Codemasters make the best racing games. Fact. The reasons for this are simple: Its EGO engine is the best racing engine out there, providing the best graphics, the best crashes and the best manipulation of time. But more importantly, Codemasters understands the concept of the word 'race'. DiRT 3 takes that essence of competition, distils it and rubs it liberally into your console's aging circuitry, lighting it up with new excitement and adrenaline. Offline is as exciting as online racing - it is superb.
How is this accomplished? The impeccable car handling, the cleverly designed tracks, the undulating terrain that leaves you breathlessly clinging to something resembling control - everything comes together as a whole to create a frighteningly intense experience. It's akin to a festival mosh pit: a blur of knocks, mud and noise. You're walking a perfectly-strung tightrope as you throw the car into corners, deliberately wiping out the feeble tape barrier as you hunt for the real apex that lies beyond.
Cut it too fine and you'll clip a tyre wall, sending individually-rendered tyres flying into the sky along with your shattered vehicle. Fully-licensed bodywork warps and rips apart, sending familiar brand names flying through the air, catching the light from the sunset as they spin through the sky. GT5 isn't even in the same league as this – if DiRT 3 is the digital incarnation of the real-life X Games, GT5 is the 20p-a-go kiddy cart ring over by the hotdog stand.
Above: A screenshot taken while the game was being played. Nothing comes close to the EGO engine
Nowhere is this more obvious than during Codies' trademark ‘flashback’ feature, allowing you to rewind time at any point in the race before resuming at any point, turning spectacular wrecks into spectacularly well-taken corners. The game doesn’t even punish you too much for doing this - you’ll simply lose a little XP bonus at the end of the race. In case you haven’t seen it, let’s have an example of its brilliance in action:
The amazing thing is, these slow motion wrecks stand up to close scrutiny. Look carefully and you’ll see bodywork warping realistically as wheels clash with door panels, bending further with repeated impacts. And then there’s the snow drift flattening...
This detail even has an effect on gameplay, as tyres that appear to have survived more slight impacts wear down over time before giving up the ghost at the most inopportune moments, forcing you to drive defensively for the rest of the race, trying to preserve the place you hold instead of striving to advance up the order.
Above: Please note the brightness of these night race screens has been boosted for clarity's sake
It doesn't just happen to you, either - the AI cars can suffer blowouts too, often causing them to lose control and flip right in front of you. Look again at the pictures above and you'll see that's exactly what happened here.
You're doing it wrong...
Of course, while smashing up your ride is a lot of fun, sooner or later you’ll begin to realise it also looks cool when you play well. The game encourages and embraces skillful driving like no other, as subtle use of the handbrake yields tight cornering and perfect exit angles. Despite the reported extra inertia, I actually found the game to be grippier and more responsive than its predecessor. Try turning your rally car into a ‘right 4’ corner and it’ll likely find the traction to shoot through across the apex and out the other side with a few shaved milliseconds in the bank.
Above: Get ready with the handbrake... if you can see the apex through all that awesome
But wait... everything so far sounds suspiciously like DiRT 2. What does the new game bring to the mix? Let's take a look...
After the split
Firstly, there’s split-screen two-player mode which is a bigger deal than it sounds. Omitting only the helmet cam and restricting flashbacks to a simple ‘quick respawn’ to keep the game moving for the other player, it moves and feels exactly like the single-player game.
That means it's bloody brilliant X2. At this stage, it doesn’t even surprise me any more that it runs at full screen and full speed. This engine could probably handle it another two times over without even breaking sweat. Witness:
The other new headline feature is Gymkhana - the show-off style of driving championed by Ken Block and used to advertise the last game, even though it didn’t actually feature in it (amazing really). Now it’s here in all its glory, complete with its own free-roam practice area around Battersea Power Station. There are even hidden packages to find if you fancy a change of pace.
The various techniques involved are all given their own challenges in the main game to get you used to this ‘hooniganism’. Interestingly, Gymkhana only unlocks after you've gad a good hour or two of traditional rally events. And if you're worried your precision driving is more Ken Dodd than Ken Block, fear not - it's by no means the meat of the game. Scraping through with the bare minimum scores isn't going to slow your progress too much.
Above: After DiRT 2 hinted at it, DiRT 3 finally lets you loose to show off
After a while, you’ll get to put all the various skills together in timed competitions, which give you colourful playgrounds to go nuts in. These include poles to donut around, marked areas for spinning, ramps to get some air and gates to drift through. It’s all rather ace and is even given a score multiplier system to encourage you to maintain a constant stream of trickery until the clock runs out.
