Codemasters’ Dirt 3 is the most enjoyable non-arcade racing game I have ever played. If you like off-road, buy this game. If you like racing games then buy this game. Responsive handling, satisfying sense of speed, gorgeous graphics and special effects, fantastic audio, balanced AI with a challenging but fair difficulty, a decent selection of vehicles (though much noticeably slimmer than many contemporary racers), varied and fun multiplayer, and the slickest and fanciest menus I have ever seen help round out, to me, one of the best racers this gen.
What do you say about a game where the biggest complaint you can leverage against it is that you can’t visually customize your cars beyond preset sponsor vinyls? Dirt 3 is more of an experience than a game. Sure, you play it, but a drive through the dirt forest or rocky desert mountains in Dirt 3 is just that. Whereas I am usually always aware of the fact that I’m still playing a video game when I play most racers, Dirt 3 managed to suck me into the experience like no racing game has done before. It has style, it has grit, it has ambiance, it has… atmosphere.
The dire caution with witch every turn is approached with, like a heavily armored mini boss in an FPS, is always rewarding thanks to the fluid and response controls. The controls are tighter than its predecessor in all the ways that count. With a few tweaks here and there to the somewhat limited but very effective “vehicle setup” options, the biggest thing limiting your immersion in Dirt 3 will be your own inability as a driver most of the time. Besides the controls three other facets really help to immerse you in this experience: sound, AI and visuals.
The gentle sound of little rocks constantly scratching against the bottom, hood and windshield of your car along dirt roads as you careen down a slope at top speed has never felt so real (save for actually doing it of course). The engine roars are satisfying for every car, and often quite distinct from one another. Deliberate and appropriate directional audio help things out too. Both fortunately and unfortunately there is no option for in-race music. It is fortunate because every single piece of audio excels in Dirt 3, whether it be a violent crash or the calm and soothing voice of your co-driver accurately calling out every single turn for you. It is unfortunate because, next to Grand Turismo 5, Dirt 3 has the most fantastic soundtrack in a racing game I’ve heard, but more on that in a moment.
The AI in racing games is crucial for people that like to play solo, like myself. But to the dismay of many a singleplayer racing fan, the AI in racing games is often hit or miss. That is, very rarely do you find AI that isn’t far too aggressive and unfair yet still challenging and fun. But I am delighted to report that Codemasters really nailed the AI balance in Dirt 3. It is simple enough to come in 4th or 3rd place almost every time, but if you want the top 1 or 2 spots you absolutely must work at it with every bit of concentration in your being. But it’s not a negative kind of concentration that broods from frustration because the game is unfair. For example, I played most of Dirt 3 with the entire hud turned off because your co-driver actually will tell you everything you need to do in the many rally races that permeate the game. If you listen to her (or him if you choose the male), you can certainly complete a race in the top spot, no hud, no mini-map. To the point, often you will go through a race and think you did fantastic because you didn’t let a tree wear your car only to find you were way to cautious on those turns and ended up in 5th place. Knowing the course you go back and really plug into things and take risk on those turns and snag spot position number 2 just to see that the winner is a miraculous five whole seconds (an eternity away in racing) ahead of you and everyone else that were only fractions of seconds apart.
Thinking it is impossible, one last go around will often yield absolute victory as you see that it is possible to perfect a couple more of those turns. I can’t stress the rewarding feeling up beating a time by two seconds that seemed impossible just 10 minutes prior and knowing that it wasn’t sheer dumb luck, but that you actually earned it with precision driving. In short, you have to be totally keyed (no pun intended) into the experience to get the top spot, but you hardly ever feel cheated out of it because of shoddy AI. Additionally, the AI is as aggressive as you are, but you can shove them to the side as easily as they can you, unlike other games released this year like Need for Speed: Shift 2 and Test Drive Unlimited 2 that handicapped players by seemingly making their cars out of plywood and the AI’s out of titanium. In Rally Cross and Head to Head races, the AI will stay competitive throughout the majority or all of the race.
That said, we are only human and the gamepad and racing wheels of today aren’t perfect one to one matches to real steering wheels. Codemasters must have took this into account when creating their wonderful replay system. Not new the the franchise, the replay system has seen some changes, and they seem for the better. Now, instead of limiting the amount of replays a player has available to them by the difficulty chosen, every difficulty supports five rewinds. The trick comes in wanting to have the convenience of using them over earning more experience points (which rank players up and lets them earn new cars and get more sponsors). For every replay you use you loose reputation points. Reputation points play as your means of gaining levels, which is the only way to unlock new cars and paint jobs via gaining new sponsors. This all feeds into Dirt 3’s uniqueness, as you never earn a dime in Dirt 3, therefore you will never need to decide which car to buy. Again, the only way to build up your garage is to keep playing and gaining reputation points which increase and decrease based on what position you finish in and how many replay uses you have left at the end of a race. Your garage, so to speak, always allows you to pick from any previously unlocked car that is appropriate for the race – Some will hate this new system and others will love it. If you hate managing your garage in racing games, then be happy, you don’t have to in Dirt 3. However, many may find this style of unlocking and no ability to upgrade cars off-putting and limiting. I am not sure if this move was made by Codemasters in order to make the game more accessible or just to try something new. Either way, it is simple and works well, regardless of whether gamers will be happy or outraged by it.
