It's sort of amazing that Dirt 3 is still a long way off release. Codies third instalment in their superb racing series might not be coming out until Q2 2011 but from the hands-on time I've had recently it's already shaping up to be a screeching beauty.
I got to play a new rally stage based in Finland and the all-new gymkhana mode. No not the one with horses, the one driving ace Ken Block that goes a little something like this...
Of course, it's a *lot* like the amazing footage above. And although it's a tricky affair to get your head around at first, Dirt 3's gymkhana is a great addition to the series and something the community have been crying out for ever since Ken Block got involved with Dirt 2.
The gymkhana arena I got to play around in was based at Battersea Power Station in London, which will serve as an online party-play area too. This location made an appearance in Dirt 2 but only as a race track in and around the building. Now there are a number of obstacles littered around the place which you can test your driving prowess around in a souped-up Ford Fiesta, just like Mr Block.
You're rewarded for pulling off certain moves like Pole Dancer - which sees you perform tight donuts around a lamppost - or Air by sailing over a ramp like a giant metallic bird. It's all great fun when you pull it off, but like I said earlier it will take a little time to really perfect things here. The developers on hand to talk me through certain things put me to shame with their mad skills.
Far from being deterred by this tricky new mode in Dirt 3, I can't wait to give it a whirl in my own time. Flicking out the back-end of the car and perfectly holding a spin under an articulated lorry is a sight to behold and feels ace when you nail it. And the great thing is, that as well as there possibly being an LA Coliseum area to do said stunts, you'll be able to open each playground further by completing stunts. So eventually Dirt 3 will allow you to really perfect your lines - a bit like Tony Hawk of old but, y'know, in a car.
Above: Slipping under heavy-duty machinery looks great but is absolute nails to begin with
Aside from the gymkhana's thrills and spills one of the other gripes from Dirt fans concerned the lack of simulation rally. Sure, Dirt 2 has a number of decent, but short, rally stages and the bombastic rally cross, which is full of jumps, but the hardcore want some serious action to get their hands on - and that's just what they've got.
With the WRC license now at their disposal, Codemasters have stretched their previous rally attempt to replicate the real thing in Dirt 3. So now you'll be racing through stages from around the world that will be affected by real-time weather effects. One minute you could be bombing down a dusty jungle road in blistering sunshine only for the weather to flip on you and deliver monsoon conditions. This will certainly test your mettle as you battle the clock and the ever-changing elements.
Above: An Audi Quattro tearing up the gorgeous Finnish countryside. Stunning in full motion
To perfect that authentic rally feel - and to also help tweak the car's handling from Dirt 2 - Codemasters are working closely with not only Ken Block but also rally expert, Kris Meeke. He's actually into the project too, not simply phoning it in. How do we know? Because he spent the best part of the day answering questions about his involvement with Dirt 3 and also setting the fastest lap amongst around 50 people invited to the press day with the game. He's basically brilliant at it.
When I got to grips with the Audi Quattro I switched off the assists to get a real sense of how the car felt. It was a beast. Without the traction control your wheels will spin for days and without the stability help the car will swing violently into corners thanks to a weightier feel to proceedings. But soon everything clicked into place and the car was responding accurately to everything I wanted. I wasn't anywhere near the fastest times but I'd tamed the Audi beast and that was good enough for me.
Above: You can still select from a male or female co-driver to bark orders at you
It's still early days but Dirt 3 already feels superb. It mixes the hi-octane excitement of powerslides and gymkhana stunts with the serious rally driving seamlessly and looks set to provide a complete package for all. I'm still looking forward to GT5 (whenever it decides to roll out) but given that Codemasters have already got their 2011 game playing like a dream at this early stage, I'm rather more optimistic of Dirt 3 providing my racing fun next year.
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