I'm 40 minutes into DiRT 3's Gymkhana events - that discipline of motorsport that sees you showing off in increasingly mind-blowing displays of driving finesse. But I'm still on step one of the tutorial. Nobody likes playing tutorials. All I need to do is drive through some polystyrene blocks within a time limit, yet the daft thing is, I have. I was up to Gold Medal standard on my first attempt. So why am I still sat here some 40 minutes later, unable to select anything other than 'retry'? Because DiRT 3 has nailed the 'just one more go' factor and I'm completely hooked.
It's strange that the game makes you wait so long before letting you loose on the Gymkhana events, giving you your first taste after a couple of hours of play. The game is divided into four seasons, each represented by a triangle on the main menu. Incidentally, there are a lot of triangles in DiRT 3, from dotting the 'i' in the new logo, to filling up at the top of the screen in a three stage kudos-esque mechanic. Every gamer will say 'hey, that looks just like the Triforce symbol!' when they see it filling up in-game. Triangles within triangles, within triangles... the presentation is a marked departure from the 'Bro Dude' style of the previous game.
That's probably why the Gymkhana aspect is held off for the first couple of hours of play. Codemasters wants you to get back to the rallying first, to appease the fans who bemoaned the mere smattering of traditional rally action in the last game. It's back, the weather effects are sweet and there are loads disciplines to try. But I'll be telling you all about those in the review, so let's get back to this Gymkhana tomfoolery.
The final group of events in season 1 act as your introduction to the discipline. There are separate events for block smashing, doing donuts around obstacles, spinning on flat ground, jumping over (surprisingly shallow ramps) and drifting. After you do well enough in all these, you get to participate in a freestyle competition combining all of the tricks you've learned so far.
I have to say, drift challenges in racing games are one of my least favourites pastimes, with the obvious exception of arcade fare like OutRun 2. I hate having to slide around stadia in Need For Speed or Hot Import Nights... it just feels tacked on, like it's supposed to be the coolest thing ever but ISN'T. Even GRID suffered from slightly inane drift challenges. But DiRT 3 somehow makes it amazing.
Above: Dorifuto! Powerslides are remarkably controllable in DiRT3, thanks to ultra-responsive controls
Maybe it's the close proximity of the gates in this challenge. The fact that you don't have to get close to the apex at the exact point that the marker will judge you. DiRT 3 doesn't complicate the task, asking you for two simple things - when you pass a gate, just ensure you're going as fast as you can, as sideways as you can. Maximum points available for doing it right: 5,000 per gate. Simple.
And damn, is it fun! Nailing the line feels great and looks the business when you watch the replay. The external camera views look just like Ken Block's internet videos, from the smoke down to the thick black trails of rubber in your wake. Codies know it looks great, too - provided you have a hard drive and an internet connection, the game will let you upload videos of your replays to YouTube.
Above: After a while, you unlock this free roam area to practise in, complete with hidden packages to find
It's like Codies want to give you everything they didn't in DiRT 2. The weather, replay uploading... there's even a 'restart via service area' option in races for those times when you want to change a couple of options but still restart swiftly. Interestingly, the auto/manual transmission selection is tucked away in the pause menu, which is odd. But it's there - and all of the buttons are reassignable during events. I haven't tried it with a wheel yet, but we'll (pun not intended) come to that when it's up for review.
You're probably still wondering why that polystyrene block challenge was keeping me playing. Like all the greatest score attack games, it was down to a combo system in the scoring. You've got a second or so to smash the next block in the sequence before your score multiplier gets reset. I don't think it's possible to keep it ticking over throughout the whole course (though I'm certain some bright spark on the interwebs will prove me wrong).
As it is, I came to within 2,000 points of the platinum medal (that's ONE block with no multiplier) with my best attempt. Of course I would have moved on had I done it, but that elusive last score bonus kept me glued to the screen. It was only my colleagues who suggested I played another bit because I had a preview to write that made me stop. I could have carried on all day, quite happily. Playing the tutorial mission.
Above: The cars actually have more grip than you expect, but happily settle into a weighty powerslide
You either care about graded scoring systems or you don't, but I don't think that's going to spoil your enjoyment of the game. A fellow journo from one of the mags was telling me how much he loved DiRT 3, but that the Gymkhana aspect was just a minor distraction for him compared to the main event in his eyes - the rallying. Me? I'm excited about both. And with the first quarter of my DiRT 3 finished (but not quite completed, mind), I'm ready for the main course, banging my metaphorical cutlery on the table in anticipation.
Look out for our DiRT 3 review soon - it's going to be a big one.
11 May, 2011