Dirt 3 Review «

The past six months have been unexpectedly kind to fans of virtual racing, presenting us with a number of excellent offerings in both arcade- and simulation-style driving games. With Dirt 3, the latest entry in their off-road racing series, Codemasters just might be able to lay claim to aficionados of both types.
For the novice driver — or one who’s simply more comfortable playing a racing game where the brake doesn’t enter into the equation — Dirt 3’s suite of assists and difficulty settings serves up an experience that allows you to scream through its beautiful landscapes using no more skill than you would in a game of OutRun. It’s literally easy enough under those conditions for a child to play (a fact I uncovered by turning the controller over to my daughter and showing her only how to steer and floor it).

Click the image above to check out all Dirt 3 screens.
But when you take the assists off, and grant your CPU opponents a modicum of road savvy, Dirt 3 acquits itself quite well — with depth, variety, and challenge — as a driving game for the hardcore to rally around.

One of Dirt 3’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it communicates to you the surface you’re driving on. Thanks to the outstanding audio and varying types of vibration feedback (which are every bit as effective with a standard controller as with a force-feedback racing wheel), you never have any doubt about the grip of your tires or just how much trouble you’re in as you negotiate a hairpin turn. The sound of driving on packed snow, in particular, rings true to me, as a veteran of many snowy winters. There’s nothing quite like hearing the sound of the snow crunching under your tires, followed by silence as you hit a patch of ice. Dirt 3 delivers that sensation very well.

You’ll encounter all manner of terrain and inclement weather as you progress through the Dirt Tour, Dirt 3’s career mode which spans four seasons (plus a number of special event series). From the forests of Finland to the sun-soaked savannah of Kenya, Dirt 3 provides plenty of track variety in both point-to-point races and more closed circuits. Adding to that variety, each track can be driven at multiple times of the day (and night), and with varying degrees of precipitation. Regardless of the course, however, the environments are gorgeous and feature many minute details — like spectators scrambling to get behind barriers or leaves falling from the trees. A particular highlight for me is using the cockpit camera — with the HUD turned off — racing through the forest at night with only the pool of light from my headlights and the voice of my navigator to guide me through the race. The sense of being there that Dirt 3 can sometimes conjure up is one not often duplicated by a video game, regardless of genre.

Click the image above to check out all Dirt 3 screens.
The multiplayer racing in Dirt 3 reflects the same welcome balance of arcade and simulation focus as the solo campaign. You can, as you would expect, compete in serious rally events — with the game showing other racers as ghosts, rather than staggering your start times — or go for the entirely different experience offered by Dirt’s online “party” modes. It’s this trio of gameplay modes — dubbed Outbreak, Invasion, and Transporter — that really sets Dirt 3’s multiplayer apart. In Outbreak, one of the eight online players is the infected car and is tasked with ramming other players, thus infecting them, and increasing the number of zombie cars on the chase for victims. Invasion litters the course with cardboard cutouts of evil robots and skyscrapers, and drivers try to take out as many robots as possible, while leaving the buildings standing. Transporter is a vehicular reimagining of the staple of first-person shooters: capture the flag. In a group of friends, the party mode is a unique and riotous good time — and it also slyly teaches you the finer points of stunt racing, which comes in handy in another of Dirt’s online modes: the new-to-the-series Gymkhana events.

Gymkhana requires you to perform an array of stunts like drifting, spinning, jumping, smashing barriers, and doing donuts. The courses themselves bear more than a passing resemblance to a skate park, and playing through them is not unlike a Tony Hawk trick challenge — only in a car. I’m of the opinion that drift events are the white elephants of racing games (and Dirt 3 does have drift events, though they are mercifully few in number), so I was rather apprehensive about this addition to the game at first. Thankfully, it turns out Gymkhana is quite a bit of fun… under the right conditions.

There are two different ways the Gymkhana events are presented: in the career mode, where they’re part of your progression through the game; and as vaguely free-roaming challenge rooms. The latter version is a whole lot of fun, since you’re free to complete challenges at your own pace. It’s essentially horseplay with horsepower. The former, however, feels more like an impediment to your career progression. Having to perform a certain number of tricks to hit a score goal under a strict time limit sucks some of the fun out of Gymkhana and makes me wish that it (and the drift events) were partitioned off as a separate mode altogether. They disrupt the rhythm and flow of the career, since they require such a different skill set than the other rally racing modes.

There are a few other minor disappointments in Dirt 3 as well. Having all your cars gifted to you as a result of your career reputation (which serves as the game’s “currency”) removes one of my favorite aspects of racing games: carefully choosing, purchasing, upgrading, and repairing my personal collection of vehicles. The approach taken in Dirt 3, while undeniably streamlined, leaves you with no attachment to your cars at all, and since each one comes with a reputation bonus for completing a related challenge, you’ll only ever select the one with the highest point value for your next race.

Click the image above to check out all Dirt 3 screens.
You should also prepare to endure some fairly significant loading times (on console, at least). They’re masked a bit by the Codemasters trademark slick menu system and presentation, but after the first hour or two of playing, you’ll certainly notice them.

These are pretty insignificant complaints in the face of such driving largesse, though. You’d be hard pressed to find another racing game that has the amount of content, refinement, and fun as Dirt 3, whether you’re the type of driver who uses his brakes or not.

 

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