Another new thing Codemasters is doing with Dirt 3 is the inclusion of a brand new mode called Gymkhana. “What the heck is Gymkhana?” many may ask. Basically picture a skatepark but with cars and car specific stunts. Poles in which to donut around, ramps to fly off of, barriers to drift through and foam robot thingamabobs in which to crash through… no I am serious about that last one. You don’t know the meaning of “car-control” until you mastered one of these events. They are a fun and terribly challenging addition to the series. Some may love it and some may not. It is far and away from any kind of regular racing though, so it’s inclusion, while welcome, should have perhaps been handled somewhat differently. Some will like that they can get achievements or trophies by mastering it, but some will hate that its there at all and be a bit upset that they can’t avoid it without missing on completing the game fully.
In addition to regular Rally, Rally Cross (standard racing) and Land Rush (rally cross for trucks), Dirt 3 sees the addition of rally super-cars in Rail Blazer mode. Some of them are just crazy fast and they sound ferocious. They are single-seaters, unlike the coups used for regular Rally races. The tracks are genially less curvy than the regular rally ones so player can focus on maintainging high speeds in the beast machines. Moreover there are buggies in Dirt 3, which have nothing but nets as windshields. Coupled with the truly awe inspiring new snow effects, it is a thing of beauty. Nothing can compare to a line of buggies tailgating each other in the dark of night and each driver being blinded by the snow in their faces from the vehicle in front of them but being unwilling to slow down and give up their spot to avoid possibly crashing. I’ve never felt such a rush in my life from a racing game.
Speaking of the snow, Dirt 3 brings a few new additions to terrain that have significant gameplay enhancements. The snow is the most dramatic, affecting both visibility when the snow is actually coming down as well as handling. At times it can create more friction than dirt, but you will ultimately slide more on corners. When it is raining, just finish raining, or just a snowy map, the water or slush will cause you to slide much more as well. The snow is so beautiful and so well done that it make you wish that more games would implement weather systems into their games, racing and otherwise.
Last but certainly not least is Dirt 3’s presentation. Life may be like a circle, but Dirt 3’s theme is like a triangle. There is a veritable sea of triangles as players wade their way through the menus. A few examples include viewing a car and event selection in the Dirt Tour (campaign) mode. When viewing a car, a brief audio clip will cue giving players a brief history of the car’s rally legacy. But, instead of just fading to black and seeing a revolving car on a platform, the car comes speeding in doing a 180 turn and cutting through hundreds of little golden pyramids as if they were dirt being kicked up off the road. The car then stops right at the apex of its turn and the pyramids and it goes into a super slick slow motion bit where the pyramids are suspended in the air rotating in place the car is moving ever so slightly the wheels are still spinning. Even the menus in Dirt Tour mode literally unfold in front of you from pyramids flat, divided triangles. Each unfolded face of the pyramid represents a section of races that comprise a single unit of a particular chapter of the tour. clicking on any of those sections will reveal yet another layer of triangular goodness, or rather diamonds, but diamonds are just two triangles stuck to each other anyway. Upon competing every race in a section in first place, the triangle representing it on the pyramid will turn a gorgeous, solid gold. Having first place in every event on a pyramid leads to a beautiful solid gold pyramid revolving in front of you. All of this is overlaid in the fantastic, mellow music I mentioned earlier. Synthesizers, light techno beats, and just generally easy to listen to, simple songs reverberate gracefully through every menu in the game. Honestly, Dirt 3’s presentation is unlike anything you have probably ever seen and it is certainly the slickest and best one I have ever seen. It works well too, in case there were any doubts.
One the most graphically astonishing games of this generation, racing or otherwise, Dirt 3 is a fantastic racing experience that shouldn’t be skipped out on. A number of semi-unique modes are available for multiplayer as well. You can play zombie tag with cars called “Outbreak” where one car starts off as infected and attempts to smash into other cars to infect them, as each car becomes infected, their goal goes from hunted to hunter to capture the remaining uninfected drivers. There are serious racing modes as well, like rally and rally cross. Whatever your poison, Dirt 3 is always fun, always beautiful, always stylish, and always a joy to play thanks to its smooth controls. I can’t say enough good things about it. All I can do is recommend it to racing fans everywhere both hardcore and newcomers alike. You won’t miss the pavement in this off-road racer, as you will be too busy enjoying the wealth of content on hand.