In the two previous iterations of DiRT, there has always been a tension between the past values of the series and the direction Codemasters wanted to take it for the future. The first two DiRT games bore the name and legacy of the Colin McRae Rally series - a series which has defined off-road racing games since 1998 - but at the same time they rushed to embrace more diverse styles of racing and a more fevered, transatlantic presentation. Perhaps Codemasters felt that all the X-Games stuff, the “gnarly” events and Travis Pastrana/Ken Block voiceovers would help sell the game outside of Europe, but while DiRT1 and DiRT2 were fun, the series felt like it was losing its soul. Too many circuit races, stadium shows and fireworks, said the fans, and not enough racing through the wilds at breakneck speeds.
Well, DiRT 3 hasn’t dumped the circuit races, the stadium shows or the fireworks. Ken Block makes a reappearance, and there’s still a lot of “awesome” and “you really represented out there” on the soundtrack. All the same, DiRT3 hits a better balance between the old-school CMR and the new-school extreme racing of DiRT 2. It’s the best off-road racer Codemasters has made in the last 6 years.
Of course, it looks and feels incredible. By now, we take it for granted that the EGO engine behind DiRT2, Race Driver: GRID and F1 2011 can pull off astonishingly detailed cars and landscapes and push the one through the other at a ludicrous pace. DiRT3 isn’t quite photorealistic, but at a quick glance it’s not that far off. In fact, with its beautiful, natural lighting and state-of-the-art weather effects, DiRT3 almost looks too pretty to be real. When you’re blasting at over 100mph through scenery that would have looked great in Alan Wake, it’s hard not to be impressed.
The handling, too, is just about perfect. To work, an off-road racer needs to transmit the feel of tyres scrambling for grip on mud, snow and shale, and some sense of the way that the weight and momentum of the car continually works against you to spin your vehicle out. Go too far, however, and you make a game that your average console owner just wouldn’t be bothered to play. Playing DiRT3 on the medium difficulty setting, it’s got the balance right, and you can always switch to a different setting or turn the assists on and off if you want a greater or lesser challenge. It’s a game where you have to work hard and think ahead to get a decent time, continually adjusting your course and speed to keep the car on track. The faster you go and the tricker the tracks get, the more difficult this becomes, and the result is a game that’s challenging and exciting in all the ways an off-road racer should be.
Of course, you will go wrong from time to time, but here the Flashback feature Codemasters introduced in Race Driver: GRiD and DiRT2 comes into play. At any point you can pause the action, rewind time to the point where things started going bad, then restart it and correct your mistake. You can only use Flashback a limited number of times, and there are incentives for not using it, but it is - as it was in GRiD - a great way to minimise the frustration that can kick in with a challenging racer. What’s more, your favourite clips can now be posted directly from the game onto YouTube; the ideal way to celebrate a spectacular crash or showcase some gobsmacking feat of driving skill.
What really makes DiRT3 work so well, however, is that it actually gives rally fans what they want without removing the “extreme racing” stuff altogether. While there are fairly straight circuit races in DiRT, in the form of Rally Cross and truck-driving Landrush events, the focus for most of the single-player game is on classic “one man against the clock” racing, with straight rally stages backed up by terrifying Trailblazer events in which heavily customised, rally-ready supercars hurtle along forest tracks at white-knuckle speeds. Off-road racing doesn’t get more exciting than this.
True, we shuddered a little when drift events put in an appearance, but where Shift 2: Unleashed made these tedious, game-spoiling chores, in DiRT3 they’re just an excuse to rush mostly sideways down a hill-climb track, gathering points for your gravel-scattering slides. In short, “drift” and “fun” can actually belong in the same sentence.
Meanwhile, the Gymkhana events will appease the new-school DiRT fans without sending the old-school rally nuts into apoplexy. The setup is simple: you and your car in an arena, with ramps for airtime, blocks to shatter and obstacles to drift and donut around. All you need to do is pull off as many point-scoring moves as possible in the time allowed. It’s all a bit Tony Hawks, but it’s a fun way to show off your technique, and the events aren’t so common or so integral to the game that you feel they’re a serious intrusion into the rally action.
And that really is where the heart of DiRT3 lies. Whether it’s the all-new and extremely effective rain and snow weather systems, some brilliant night racers or a superb line-up of new and classic cars which stretches from 1960s Minis through 80s Quattros to modern greats like the Citroen C4 WRC, Subaru Impreza WRX STI and Ford Fiesta RS WRC, DiRT 3 seems to have rediscovered its love of rallying. While there will always be fans screaming for a more straightforward simulation of the real World Rally Championship, this is still the strongest rally game this console generation. It also helps that the interface has dropped flashiness for speed this time around. While lengthy loading times still slow things down, at least you know that they’re there for the right reasons, not just to add another layer of gloss.
Dirt3 isn’t quite perfect, however. If there’s one complaint it’s that it doesn’t quite offer enough scenic variety. Don’t get us wrong: the landscapes in Finland, Norway. Michigan, Aspen, Africa and Monaco are gorgeous - so gorgeous that it’s tempting to stop the car, get out and take a wander. Yet, when the prevalent Nordic forests, autumnal woodlands and crisp snow are only broken by the odd trip around the streets of Monaco or the dust, grass and mud of the savannah, you can’t help wishing for a spot of action in the sunnier climes of Greece, Spain and Italy, not to mention Mexico, Argentina. And while the game’s shorter stages make for a more accessible racer, it might have been nice to have the odd challenging stage that pushed your concentration for a slightly longer period. Sometimes you’re just hitting that perfect zone of focus when the stage comes to an abrupt end.
DiRT 3 has achieved the impossible: bringing together the rally focus of the classic Colin McRae era with the X-games thrills of the newer DiRT brand. No rival off-road racer looks or drives better, and the only real flaw is a lack of track variety. In a year of excellent driving games, this stands up proudly amongst the very best.