Due to the unique nature of Gymkhana, this portion of the game is easily the most noteworthy addition to the franchise. However, Dirt 3 also introduces snow covered tracks which offer an interesting challenge to players, as well as new car classes which also provide unique gameplay shifts.
The best thing about Dirt 2 was how the actual driving managed to feel realistic and challenging, while at the same time not being too unforgiving. It was by no means a driving simulator, but at the same time you’d be missing the mark if you called it an “arcade” racer. Essentially, Dirt 3, like its predecessor, feels like a slightly embellished rally simulator. You will be able to pull off ridiculous power slides, and maintain control of the car in situations where Gran Turismo 5 would have you wheeling off the race track, but at the same time, it’s not Blur. For most people, this seems to be the perfect balance: challenging and weighty, yet willing to forgive you in the name of fun.
So I was pleased to notice that the driving in Dirt 3 feels pretty much exactly like it did in Dirt 2. I’m sure Codemasters would not be happy with my description, insisting that they have poured thousands of hours into tweaking the actual driving, but the bottom line is that it still feels pretty much the same, which is a great thing.
Like the handling, the visuals have not been changed significantly. Having said that, Dirt 2 still looks absolutely gorgeous by today’s standards. Dirt 3 does employ some subtle new visual wizardry, and if you compare them next to each other you might notice that the sequel is slightly better looking. Suffice to say, that Dirt 3 is as visually impressive today as Dirt 2 was 2 years ago. It does have a tendency to occasional drop the veil, with some terrain textures looking a little blocky, but for the most part you will marvel at the fidelity of the terrain and cars.
Thematically, Dirt 3 takes the series in a new direction. Where Dirt 2 rode the “extreme” sport wave pretty hard, with a menu interface disguised as a rally trailer park which you navigated as if you were there, Dirt 3 presents an altogether more formal backdrop. The menu is as slick as we expect from a AAA game today, and the races are navigated via a brand new interface which represents each event as a floating 3D pyramid which unfolds when you select it. Dirt 2’s primarily pop-punk soundtrack has also been swapped out for music of a generally darker variety. The whole thing just feels more mature, which is an interesting direction for the series.
Dirt 3’s primary component is the career mode, which is broken into seasons. Each season will present players with a variety of races and events. One of Dirt 3’s strongest points is the variety here. From the icy forests of Norway to the long dusty roads of Kenya, and of course the London Battersea Gymkhana track, there is never a shortage of variety when it comes to scenery. Furthermore, it’s easy to notice how much thought has gone into tracks, with some promoting high speed driving and others calling back for a more cautious approach.
Then there are the cars. All your standard rally cars are in there, including the Ford Fiesta Mk.7, Subaru Impreza, Mitsubishi Lancer and Peugeot 207. Then there are the rally trucks and the trailblazer class vehicles which resemble stripped down off-road drag racers. You’ll even find a BMW Z4M in Dirt 3. Altogether, there are over 50 cars to try out, all of which feature their own subtle nuances and specifications.
Not only is there a great variety of tracks, locations and cars, but you will seldom have to compete in the same race type twice in a row. There are of course the vanilla rally class races, which often limit you to cars from certain periods. Then there is the new Trailblazer mode which has you hurtling through off-road terrain at 150 kilometres per hour, which contrasts strongly with Land Rush which puts you on rougher terrain that you must navigate more carefully. Some races will have you competing for the best time or points score, while others will have you racing alongside your opponents.
The variety in terms of cars, tracks and race types is what keeps things interesting. You will also race in different conditions, including rain and snow, and there is also night racing. You will earn Reputation points depending on how well you perform in each race, and as your reputation score increases you will unlock new cars and sponsors. You will also earn points which go towards unlocking new events. It comes together as an intuitive, dynamic and compelling career system.
Having said that, the career system could have been better. Codemasters could have limited players earlier on in terms of car selection, because from the word go it seems you are constantly bombarded with new racing options. The rate at which you unlock new vehicles makes it feel less like you’re earning them, and more like you are being spammed with them. In my view, Codemasters missed out on an opportunity to build in what would have been a welcome degree of depth to the career mode. It would have been nice to stick with one car over a number of races, possibly upgrading and repairing it, Gran Turismo style. Instead, you will be able to jump between cars and racing teams as freely as you like.
One of the most compelling and well executed components of Dirt 3 is the multiplayer. Coming standard with the option to play split-screen, LAN, or online, Dirt 3’s multiplayer provides a whole new avenue of racing to explore. Relying on a P2P matchmaking system and Games for Windows Live, the online side of things is remarkably tight. It takes about 10 seconds for the game to put you in a lobby with other players. While latency could have been an issue, it is dealt with simply and effectively by way of opponent “ghost cars”. While it is possible to bump into opponents, as soon as a particular player’s ping gets too high their car will become a ghost car which cannot touch other cars until their connection stabilizes. For the most part though, despite playing with European gamers, latency was not a problem, which is a remarkable achievement for a racing game. Depending on how you place, you will earn fans, and your fan count will contribute to your reputation score in career mode. Sadly, because you are never made to really wait for any cool cars or unlocks, your reputation score and fan count seems a little superfluous.
At its core, Dirt 3 is a very solid and enjoyable racing game. Codemasters has ticked all the boxes: gorgeous visuals, solid physics, balanced racing feel, massive variety of cars, tracks and race types, and to top it off, a well constructed multiplayer component.
Dirt 3 is a triumph for the series. A deeper career mode could have made for a more compelling experience, but as it stands, racing fans will not be disappointed.
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