Neither rain nor snow nor mud nor dark of night shall stay these four-wheeled couriers.
You walk into your garage, keys in hand, ready to hit the hills for a drive. Do you take a seat behind the wheel of your classic Mercedes-Benz 300 SL and go for a recreational cruise, or do you instead start up your more modest Lancia Delta and head to the grocery store via the unpaved back roads?
[image1]How you answer this question will probably determine what you think of Dirt 3. Codemasters’ latest racing title isn’t a sexy, stylish, or precise racing sim. Instead, Dirt 3 aims to capture the grit and intensity of European-style off-road racing. It’s a game all about getting the broad strokes right rather than obsessing over the tiny little details of physics and handling.
This is the third go-around for Codemasters’ reboot of their long-running Colin McRae Rally series. With the passing of Colin McRae, the series has left the old name behind—and with it, Codemasters also put away the series’ rally focus. As a result, Dirt 2 was a compelling, if somewhat rough and unfocused, detour into much more American-style off-road disciplines.
But with Dirt 3, Codemasters has toned down the dude-bro Americanisms of its predecessor in favor of a much more polished, balanced, and compelling package of European racing styles. Sure, the commentary is peppered with enough “amigos” and “hombres” to make anyone over the age of fifteen cringe, but the racing itself is better than ever.
The Dirt Tour mode puts you through four seasons, each with four tours broken into a variety of disciplines. If you’ve played the series before, most of these disciplines will be familiar, but everything is so perfectly balanced that no single discipline feels like a throwaway. There are six racing disciplines, two of which are point-to-point (Rally and Trailblazer), three circuit styles (Landrush, Rally Cross, and Head 2 Head), and a new trick-based style (Gymkhana).
[image2]Of all of these, Gymkhana is the biggest surprise and sure to be the most divisive addition. In it, players perform a series of tricks like donuts, spins, and drifts in order to earn points within a set amount of time. It plays a lot like classic Tony Hawk or SSX, but uses Codemasters impressive new physics system. If, like me, you play without any driving assists, then learning the ins and outs of the tricks will take time but is incredibly rewarding. It took me a while to warm up to the new discipline, but after a few hours, it ended up being among my favorite race types.
You also won’t have to worry about managing a garage or a team. You don’t earn money, and you’ll never have to buy a car. You simply unlock new cars as you progress. These are mostly cosmetic liveries, though you will occasionally get a moderately more powerful car from time to time—including classic rally cars from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Codemasters clearly just wants to get you racing and doesn’t want you wasting time fiddling with knobs, tuners, and auto dealers, nor make it possible for you to win races by dumping money into car upgrades.
You can still make some tuning changes to your cars, but I played through to the end getting gold medals in all events on the second highest difficulty without changing a thing. Chances are that you won’t need to bother either. It’s a welcome bit of streamlining for a series that has no business pretending to be a sim anyway.
Codemasters has also nearly perfected their assists and difficulty scaling. In addition to the aforementioned driving assists—ranging from mild things like ABS to more drastic things like Auto Steer—they’ve also designed a Trick Steer assist that helps with the Gymkhana tricks. For those who don’t want to spend the time learning to do a perfect donut, just flip on Trick Steer and take to the parking lot.
[image3]The AI also scales to any difficulty you select and provides either a lot or a little challenge as you feel appropriate; you lose nothing by knocking the AI down a few notches, but for those of us looking to challenge ourselves, the AI at higher settings is no slouch.
In terms of its visuals, the game hits some high highs and some low lows. Codemasters has pulled out all the stops for its lighting and particle work. There are lots of visual details that put this title above many of its racing peers; however, the framerate frequently takes a hit. Weather effects add great variety to the way individual courses play—as does the variable time of day—but some of these effects can also lead to unwanted performance hits. But at no point was I ever frustrated because of these performance issues. This isn’t a racing sim, after all, where every single frame matters.
Codemasters has also improved upon the online play of Dirt 2 for the sequel. Split-screen co-op as well as online play allow you to play any discipline you wish. For those disciplines where you’d ordinarily be racing alone, you’ll be racing against ghosts of your opponents. This was an elegant solution in Dirt 2 to the inherent problem of multiplayer rallying, and it works even better here.
My only gripe with the online implementation is that the leaderboards for time trials are buried deep within the menus. In the wake of recent EA racers like Need for Speed Hot Pursuit and Shift 2, we have come to expect more upfront leaderboard implementation. Time trial junkies are sure to be disappointed.
Dirt 3 is the reliable weekday car that you aren’t afraid to take into the mud every once in a while. While it doesn’t have the precision or style of some of its high-end peers, Dirt 3 has more than enough personality and moments of exhilaration to make up the difference. You might parade out your copy of Gran Turismo 5 when guests visit, but it’s Dirt 3 that’ll keep you up late nights.