The grading system takes all this into consideration and, while it’s relatively easy to progress through the events with a bronze medal, getting the perfect ‘Platinum’ ranking requires some serious skill and determination. I don't mean you'll need to have another go - we're talking half an hour or more of start, fail, retry. You don't have to get Platinums to progress, but some gamers won't be able to continue until they do it. I feel your pain. Observe:
But what’s the point in being awesome if it’s only you that gets to see it? Codies thought of this too, allowing you to upload replays to YouTube straight from the game, provided you have an internet connection, a hard drive and the ‘VIP’ pass that comes with the game (or it can be purchased online if your copy isn’t first-hand). It’s a great idea that’s bound to ignite the imagination of the community.
USA! USA! US... eh?
However, that very same community is probably responsible for some of the game’s few points of contention. For instance, the vocal minority chimed up when DiRT 2 came out because it was ‘too American’. Some people didn’t like the festival atmosphere and the rock soundtrack (both of which I thought suited the action very well, regardless of personal music taste). The outcome is a sequel that, for better or worse, completely abandons the festival presentation in favour of something I thought I'd never see in a Codies racing game - dull menu screens.
Above: Not quite as inspiring as the 'hundreds of people having fun' idea from the last game, is it?
Sure, the occasional stadium event features large crowds and big banners, but the majority of the game takes place under grey skies, around abandoned industrial complexes and through spooky forests. Don't worry, they're still wonderfully realised grey skies, industrial complexes and spooky forests, but it feels much grittier than its predecessor. That said, I think I’d happily trade 10 races of desert sun for one Rallycross race around night-time Monaco.
Above: Monaco seems an odd choice for a game called 'DiRT', but we're so glad it's in here. Look at it!
Something that's much more annoying, however, is the omission of context-sensitive banter from your rivals during races. You still enter your own name at the start but, unlike in other Codies games, it’s barely spoken either by the drivers or the male and female voices that comment on your progress. That’s a big knock for the game’s feeling of immersion - being called by name never got old, even if it was by pantomime villain Katie Justice in DiRT 2.
Finally, while the new weather and time of day variations work beautifully, they've arguably narrowed the career mode somewhat. Despite the wealth of disciplines, you always seem to be in Kenya, snow buggies, a night time forest or Monaco. An exaggeration, perhaps, but a few more area themes wouldn’t have gone amiss, or perhaps even some of the last game's stages could have been recycled. In this instance, I think all-new content is commendable but perhaps asking a lot for such a big career mode.
Time to get DiRTy
No matter. These are minor complaints and, compared to any other racing series you could mention, DiRT 3 is way out in front to the point where its competitors aren’t even eating its dust any more - that settled long ago. We’re looking at undoubtedly one of the finest games on the market - not just racing games, but video games in general. Show this game in action to anyone and they’re going to be amazed. It's like a CG movie of an off-road highlights reel, which is exactly what a modern racing game should be.
Above: I'm racing against a freakin' bobsled down a snowy forest track. Oh, and that's how you do trees
However, while scaling back the cringeworthy dude-speak (still slightly evident) and the festival presentation has undoubtedly made it more credible for hardcore rally fans, it does seem to be at the cost of some cohesion. The most surprising thought that came to my mind while I was playing was how much I want to play DiRT 2 again - for the atmosphere, the sunshine and the more involving career structure.
DiRT 3 is more serious. Its about racing beautiful machines in hostile environments, battling the elements and each other while playing to the crowd at the same time. It oozes classic, score-chasing videogame immersion without even acting like a videogame, leaving you focused solely on the fragile relationship between your car and the surface of the road. The result, whether you stay on or not, is magnificent.
20 May, 2011
Is it better than...
DiRT 2? No. They're about equal. DiRT 2 is just as good-looking, just as fast and just as fun to play, but has arguably superior structure and presentation. DiRT 3 has new weather effects and times of day, YouTube uploads, split-screen two-player and brilliant Gymkhana action and the rallying is indeed better this time round. Oh, and DiRT 3's Monaco races are verging on Race Driver GRID, so it scores extra points for that.
MX vs ATV Alive: Yes. Comparing the two just goes to show how far ahead of everyone else the DiRT series has become. At least DiRT 3 has a single player career mode. It doesn't have bikes, mind, and everyone knows how much better bikes make games. But seriously, if it's MX vs ATV or this, there's no contest. DiRT 3 is infinitely superior.
WRC: Yes. Even if you long for a dedicated rally game and couldn't care less about this Gymkhana nonsense, the gulf in quality is massive. You'll have more fun just playing the rally stages here and racing against people online than playing through the entire WRC game. Not that it's bad (far from it). Just that DiRT is better.
Just for you, Metacritic!
The racing action is peerless, with Codemasters' racers still clearly in a class of their own. But the style has perhaps swung too far from the Americanised festival atmosphere and it's much more sober as a result. Still absolutely worth your money, mind.
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