Dirt 3 Review
Developer: Codemasters Southam
Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (PlayStation 3 Version Reviewed)
The loss of Colin McRae was felt across the sporting world. He was a great British sporting champion and one of the few true household names in the world of rally driving. McRae also spawned his own series of top-notch rally driving video games, a series that earned a reputation for both realism and fun, in a neatly interwoven package. With the release of Dirt 3, we receive the first rally title from Codemasters that has been entirely stripped of its Colin McRae moniker. But does it really manage to take a step away from the shadow of the racing great, or just continue to ride his coat-tails?
STORY: When you talk about racing games, story is rarely a strong point. Even on those occasion when it has been well thought-out, it isn’t often well-remembered. Such is the case with Dirt 3. The premise is as simple as this: as an emerging rally driver, you sign up for four seasons with a team of representatives who will try to elevate you to the top of the sport. As you play through the game, earning successes in races and challenges, you will accrue reputation points which unlock new events and garner the attention of new car manufacturers. Through unlocking faster cars and progressing through different championships, you and your team will try to become number one in the world.
Compared to some of the other recent entries in the franchise, this set-up is fairly basic, and there is little in the way of story progression, other than the between-race ramblings of your British, American and Australian advisers. You will meet other drivers who show you the ropes when it comes to new events, but this aspect of the game is dealt with rather quickly, and doesn’t amount to any real character development or any motivation. But hey, this is a racing game, and in general, story isn’t the priority.
GRAPHICS: Graphically, the game is very impressive. One of the first things that you will notice is the new dynamic weather system that has been added into the Dirt series for the first time. Developed for Codemasters’ F1 2010 title, the engine creates realistic rain effects which turn the tracks into a muddy mess and reduce visibility. It also throws up dust in the more arid landscapes and when you’re in Norway, prepare to have to deal with flurries of snow, icy tracks and a windscreen that can sometimes be almost entirely obscured. These different weather effects are most impressive when in the cockpit view. Even in an elevated view, however, the cars will still become caked in mud and the track ahead won’t always be clear.
The car models are incredibly detailed, and the development team are obviously proud of this fact as your chosen car can be admired during the (often overlong) loading screens. Every sponsor and element of the car’s design is faithfully re-created, and if you know your cars, they will all be instantly recognisable. Driver graphics aren’t particularly impressive, but it is uncommon to actually see a view of the drivers aside from in the pre-race cutscenes – this is an extra detail, rather than a core element. And speaking of car models, the damage system is perhaps the most realistic seen in any driving game. Unafraid to reproduce the cars involved and allow them to be smashed into oblivion, every ding, scrape and major impact will be reflected on your ride, affecting the performance of the vehicle if damage impacts are turned on in the options menu.
Finally, the tracks have been thoughtfully designed. The locations really stand out from one another, each having its own distinct character and colour palette, whether you are racing in the American Midwest, the Kenyan Savannah or snow-filled Norway. Foliage and vegetation all look convincing, especially when you see them close-up during one of your regular spins off-course. These all seem like real, living places and coupled with the clever track design, invite you to drive around and explore, which almost makes it a shame that you don’t ever get enough time to simply admire the scenery!
SOUND: Audio in the game never really stands out, without causing any negative problems. Motor sounds and the voices of the watching spectators are accurate and realistic. Crashes and spins sound worryingly lifelike also, so much so that you cringe after a particularly bad collision: it sounds like you could really have been in that painful-looking accident.
The most important aspect to the audio is the co-driver audio. Giving you instructions on the type of corners that are approaching and the speed you should be adjusting your car to, these are an invaluable asset towards achieving the best times you can, especially when the weather makes navigation difficult. These voices are always clear and concise, and players can even choose between a male or female co-driver, and simplified or complex racing instructions, to customise the experience to their needs. Your three professional advisers are all voiced ably, but never really bring the progression of your career to life: this is merely a minor backdrop to the main attraction.
GAMEPLAY: The heart of the game lies in its driving simulation. Although it is difficult to find the happy medium between super-realism and a fun, quick experience, the Codemasters team have crafted a game that is quick to learn, but incredibly challenging and rewarding to master fully. The learning curve is steep: when playing on the casual setting, with all assists enabled, players can almost simply accelerate through every track. With these braking and cornering assists employed, the game feels like it plays on rails, and whilst good for the absolute novice, this mode will be boring for most.
Switch up to intermediate and things get difficult, quickly. Only a minor number of assists are employed at this level and AI is far better. Keeping your vehicle on the road and facing the right direction becomes a true act of skill. Push the difficulty up to advanced, and one could be forgiven for thinking the cars are un-controllable on your first time playing. Only through repeating the tracks and learning the nuances of turning and braking will players start to score good times and place on the podium.
