Codemasters has taken a good page from Bethesda Softworks; do what you do best and keep doing it.
There is no doubt that Codemasters knows how to make racing games. They own the F1 market and they appear to have owned the Rally market for the last two versions. Could they keep the tradition of 'knowing what the hell they're doing with racing games' with the latest release of DiRT?
Come find out.
While last year was my first official year with the DiRT series, I had a little bit of help magnifying my experience. Right when DiRT 2 came in for review Logitech sent their G27 Racing Wheel the same week (talk about a good week). I had the pleasure of sitting at a computer table with a 40" screen in my face armed with potentially the best racing wheel on the market ready to go nuts in a rally based game. What more could a reviewer ask for?
This time around I've decided to give up the racing wheel for this review and race like the commoners race (just kidding about the 'commoners') with DiRT 3. What I found was a more refined racing game that brought more of what people asked for and less frustration.
As I mentioned in the previous DiRT review, I have never been a fan of rally racing games due to a bad experience with SEGA Rally some years ago. The idea of off-road is certainly intriguing, but edging around corners and potentially falling off a street quite easily to my demise isn't what I want out of my racing experience; or at least it wasn't what I wanted. DiRT 2 brought with it an entirely new respect for the rally racing and short track racing experience. It was hard enough not to be easy, but easy enough not to throw one's controller through a window. With DiRT 3 the difficulty, controls and experience have tightened up considerably.
Starting with difficulty, the game still brings the goods when it comes to being precise. DiRT 3 has a tighter level of difficulty for casual gamers; easing them into the rally and gymkhana racing experience like one would wade into a frightfully cold pool. Compared to DiRT 2, this edition gives the newcomers more room for mistakes and an entire slew of more precise assists when it comes to driving. Having not played this game in nearly a year, I took the first day to ease myself back into the controls (or, more specifically into the analog controls for the first time). The braking assists, the turning and just general sense of driving seemed almost automatic in the default 'casual' mode. First place after first place appeared using this level of difficulty and eventually the game literally tells you that maybe you should 'up' the difficult, which I did. Once you jump from casual default to intermediate it becomes a new racing experience. You have to watch how you turn, how hard you push the gas button (R2) and when the best time to break should be. For example, one of my first races without the training wheels was in Aspen. I drove in a nice short track that allowed for my vehicle to slip and slide into walls easily. The more I corrected myself with each lap, the more I forgot about getting assists. Literally, the game will subconciously encourage you to turn off the things that help you, including a wonderful green line that makes you visually aware if you are going too fast around a corner (red is too fast, while green is good).
While I'm not certain if it was my previous experience from DiRT 2 awakening, I'm very sure that DiRT 3 has tightened and created less space between difficulty settings. That, for me at least, is the most important part of a driving game.
So what else has been changed for DiRT 3? Two words: Gymkhana events. While honestly I prefer a more traditional racing style and rally, I understand the importance of more Gymkhana. For racing fanatics of the X-Games generation, bringing a new style of racing and competition with cars was and is vital for the racing industry to maintain their audience. So you'll get more events where you will have to go through certain obstacle courses and compete against other cars in drifting, spinning, donuts, jumping and smashing blocks. While I still haven't fully taken to the idea that this type of car competition is enjoyable, I still appreciate that it is included in the game. By going through the training of Gymkhana and learning the moves and controls (which aren't that difficult in hindsight), it will literally make you a better driver in other events. For example, when you're in the third set of events you'll race in Monaco. You'll go head-to-head with another driver and you will need drifting to improve your speed/time. That's not to say that the game isn't forgiving if you completely just don't learn these things, but it's helpful if you do know them.
Regardless of how you feel towards Gymkhana, it does bring a new element of racing to the DiRT series.
Other new things to talk about include more races, cars and locations. You get a sh*t ton of rally races, which just offers more experience. You also get some fantastic locations to cover, which include a vicious Kenyan rally that will literally test your nerves. It's an early track experience, so be prepared for it, as it's easy as pie to jump right off a mountain's edge. I think out of all the experiences in the game I'm certainly happy with what DiRT 3 brings when it comes to rally races, which is nearly double of what the previous game contained.
