Review

Dirt 3 Review (PS3)

Us Brits make bloody good racing games. Over the years we’ve created the likes of Project Gotham Racing, Need for Speed Shift, Destruction Derby and others, and one of the top studios out there for racers is Codemasters, the Midlands-based studio who created the DiRT series and its predecessor, Colin McRae Rally.

DiRT 3 continues down the well-beaten path that the first two titles in the series laid out already, a delicious mix of simulation and arcade racing that in the end is neither, a strange love child of the two genres that has all the terrain effects, damage and real cars you’d expect from a sim game mixed with ridiculous over-the-top handling and drifting you’d expect out of a big fat arcade cabinet blasting cheesy rock music.

See, even the cars are painted British

The marrying of these seemingly disparate elements is the true triumph of the DiRT series, and the all the justification Codemasters will ever need for breaking away from the more traditional rally settings the Colin McRae games offered in the past while still keeping a firm hold on some of the basic tenements of rallying in the events and cars available.

Because it’s about rallying, DiRT 3 is rarely about competing against others directly – instead, it’s all about course run-times and the pixel-perfect turns and drifts that will shave inches off a corner and milliseconds off your lap time. Your time across various courses is added up to become your overall total, which in term determines how well you fare against the computer.

For a racer which puts often becomes so much about the times and numbers it’s amazingly exciting on-track. As you’d expect for a rally game there’s a co-driver giving you instructions on what’s coming up soon, and at high speeds it really feels like you could fly off track and ruin your time or force a rewind - a feature which I love but I still feel is tantamount to cheating.

That said, it’s a good job that the rewinds (called Flashbacks here) exist, as the controls of the game are sometimes a tad too responsive for their own good. Trying to adjust your car to remain dead straight on a straight could easily see you accidentally veer off road. It’s something that gets easier with time and experience but something that also gets a heck of a lot easier with a steering wheel if you have access to one.

With or without a wheel, a good chunk of how exhilarating the core racing feels is down to how downright stunning DiRT 3 looks. Dust and mud will fly up with an impressive amount of visual flair and the terrain seems to shift and move under your tires in a manner which really gives the cars a feeling of weight they often lack in other arcade-inspired racers.

The lighting is downright beautiful, and everything runs at a solid, smooth frame rate – a vital point for a racer as based on fast reactions as this one. Other racers might have more polygons, more cars on track or higher resolution textures and occasionally DiRT 3 has its uglier moments, but in motion the game usually looks stunning.

If racing against the clock isn’t your thing and you need other cars for real excitement, those modes are available as well. They crop up in the single player progression, and literally place traditional races into the DiRT off-road settings. You can bash, scrape and smash your way to the finish line here with no penalty, but the controls again leave you feeling like too much carelessness will send you veering off track – so it’s about finding a happy medium and having some self control.

Gymkhana! “Tony Hawk with cars”, I said. Idiot

There are also some new awesome rally-inspired modes featuring different types of vehicles and track layouts, but all these different modes make clever use of the assets already there. Everything’s dirty, off-road and on terrain that’ll leave your vehicle bumping and sliding around a lot, regardless of what mode you choose.

Trailblazer, for example, sits you in a very fast car that lacks control at high speeds and challenges you to get round a course as quick as possible, while Land Rush puts you into off-road buggies and throws you onto similar-looking but rougher courses designed to be driven at slower speeds. There’s a few others, too.

There’s some clever reuse of assets here from Codemasters which can make the game feel a ton bigger than it actually is, but at the same time a lot of the events start to feel samey after a while, even if the exhilaration of being one wrong twitch from disaster doesn’t fade so easily.

There is one major new mode in DiRT 3, and that’s the Gymkhana. Explaining this mode to friends I described it as being “a bit like Tony Hawk”, and it’s now I realize that description, while crap, is actually rather accurate. Gymkhana drops you into large areas scattered with stuff – ramps, barrels, barriers – and then you’re told to look cool.

Looking cool involves performing awesome tricks and stringing them together in very cool manners. Skidding around in drifts, jumps, donuts and even smashing certain objects to pieces all net points, and extra points are awarded for showing a variety of skills in one segment. It’s free-form, exhilarating fun, and allows you to enjoy those twitch controls in a different way, as now you’re using the twitch-reaction to your advantage to flip the car around on a dime to ready yourself for your next trick.

Gymkhana is hard as hell, but it’s also brilliantly rewarding. You’ll be annoyed when tricks fail to come off early on, but eventually things start to make sense and come together and when they do, it’s damn near magical. It’s that much fun and there are enough challenges and arenas for Gymkhana that I’m almost tempted to say that alone is worth the cost of the game.

As well as earning points for high-scores, Codemasters has provided the very cool feature of YouTube features – you can upload short, sweet and basic highlight videos to YouTube of your coolest looking stunts. There are no editing features, but the game is clever enough to not bury the camera in a wall during your best stunt. While this feature works for normal races, Gymkhana is where it’ll come really in handy as that’s where you’ll be doing the stuff worth showing off.

Dust, dirt and water effects just up the ante

As well as YouTube there’s all the online features you’d expect from a racer including online leaderboards for best times and scores and multiplayer versions of all the event types including Gymkhana as well as some mini-games that are exclusive to the multiplayer side of the game. They’re a fun distraction, but nothing to shout about.

DiRT 3 isn’t perfect, but it once again underlines that the British – Codemasters especially - know how to make really good racers. There’s issues and niggles here and there in the amount of Career Mode repetition of event types and environments, as with many racers, and the game is almost devoid of innovation in all modes other than the brilliant Gymkhana – but perhaps an evolution rather than a revolution was all that was needed for DiRT 3.

Whatever the answer to that question, it’s excellent, and comes highly recommended.

Best Moment: Finally understanding how to nail it at Gymkhana. Awesome moment.

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