DiRT 3 Review
Developer: Codemasters / Publisher: Codemasters / ESRB: Everyone (Alcohol Reference, Mild Language, Mild Violence) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99
You’re hurtling at 120 miles per hour down a backwoods road in the forests of Michigan. Your car is tenuously gripping the gravel, the surface’s uneven pits and rises threatening to send you flying into the trees. Somehow, gravity clutches you, keeping you planted just firmly enough to make the upcoming hairpin. You slam on the brakes at the last second; time is the only thing on your mind right now. As the back wheels slide through the corner, your car almost horizontal, the wheels kick up a cloud of dust and pebbles. You get back on the throttle in an instant, lining up your hood with the horizon, and blast off at breakneck pace for the next split time marker.
Then you realize that you’re sitting at home on your couch playing a videogame, and it’s one of the best racing games you ever played. Dirt 3 is downright amazing.
Let’s start where it matters most: the gameplay. Never has an off-road racer been this thrilling or satisfying. Never have I felt this giddy when I drift through a corner in perfect balance as I do while playing Dirt 3. One of the major criticisms of Codemasters’ racing games has been the interaction of the tires and the ground, but here it feels perfect. Driving is not too difficult; even with the driving assists off, it’s somewhat forgiving to your small errors. But it’s also challenging, as well. In order to beat the AI, you’re going to have to race clean laps and/or stages. What results is an incredibly rewarding, tense experience behind the wheel.
There are a number of disciplines in Dirt 3, many of which will be familiar to fans of the series: rally, rallycross, head-to-head, and trailblazer, to name a few. Also sprinkled into the mix are special challenges, like score-based drifting competitions. New to the franchise is snow (finally!) and it’s not just for looks, either. Snow is its own beast, making for a much slicker and dangerous racing surface. Rally fans will appreciate the handling subtleties that frozen water makes on the gameplay.
The real innovation, however, comes with Gymkhana, the motorsport equivalent of street skating made popular by drivers like Ken Block. You enter a specialized compound full of obstacles and point areas, and your job is to perform tricks in and around these zones, chaining them together for higher multipliers. There hasn’t been anything quite like this in a racing game before, and it’s incredibly fun. You unlock new Gymkhana challenges as you progress through career mode, as well as an abandoned industrial area that you can use for free roaming practice (as well as trying to complete challenges, like drifting through narrow passages or doing donuts around construction equipment). Gymkhana is like the Skate of racing games; moving forward, I can’t imagine not being able to drive around an open arena and practice my drifts and power slides at will.
All in all, Dirt 3 just feels amazing. So much of rallying is about instinct, and the game captures that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision-making that rally drivers have to use during competition. The multitude of different race types keep things varied at every turn, especially during the career mode, which has been simplified a bit from previous entries in the series.
The other great feature that reflects the emerging online culture of rally and Gymkhana in real life is the ability to upload your own replay clips from the game straight to your YouTube channel. As Ken Block can attest, people go crazy for amazing driving, and the reflection of that element of the sport is a novel and creative way to enable game content sharing. It’s also pretty painless; simply enter your YouTube info from the menu, clip out a section of your race, and hit upload. It will appear on your channel when you log in on your computer. Neat.
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Codemasters has the best menu and UI design in the business, and Dirt 3 proves the point. Your most recently used vehicle will slide around the menu screens between races, while the seasons in career mode are laid out in polyhedral triangles that open up to show the different events you compete in. There is really no extraneous excess to the options and car setup choices, meaning you’ll get right into a race every time.
The lineup of vehicles is also impressive, a virtual museum of rally history, from the pokey 1960s Mini Cooper all the way up to modern titans like the Ford Focus RS and Fiesta. There’s a smorgasbord of famous cars from every era, so rally fans both old and new will find a groove to live out their fantasy race experiences. It also makes me nostalgic for the Toyota Celica, which I never thought I would ever say, least of all for a video game.
But the slick presentation is also one of the most annoying elements of the game: in order to capture the spirit of the real world of rallying, Codemasters has seen fit to plaster every game surface with corporate sponsor logos. Every season series has its own sponsor, with logos prominently displayed (for some reason I have a desire to drink Rockstar Energy; thanks Dirt 3!). The cars, too, reflect the monetization of the sport; as much fun as it is to blast through the forests of Finland in my Subaru Impreza, doing it as a part of Team Oxy with their logo plastered all over the side of my car hurts my pride a little bit. I realize racing is all about sponsorship, but it seems like every other image in the game is a cash in.
Dirt 3’s soundtrack is one of the better licensed music lineups in recent memory. Plenty of banging electronic and rock songs play during replays and menu navigation, and none of them feel out of place.
On the gameplay side, the audio is exceptional. There’s a difference between the noise coming from the boxster flat-six in your Team Oxy Subaru than the much deeper rumble in the off-road truck events. As you pound down the gravel in Dirt 3, you can hear the rocks bouncing off the undercarriage, and when you land a huge jump, the suspension creaks under the strain. Even the tire squeal in Gymkhana and drifting events is music to my gearhead ears.
Strangely, the game introduces a party of advisors who comment on your progress and your race results. I think one of them was my mechanic and one of them was my agent, but since they don’t really contribute other than to crack wise in the menus, I was constantly left feeling like I was hallucinating their presence.
Thanks to Gymkhana, the multiplayer is more than your traditional online racing experience. While you can choose to take on your friends or random challengers in the traditional disciplines (I find rallycross to be the most exciting), Dirt 3 also has a collection of specialized multiplayer modes made possible by the open Gymkhana environments, and they are all a blast. Outbreak designates one player as the zombie and he must “infect” the other cars in the session by crashing into them; it’s hide and seek inside 300 horsepower vehicles. Another mode, called Transporter, tasks everyone with collecting a randomly spawning flag somewhere in the arena and driving it through a designated “goal” area to score a point. You can steal the flag from an opponent by crashing into them, and thus Transporter usually becomes a game of destruction derby with hilarious results.
If you just want to chill out and do some Gymkhana free sessions, you can do that, too. Thanks to the difference in gameplay styles, the multiplayer in Dirt 3 is fun, exciting, and unique all at once. Even if you normally never take your driving skills online, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot here as there is something for even the most solitary of racers.
Dirt 3 may be the best racing game I’ve played in the last decade. It’s certainly the best one that takes place on surfaces other than tarmac. Visually, it’s gorgeous. The lighting in the environments is a sight to behold, and the sense of speed, especially in some of the trailblazer events, will give you vertigo. There were moments when the controller melted away and I simply became one with the virtual machine I was steering. It’s very rare that my adrenaline kicks in so much while gaming, but trying to shave off those precious seconds while sliding around a corner caused my heart to skip a beat several times.
As a fan of rallying, of Codemasters’ racing titles, and of racing games in general, I give Dirt 3 exceptional recommendation. It’s one of the best games the studio has ever put out.