Another neat feature of this latest edition of the game is the inclusion of cars spanning across decades. There are certain races in the game where you can choose a decade car to race with. For example, you can choose a nice Audi from the 80s to break out and race in Aspen during a head-to-head race. There are also 70s cars, while uglier than sin, that are made available to the gamers. I like the fact that you can take these and race, as it adds a bit more personality to the game. Give the developers at Codemasters credit for thinking up something unique for this game.
With all this goodness there has to be some bad, right? Correct, I'm not a fan of the menu presentation. DiRT 2 had a team oriented menu system that the gamer could cruise through when choosing races and vehicles. Your driver would have a nice place to hang out and you could see your progress on a giant map. When another driver wanted to challenge you they would appear on the map and you could read details of their race. If you can picture a giant map on someone's wall with very pretty thumb tacks in it then you can picture the menus in DiRT 2. With DiRT 3 the menu has changed dramatically. Going with some Kryptonian three-dimensional triangle, the menu system is uninspired and pretty bland and uninvolved. It puts you in the mood for a clean, Demolition Man-esque future rather than getting you prepared to race. I realize that the good folks at Codemasters probably wanted to style it up a bit, but this isn't F1 racing; this is Rally and Gymkhana racing, which is dirty and rough. Give me back the map, inspire me to be a great driver and keep me pumping up my ego with a map full of accomplishments. I don't want style, as much as I want encouragement.
You might consider this petty, but consider this complaint a call for Codemaster's fun game to grab my attention and never let go. The menu system, while not impactful with the gameplay at all, is important for the flow of racing. The lack of a true, more realistic menu system really disconnected me from the team I was racing for. Much like a film that can draw its viewers in to forget their real life for two-hours, I want DiRT to take me in and make me a racer. I don't want the style!
Okay, with that said my only other complaint is the tedious loading times between menus and racing. While there is a nice 3.5gb install at the beginning, it really doesn't make the loading time seem less of a burden. The races are nice once they get started, but the times in between are annoying to the senses. In the end, the presentation of the actual environments and car models makes the loading worth the wait, but it still can be felt. Speaking of looks...
The look and feel of DiRT 3 trumps the previous game. I was fascinated and in awe of the amount of detail that Codemasters put into their racing opus. When you see the round wheels of the car spinning, or the low-riding dig of the front fender bending into the grounding during a weight-shifting turn you will appreciate the amount of detail that the devs put into this game. Hell, you can even see the driver inside the car switching gears or the fans in the back of your off-road truck spinning faster and faster with each rev of the engine. It's frightening how good this game looks. It's even more frightening that the environments look as equally as good as the vehicle models.
The environments are teaming with life, as you'll see crazy-ass spectators crossing the racing lane right before you zoom by. You'll see a shimmering, moving lake shifting with the wind. You'll be knocked down by the dirt or snow you kick up as you race. The dirt is so beautifully effective that it will temporarily blind you if you have a competitor in front of you that kicks it up. Codemaster left little detail out of this racing equation. DiRT 3 is simply gorgeous to look at.
So is this game fun? Well, considering that you have just a wide variety of racing styles and competitions to play in DiRT 3 it does add a considerable amount of depth to the game. The overall 'career mode' in the game will take you somewhere between 10-15 hours to initially complete, if you're a good driver. You will spend an additional 10 hours going back and getting better with each event, as it offers a non-linear style of racing (you can skip races by scoring more rep points and unlocking more races to compete in). The harder you make things the more you get, and more importantly the more you unlock. The longevity of this game depends on your patience and dedication. Outside of the tour, you can play single player mode which offers a time trial and single race mode (afterthoughts in my opinion). You can also play multiplayer which offers some good split-screen action and online play. I wish I could tell you about the online play, but to access it (and some special events/items) you must put in a VIP code, which comes with the game. Regretfully, PSN is down and I couldn't review this portion of the game. I will update this section once PSN is back up and going (if I'm not playing my free games -- so kidding).
With all this said, the game is worth the $59.99, if you like the series or the sport of Rally/Gymkhana in general. For me, I put my Rally racing faith only in DiRT at the moment. It's a strong series and is consistently trying to improve itself. It helps that Codemasters knows what the hell it is doing with the racing games, and they know how to implement the right licenses to bring more realism to the experience. If they would only go back to their old menu system this would have been a just unbelievable experience.