Codemasters have been making racing games for quite a long time now, and their record for quality and enjoyment is second to none. I can remember spending hours at uni on TOCA Touring Cars, throwing my Mondeo round the UK’s finest tracks while constantly fighting off the attention of rival racers, something which continued through the series up to the point where I found myself spending far too much time on GRiD. The Colin McRae Rally series also took up huge chunks of my time, with the point-to-point racing offering up a massive, in-depth challenge. But, much like the TOCA series twisted and evolved over time to something very different, as did the McRae games. With the McRae tag gone (but definitely not forgotten) DiRT3 looks to continue Codemasters’ impressive run of racers, but does it cross the line for a stunning win or finish upside down in a ditch?
It can’t be easy to make a rallying game. The very nature of the sport suggests that the handling isn’t going to be as tight as the likes of F1, and with loose handling and low grip levels comes the danger of frustration and an impossibly steep learning curve. And yet DiRT 3 seems to find a way past that. By mixing up the style of the events, gradually increasing the challenge and offering an intelligent set of driving aids you’ll find yourself able to compete whether you’re a rallying veteran or a first-timer. In fact, those of you who just want to worry about steering can do just that by switching on the help for your speed, braking and accelerating – even cornering assists can be turned on. But the real challenge comes with the driving aids turned off. Doing so presents you with one of the most satisfying challenges I’ve seen in a racing game for quite some time.
There’s something immensely satisfying about the knowledge that everything that happens in a race is entirely down to you. Accelerate too hard out of a corner and you’ll end up wrapped round a tree; brake too hard into a tight bend at that wasted fraction of a second could prove decisive. But get it together for a perfect run and it’s a brilliant feeling. It’s maybe not as brilliant a feeling as the original Colin McRae games due to DiRT’s point to point stages being much shorter, but it’s something the likes of which you don’t tend to see in most other racing games. This style of against-the-clock racing is the primary focus of the career mode, which in my opinion is absolutely the right decision, more so because it’s one of, if not the finest driving experiences you’ll find on this generation of consoles.
When you take part in other races the feeling of satisfaction is there, but not quite as strong if you’re mainly looking for true rallying. Racing against other cars is great fun, that much can’t be denied; the competition is fierce and unforgiving and the fantastic track design makes for some tense and tricky races. There’s also a nice range of vehicles you can use. As well as the usual mix of modern rally cars, you’ll be racing pickup trucks, buggies and a range of cars from previous decades, each car having its own personality and handling to get to grips with. And just as you start getting to grips with the standard races, DiRT 3 opens its box of tricks and brings out something brilliant: gymkhana.
Gymkhana may not suit rally purists, but for anyone looking for a unique and challenging addition to their racing it’s just the ticket. Acting effectively as a stunt session points are awarded for drifting through certain areas, doing controlled doughnuts and various other fun activities. The events themselves are mixed with some being open for you to do what you want in the set time, and others being more controlled either by giving you an exact order to do things in or just a list of tricks for you to carry out in any order. You’ll also be bashing gorillas away from skyscrapers, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. Those of you who, like me, are used to pure racing and only really thinking about going as fast as possible without crashing might struggle to get to grips with all this, but it’s worth sticking to. Practice makes perfect, and once you repeat each session a few times you’ll see your score increasing after each run. It’s also the only time DiRT3 gets bogged down in sounding quite Americanised, which after the dude-fest of DiRT2 is a very welcome change.
You’ve probably realised by now that there’s quite a bit to do. Yet just to make it even more inviting it’s all wrapped in one of the most gorgeous looking sets of visuals you’re likely to find. There’s very little to find fault with; tracks distort and kick up mud and gravel as you drive, your car will twist and bend realistically when it takes damage and the tracks’ surroundings look great with a flawless use of subtle motion blur to give each race an almost cinematic feel. Even the menus look pretty, with clean and chunky options and an abundance of tetrahedrons. It’s far more impressive than it sounds, trust me. Speaking of sound the cars growl, cough and splutter in tandem with their real life counterparts and every crunch, collision and slide sounds absolutely spot on. You’d really have to be lacking a soul to pick major holes in any part of DiRT 3’s presentation.
There are other nice touches scattered through the game too; a split-screen mode allows people sat on the same sofa to compete against each other, something too often ignored nowadays. You can upload replays to YouTube to show off to the world, although those of you with a PS3 will need to wait until the store returns before being able to do that. Time-trial modes have leaderboards to compare your times against others and let you download ghost cars to help you beat better times, and there’s a nice range of online multiplayer options to keep you busy away from the single player stuff.
So why isn’t the game perfect? Well in terms of racing games it’s not far away. Loading times can be a bit lengthy, and the point-to-point races are shorter than they perhaps could have been, especially considering there aren’t all that many different locations to be found. But generally, DiRT3 is nothing short of brilliant. The handling, the visuals, the other cars’ AI, it’s difficult to find fault over and above what we’ve already mentioned.
Colin McRae may be gone, but he’s definitely not forgotten. His racing roots shine through in DiRT3, and if you’ve got any interest in rallying, racing, or just some hair-raising foot to the floor speed then DiRT3 comes highly recommended.