I love racing games, but my favorite kind are the ones that take you off the road and into the elements. Rally racing has always been my preference. Actually (cue harps and clouds), my money-no-object dream is to actually rally race across Africa. I'd probably roll and kill myself, though. For now, videogames will have to do the trick. DiRT 3 certainly does the trick.
These past few days I've been blissfully lost in the outback, drifting through corners on dusty roads. I've been splashing through shallow puddles and sloshing thick mud. I've been plowing through snow storms, guided through the low visibility only by headlight beams. Every one of my off-the-road fantasies has been fulfilled with DiRT 3.
DiRT 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [both reviewed], PC)
The folks at Codemasters make racing games that are on par with the top franchises out there, like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. The difference is that they focus their games on one aspect of racing, rather than try to be the end-all racing title. DiRT 3 focuses on the racing experiences that are off the beaten path. That means rally racing, rallycross, trailblazing and everything else that makes your car dusty and crusted with mud. This is a dirty game.
DiRT 3 isn't the type of game where you can hold down the "go button" and expect to win a race. Well, I take that back. If you put the game on the Casual setting, you will likely win every race. It's really hard to make a mistake with the heavy corrective steering and brake settings. It's also hard to enjoy when you're winning all the time, which makes me wonder why they made this the default setting.
The Intermediate mode takes most of the helps off, forcing you to quickly get a feel for the precise control. Expert takes all assists off, naturally. Of course, you'll have access to the game's rewind feature, which lets you hit a button to pause time, rewind to a point before a crash or wipeout, and try again. I vowed not to use it when I first started the game, but was dialing it up often five or six hours into the career mode.
DiRT 3's controls are excellent. They're tight, responsive and realistic, with no issues to mention. The driving control is so finely tuned that there's really no room to complain when you wipe out and roll your car -- that's all you. This comes as no surprise: Codemasters is among the best in the business when it comes to finely tuned and polished racers.
Career mode is the heart of DiRT 3. It's a guided path through all aspects of rally racing, gradually building from simple on-asphalt races through event types like rallycross, trailblazer and landrush. You'll eventually get a taste of stunt arena mode Gymkhana. You'll race to earn points to unlock the next event or series, with bonus Rep points coming from side challenges, like hitting a top speed, or performing a long drift. These Rep points will unlock more cars and game options.
I like how you acquire cars in this game. It just ... happens. You win, proceed, and get cars. With the way the game's career mode is structured you're never really bothered with trying to gather money, visit garages or tweak anything other than preferences. This makes the driving focused, letting you worry more about your skills and less about some bank account balance.
Codemasters went nuts with the vehicle types and makes in this game. The team dug deep for general rally racing vehicles, going several decades back to offer up old classics along with your shiny, modern rally cars. It's fun to take one of the older cars for a spin in the dirt and see just how different it handles from a fancy new Subaru or Mitsubishi. Add in trucks, trailblazer cars and the buggy cars (very fun!), and you've got a ton of variety to try out on the various types of tracks and events.
DiRT 3 is beautiful. The game has a shine and polish that puts it above even Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 in the visuals department. The licensed and branded cars are lovely and detailed, but the locales are what will really dazzle you. You'll feel like you're seeing the world as you travel in this game's career mode, from sunny desert Kenya to the hazy Great Lakes area in Michigan. Cool down in the snow of Aspen, and then get out and away to Finland and Norway.
These locales all have a high level of detail and variety that have to be explored to be appreciated -- I actually caught myself slowing down to look! You'll see old barns and cracks in the streets in Michigan, or the hills in the distance in Monaco. Some of the best-looking locations have time-based variants, like the sunsets in Kenya, or racing in Aspen at night in the snow. Again: Prettiest racing game ever.
The beauty continues into the game's menus and presentation. The look is clean and flashy, with bold lettering for the text and a bevy of triangles for all the event items and interface. You'll simply cursor through pyramids of triangles to pick events and challenges in the foreground as your cars zip by in the background against a gold, sun-kissed backdrop. It's all very sleek and cool, and a world away from the clunky presentation of its predecessor.
