Getting really down and dirty with racing action, while offered, hasn't really been seen in many of the latest racing titles, with most games opting to stick with road racing, exotic sports cars and the like. In Dirt 3 however Codemasters throws driving courtesy out the window to make way for some adrenalin fuelled, mud-splattered racing action.
Starting up Dirt 3 for the first time and diving head-first into its comprehensive career mode, the thing which impressed us most wasn't the spectacular graphics or car choices, but simply the driving experience itself.
Dirt 3 is quite possibly the most natural and realistic feeling racing game we've ever played. As in real life every tap of the brakes and nudge on the accelerator exhibited a different response from our car.
Dirt 3 is all about precision driving, although it may not look it. Guiding your rally car through dirt flecked Kenyan back roads or through the snow filled Finnish countryside delivers a remarkably different response, and each location requires tremendous amounts of concentration to successfully navigate. Lean on the accelerator too aggressively and you might spin out viciously on your next turn, steer through that particularly deep puddle of rainwater and your wind-shield might learn what it feels like to be maced, in turn causing you to wrap your car around a tree.
It's this gritty and aggressive driving experience which really gives life to the game as suspensions buckle realistically with each bump in the road. Dirt 3 also delivers a stellar audio experience when it comes to the roar and whine of the engines themselves. This sound is so well done that you can actually listen to the audio feedback of the car to know when a little more power can be squeezed out, or when you should scale back to avoid careening off the road.
Dirt 3 doesn't offer much in the way of storyline, with players starting off as a professional driver just signed by a new agent. Your agent, mechanic and “fan manager” will be on hand to provide advice and random comments, although these disembodied voices doesn't play an important role by any means. They actually brought up one of our few complaints with the game, and that is awful narration, especially by your so-called fan manager who wants you to upload each of your replays to YouTube, and your strongly accented mechanic who wants you to “get your slide on amigo.”
When it comes to managing your ride the game includes a number of tuning options which players can set to their liking before a race starts, or simply leave it up to your AI mechanic to figure out the details. Choosing cars and teams in the game takes on a different form than what we're used to seeing, with no money mechanic involved whatsoever. Instead teams will send you new cars when you level up, a fresh new setting which worked well, although some traditional racers may lament the death of “earning your car”.
This isn't to say the game is a cakewalk, as you'll still need to perform in races to receive new cars, it just doesn't take multiple hours of stockpiling imaginary in-game currencies anymore, a welcome break in our opinion. Different teams will express interest in signing you as you move up the ranks, but this system was also surprisingly shallow, with players capable of literally racing for a different team in each race if you so wish (no restrictive contract signing here).
Choosing a team will mainly revolve around which car they're offering for you to drive in, but also around the number of reputation points on offer. Teams will attach a number of bonus objectives to each car (although these can't be viewed beforehand), with the player having the chance of unlocking them within a race to score more points. These objectives usually involve stuff like reaching a certain speed or making it through an event without damaging your car (good luck with that one).
In addition to customising your car, players also have access to a wide range of settings, with difficulty settings, assists and damage settings able to be adjusted to whatever you like. And while the game may seem a bit easy when you first jump in, players need only fiddle with these settings a bit before they see Dirt 3 heavily raising the challenge level. The simple switch from cosmetic to full car damage may have greater implications that you might think.
On that note, car damage in the game looked very realistic, with bumpers being folded and wind-shields smashed as we forced our way through the game's multiple rally stages.
Dirt 3 also includes more than a hundred circuits and stages in total and can keep gamers busy for a long time coming. And while some of the events requires you to race a certain stage twice, the game spices things up by letting you do the stage backwards, or having the second race occur in pouring rain or perhaps even in the black of night. This is something which stood out to us especially, with gorgeous weather effects helping to create a very immersive experience.
Whether it's the hazy orange glare of the sun slowly sinking over the savannah or the frightening experience of taking on frozen Finnish causeways in the pitch black, Dirt 3 impressed us graphically at every turn. Even little extras managed to slip in to improve our experience, such as the odd foolish fan sprinting across the road in front.
In addition to sporting beautiful environmental effects the car models in the game were also superbly recreated, and sports vintage rally cars all the way back to the 1960s. We were also particularly impressed with the camera angles, especially the driver's seat cockpit camera, which gave us one of the most visceral virtual racing experiences since Shift 2’s helmet cam. It really is something to see the car violently bucking up and down as you jump over ridges, wind-shield wipers furiously trying to keep dirt and grime out of your way, and the driver's arms struggling to keep up with the constant pressure of changing gears whilst driving like a madman.