Events take place across a variety of racing styles. Traditional rally driving takes centre stage, with staggered starts in point-to-point races, drivers must finish with the fastest time. “Rally Cross” involves multiple cars driving at the same time, with a first-past-the-post winning system. “Land Rush” is similar to Rally Cross in structure, but generally involves off-roading, with four-wheel drive trucks or buggies and more jumps and banks to contend with. “Trail Blazer” is more akin to drag racing: super-powered cars zip along wide, long courses, to attain the best time possible. “Head 2 Head” features exactly what it suggests, two cars driving around the same track simultaneously (from different start points) in order to place the fastest times.
Whilst these are quite varied, they have been seen before in Dirt titles and similar racing games. Where Dirt 3 tries to drag the game kicking and screaming away from the shadow of Colin McRae is through its “Gymkhana” events. Street-style locations such as London’s own Battersea Power Station play host to a variety of skill challenges that play out like the score attack modes found in old Tony Hawk’s Pro Skating games. Players are tasked with performing Drifts, Donut spins, Jumps and knocking down blocks in order to rack up a high score. Sometimes these events are held individually, and at other times players are placed into an arena setting where they must perform the best combination of moves they can within an allotted time.
As was the case in the skating games of old, learning the best routes around a course and which order to attempt tricks becomes important and strategy comes into play. These challenges can be very difficult, especially when you consider that many of the assists allowed in the main game are entirely disabled across all difficulty levels during these challenges. Someone who has mastered casual for example, will be thrown in at the deep end if they try to gain a good rank in the “Drift Showcase” event, as the steering assists they are used to are taken away from them.
Introduced in previous Dirt titles, Flashbacks make a return here, whereby players can pause the game, rewind the action for up to ten seconds, and choose to go back to any point in that time period and carry on their race from there. Spun out badly on a key corner? Use flashback and try again. This is a clever feature that eliminates some of the frustrations caused when one error can ruin a whole race. But luckily the number of times a Flashback can be used is limited in each event, so players can’t go crazy and over-use them.
MULTIPLAYER: The game’s multiplayer modes are spread across a variety of split-screen and online options. The inclusion of two-player split-screen is great, as a lot of driving games seem to forgo this option in favour of a solely online experience, but there is little that can beat the head-to-head intensity of two competitors battling it out on the same sofa. Online play boasts game modes for up to eight rivals, meaning that some of the rally cross events can get really messy, really fast, with eight unpredictable human drivers involved: this is where you really start to see vehicle damage come into play.
Codemasters have employed a VIP code system for online play, which you need in order to play competitively online. Second-hand buyers beware, this will have to be purchased through the PSN or Xbox LIVE, before you can play online. As an added bonus, you will unlock five exclusive bonus cars when you redeem your code. Still, this is just another step publishers are taking towards minimising the second-hand market.
The multiplayer game modes vary between the traditional and the more inventive. As well as the expected rally modes, which measure up very well in terms of performance when compared to the single-player, there is a car-based Capture the Flag mode called “Transporter”, where players aim to get to the flag and return it to their base before the other team steal it from them. There is a random spawn for the flag after each capture, so this shakes the mode up a bit as it becomes more unpredictable.
“Invasion” is the next mode: cardboard cut-out aliens are found around a course, and players must run them over whilst avoiding the cardboard versions of famous landmarks along the way. Finally, there is a good scattering of silly modes, notably “Outbreak”, a zombie mode. In this mode, one car is the disease carrier (glowing green!). That car then proceeds to ram other cars in order to spread the disease, with the winner being the last car standing, uninfected. These inventive multiplayer modes make a change from the norm, and give the game some party-style features which off-set the sometimes very serious nature of other rally titles.
LONGEVITY: The variations in difficulty that are afforded by the three main settings and the array of customisable assists mean that you can constantly return to this title, tweaking the difficulty bit by bit until you are able to master the true driving experience that Codemasters provide. However, aside from self-improvement, there isn’t a massive amount to keep you busy. Despite the career mode spanning four seasons and covering many different racing disciplines or styles, these careers all seem disappointingly short. A single season could feasibly be completed in a matter of hours, for instance.
Of course, in order to garner platinum medals in all available challenges, you will have to come first in all races on the higher difficulties, complete all of the free roam mini-quests, so players will have to keep coming back to replay the same modes. Challenges in particular are tricky, and to reach the highest score echelons, you really have to master each freestyle driving technique. Repetition is the key here, as grinding out results and mastering each control style with no AI help, requires high concentration and a lot of patience. Multiplayer will again extend the experience further, but it is the single-player mode that is most rewarding.
VERDICT: It may not be as true a driving simulator as Gran Tursimo, but Dirt aims for a point in between the fun of an arcade experience and the realism of a sim. It aims to include as many potential fans as it can, and across the three difficulty levels Dirt 3 provides an experience that gamers of all proficiencies and preferences can enjoy.
The additions of dynamic weather and Extreme racing challenges only help to widen the scope and appeal of the title, adding little extra for those who want realism, balanced with a new feature that adds to the fun. This is certainly not revolutionary, but instread represents a clear progression for the Dirt series that includes both traditional rally driving and races with more of a street racing edge. Add to that the whole host of multiplayer options and social integration, and the legacy of Colin McRae games is alive and well, even if the nametag has been retired.