Mud in my Eye
Some of us are born with it. That adrenaline-fueled desire to want to push things to their limits. To drive that extra bit faster, to corner a little bit tighter and to be airborne for slightly longer next time you hit that jump. Sadly, a lot of these same people also have a shorter lifespan. But for those who want to drive by the seat of their pants and not lose their pants altogether – DiRT 3 delivers from the safety of your sofa.
With franchises like Need for Speed, Gran Turismo and BurnOut dominating the racing genre, the DiRT series has only captured a niche rallying market. Formerly titled as part of the Colin McRae Rally series, they have always been impressive, both in the presentation department and with their tight and responsive controls. However the simulation approach to the intense world of rally-car racing produced a learning curve that deterred a lot of gamers.
Following on from McRae’s untimely death in 2007, DiRT 3 looks to change all of that. While the long-time developer’s Codemasters have maintained a lot of the original gameplay elements that fans adored, their latest off-road racer will appeal to a much wider audience this time around. By removing the annoying compulsory navigator, including driver assist options and adding more variety in event types, DiRT 3’s emphasis has shifted from a simulator to more of an arcade-style racing experience. And it’s better for it. Much better.
It’s the physics and handling on the track that makes DiRT 3 really stand apart from other racing titles. Driving around on asphalt is a completely different experience to driving on snow or mud. It seems blatantly obvious, but the surface attributes play a fundamental part to the unique gameplay. As the driver, understanding both your car and the traction of the surface you’re currently on is a constant strategic battle behind the wheel. And unlike many other racing games, you will often need to sacrifice speed for sheer control and maneuverability. Failing to brake to suit the conditions will often result in your car being slammed into a wall, possibly causing enough damage to ensure you can only crawl to the finish line.
Every poor decision on the track can lead to some devastating damage to your prized vehicle. Reckless driving or malicious AI drivers can lead to broken axles, bent steering pins and engine problems as your car gets scraped and dented in painstaking detail. Thankfully each race sets you up with a new car, but drivers will still need to be careful from start to finish as every impact can make a difference to the handling.
To counter the harsh learning curve of past, the easiest difficulty in DiRT 3 allows for automatic handling of brakes, counter steer and general handling aids. As you start to learn the tracks and become more confident behind the wheel of your 300 something horse-power beast, there are a huge number of tweaks that slowly fine-tune the controls until you're manually navigating hairpin turns with ease.
While DiRT 2 focused on the career of a rookie driver on a budget, DiRT 3’s campaign mode lets you work all the way up to a fully-fledged professional star. Progressing through and finishing strong on the track will open up sponsorship obligations and a bigger variety of events. On top of International rally races across dirt, sand and mud there are Stadium races, Baja events, Rally-cross and Trailblazer modes to enjoy. A lot of them are time-based but modes like Rally-cross play like arcade races where eight cars all battle it out for first place. DiRT 3 also welcomes in weather effects such as snow, rain and day and night settings to keep drivers on their toes. But the stand-out highlight is the inclusion of the gymkhana mode.
Gymkhaha is to rally driving what the X-Games are to BMX. Usually set in an arena, this free-for-all mode has drivers trying to perform stunts and insanely delicate maneuvers through an obstacle course. Drifting through a gap that’s only slightly bigger than your car, ‘donutting’ a tight space, weaving between cones and precisely glancing objects without slowing down in your 4WD are all part of the show. To explain better, check out this video of Ken Block, one of the world’s greatest rally drivers showing his gymkhaha skills here:
It’s also important to note that the Ken Block was heavily involved in the development process of DiRT 3.
Although the gameplay remains largely unchanged, the graphics in DiRT 3 have been given an impressive facelift. The end result is one of the most spectacular looking racing games I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. I’m not sure how a game filled with dirt and muck can look so shiny, but DiRT 3 illuminates pixelated beauty. Locales like Kenya, Norway, Finland, Monaco and Monte Carlo are all packed full of dust-cloud swirling levels of detail. Depending on the time of day, stunning lighting effects make every twist and turn a satisfying experience. The 360 version of DiRT 3 even includes the option to use your avatar as a decoration hanging from your rear view mirror. Nice.
All of the presentation in DiRT 3 is polished, from the slick geometric menus through to the cars themselves. Surprisingly, despite the number of settings elsewhere in the game, players can’t customize or mod their vehicles. However the selection of vehicles, including trucks and buggies, going back as far as the 60s, should keep most petrol-heads happy. Each vehicle also has a selection of unique configurations by your choice of sponsor team that all go deeper than what stickers are on the surface.
On top of the single-player, DiRT 3 includes a welcomed split-screen multiplayer for head to head racing. But more welcomed is the large number of mad online party modes to try out. They include capture the flag, demolition and the insane zombie infection mode that turns one car into a diseased attacker who must try to crash into other vehicles to infect them. They aren’t ground-breaking by any means, but I was awestruck at the amount of value in what I had expected to be a fairly one-dimensional rally racer.
Finally DiRT 3 includes a YouTube upload feature to showcase your skills, but unfortunately suffers from a number of restrictions that will probably reduce the number of people using it. For starters, you can't upload HD quality footage (just 480p) and the video can only be around 30 seconds long. It’s a shame that for such a beautiful game, players will still struggle to show it off to an online community despite this inbuilt feature. However despite this minor setback, DiRT 3 is still worth getting dirty for. It should keep long-running fans of the series happy and hopefully introduce a whole trailer-load more gamers to the franchise.