You aren't all alone in this mad mud-caked dash though, as a navigator or 'co-driver' will accompany you on rally stages, with a male or female option helping to give concise and useful directions as you barrel across the countryside.
Weirdly enough the game also allows players to upload replays of their races directly to YouTube (with an internet-connected Xbox 360 of course). This option is a fine addition except for the fact that your replays are limited to 30 seconds, and that there's no other option of saving them. This means you'll never be able to witness that glorious perfect rally stage in its entirety, but it's a minor issue in a generally awesome package.
Lemme try that again
Making a return from Dirt 2 is the game's famous flashback mode, allowing players to briefly manipulate time to get out of tight spots, similar to that seen in Forza games. The flashback function can be used up to five times during a race, but players will sacrifice reputation points every time they utilise it.
We found the feature to be exceedingly useful, a great tool for ensuring that one missed corner doesn't spoil your entire race. We didn't utilise it too much, but one remarkable occasion comes to mind where we were leading the pack around a corner only to drive headfirst into what appeared to be a massive swamp, in turn causing our car to flood and become, for want of a better term, slightly unroadworthy. Having slightly forgotten about the feature we were pleasantly surprised to see some results when pressing LB on our controller. Using the left trigger we were able to reverse time, watching as our Mitsubishi Lancer excavated itself from its muddy prison as if Yoda himself were raising it from the swamp. That's another plus point concerning flashback mode, it looks pretty damn cool.
The game also features a brand new Gymkhana mode, and while we're not sure if it technically qualifies as racing, it certainly looks great, and that seems to be what the game is all about anyway. In Gymkhana mode players are charged with navigating through various obstacle courses whilst trying to perform tricks to win the adherence of the audience.
A comprehensive tutorial will help ease you into the Gymkhana mode, with lessons teaching you how to maintain a controlled spin or how to nail a lengthy donut around a central object for example. These events are all about showing off us much as you can before the time runs out, be it by jumping, drifting or just smashing giant plastic barriers with your car. Our first competitive event even included stationary trucks for drivers to try and slide beneath Fast and Furious style.
While the merit of these Gymkhana events may not be clear to everyone (it certainly didn't hold our attention for very long), it's definitely a new aspect to the genre, and one which some fans will find exceedingly enjoyable. One of the really great things about this mode is its great tutorial mode though, with players able to apply the lessons learnt to challenges and races throughout the game.
Dirt 3 offers three main game modes namely; single player, multiplayer and the Dirt Tour career mode. It's this career mode in which you'll spend most of your time, with four different championships available to compete in and conquer.
Don't think for a moment that racing in Dirt 3 is restricted to classic rally action, because this simply isn't the case. While point-to-point rally events feature prominently (and was also our favourite event), a number of others such as rallycross events and bumpy truck races also make it into the mix, ensuring a healthily balanced racing diet.
As players progress through the four seasons in Dirt 3's career mode they'll start accumulating reputation points (rep) based on their racing conduct. Players will score more points for podium finishes, not using your flashbacks and achieving team-specific objectives.
If you aren't playing the Dirt 3 career mode players can take part in a variety of single player races against AI opponents. Multiplayer offers a number of options as well, with online gameplay over Xbox LIVE, splitscreen multiplayer and system link supported for all the standard racing modes.
As seems to be the norm though, Dirt 3 takes things up a notch by delivering some unique new competitive online modes of its own. These include Transporter; an aggressive capture-the-flag game mode and Outbreak; a tag mode where the tagged player is “infected” and turns green. Invasion is another new mode and a place to put your newfound Gymkhana skills to use as players crash through cutouts of aliens, but lose points for flattening cutouts of buildings.
Multiplayer games are also highly customisable, meaning you can create an easy-going arcade style experience or a more hardcore simulation mode, even going so far as to force players to use the cockpit camera and only allowing manual gear changing.
Codemasters have always been known for successfully injecting realism into their games, and Dirt 3 is no exception, proving to be the most authentic virtual rally experience we've ever played.
We were genuinely impressed by this game, especially its realistic driving experience and minute attention to detail. Whether it be the random shouts of a trackside fan or the clear sound of packed snow crunching under your tires, there's always something new to appreciate.
For all you racing and rally fans out there, Dirt 3 is one of the must-buy titles of the year.