The sound and music of DiRT 3 are also of note. The sound design is among the best I've ever heard in a racer. Playing with a full Dolby Digital 5.1 rig is a treat, as the sound work puts you right in the car. When playing with one of the in-car views, the surround speakers are working overtime, tickling your ears with rear rumbles and crunches as you drive over different surfaces.
Your subwoofer will get a workout from all the wooshes and thuds of the interface and presentation sounds, all of which are really satisfying to hear. The music selection is great, with chill tracks playing during menus and high-energy songs amping you up before races. The races themselves are without music, which is exactly how it should be.
There's only one hangup with the sound and presentation: the announcers. They're helpful at setting the stage at first, but they provide a bit too much in the way of hand holding, and quickly become annoying. General information, event types and later sponsor and team information are described at length, and there's no way to skip these sections.
It feels like rambling after awhile, and that's made all the more painful with the stereotypical over-enthusiastic racing game voice. The post-race pep talks/insults and prompts quickly become just as annoying. I've never been called "buddy" or "amigo" so many times. Also, the announcer's constant promotion of the game's YouTube race upload function becomes aggravating very quickly.
The tracks in DiRT 3 aren't just pretty to look at. These are tracks so lovingly crafted that they force you to become intimate with the throttle. They work at such a deep level to get you in the zone that you become connected with the road and fully immersed in the race. These tracks are at the heart of what makes DiRT 3 such a joy to play.
It's apparent that Codemasters worked hard to make courses that really compliment the different race types and vehicles, and the way that they're all gradually uncovered in career mode makes for long gaming stretches that seem fresh for hours. From dirt to mud to snow and asphalt, and then in different kinds of cars, you'll constantly be treated with new challenges. Codemasters says that there are over 100 routes in DiRT 3.
Gymkhana is the newest addition to the DiRT world. It's not so much racing as it is stunts, all set in an arena designed specifically for showing off. The Gymkhana events are a bit of a departure from the rest of the game's rally focus, but it works, and the challenges are a lot of fun. You're set free to drift, do donuts, make jumps and crash through obstacles in these arenas, doing as much fancy stuff as you can within the allotted time.
The game's career mode does a good job of teaching you how to do these tricks before your first event, though some take more practice than others. Once you master them, showing off for the virtual crowd for points is a trip. It's even more fun online, in an arena with several others.
Online is fully supported in DiRT 3, with multiplayer race events being the main draw. I enjoyed several quick matches online, all of which were fast to connect and flawless in execution. The host has the ability to set up a chain of several different kinds of events. My last session had our group racing for time, then moving into rallycross, and finally drifting it out in a Gymkhana session. This wealth of options and game types is nice for racing fans that aren't into simply topping race times from leaderboards.
As of the time of writing, Sony's PlayStation Network was down for maintenance. DiRT 3's online functionality for the PS3 version is locked behind a VIP Pass code included with each copy of the game. Being unable to access the PlayStation Network to enter this code means that PS3 owners are currently not able to use any of the game's online features or YouTube functionality. Maybe the current situation will discourage some publishers from senselessly locking part of a game's feature set behind a code in the future.
My only other beef: load times. They're long. They're not so long that you break controllers, but they're long enough to have your enthusiasm dip a bit between races. There's always pretty visuals and cool music to enjoy during the wait, but even they get old after awhile. I wonder what the install process was for. It certainly doesn't seem to be helping the load times.
DiRT 3 is the clear-cut leader when it comes to off-road racing. Simply put, there's no game that does rally racing better. Codemasters has perfected the look and feel of this series, and is well on the way to perfecting the presentation. The addition of Gymkhana events is both bold and welcome, and makes for a nice break from the white-knuckle races.
This game is freaking massive, with a steadily increasing difficulty that will leave you feeling like a bonafied rally racer when it's all said and done. That's all I've ever really wanted out of a racing game.
THE VERDICT - Dirt 3
Reviewed by Dale North