Codemasters has spent this entire hardware cycle delivering consistently excellent racing games – with their biggest success being the Dirt franchise. An “evolution” of the old Colin McRae Rally games, the original Dirt offered not just traditional rally racing, but numerous other disciplines of off-road racing. 2009’s Dirt 2 continued this movement away from what made the CMR games so popular… and added an unfortunate “extreme” element that was insanely out of place. The result is a series that’s commended for solid racing action, but frequently criticized for its abandonment of “serious” off-road racing. The result of these complaints is Dirt 3, which can best be explained as a “happy medium” between the seriousness of Dirt and the insanity of Dirt 2. In short, if Dirt 2’s craziness was a serious turn-off, Dirt 3 is a heartfelt apology.
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Genre: Off-Road Racing
Release: May 24, 2011
ESRB Rating: Teen
Dirt 3 features a deep and involving career mode that spans four total “seasons,” along with overall championships for each of the five racing disciplines. It might not sound like a lot of content, but within each season there are at least a half-dozen events to participate in. There’s a lot of content here, and most importantly, there’s a ton of rally-specific stuff – after Dirt 2’s sparse rally choices, this is a huge improvement. Between traditional Rally, Rallycross, Head-to-Head, and Trailblazer events, fans of rally should be pleased. There are also some races in buggies and trophy trucks, but those have definitely taken a back seat. Though the more “extreme” elements have been removed, Dirt 3 has a new discipline – Gymkhana. This isn’t a “racing” mode in most respects (unless you count the ever-ticking clock); it’s really just about showing off your abilities in a car. Within these events you get to drift around, get big air, and perform donuts for big money and big prizes. There are also some Challenges that pop up during the career that expect you to use Gymkhana skills to complete, but these are different beasts entirely.
It also features a large amount of multiplayer options, be it online or locally. Indeed, Dirt 3 features “old school” splitscreen racing, which is something of a dying breed in modern racers. The online features aren’t much different from Dirt 2 – there are standard head-to-head events where you directly compete with others, but it also features a robust “party” system that lets someone set up a lobby where you can compete in an endless array of rally races. In these events, your opponents are “ghosts” that race at the same time, but not in the same physical space. In this situation, you merely compete against the times of rivals. It was really fun in Dirt 2, and it continues to be entertaining in Dirt 3.
Like other Codemasters racing titles, Dirt 3 skews towards the “realism” spectrum. It’s not overly technical or anything, but with damage that effects vehicle performance and other penalties for poor driving, there’s a certain level of skill required. That said, Dirt 3 features a large amount of customization for almost every skill level. For instance, if you worry about terminal damage, it’s possible to arrange it so everything is cosmetic, with no effect on how the car drives. One can also tweak the difficulty in many ways, or fiddle with a handful of assists. Plus, Dirt 3 still features the “rewind” feature that was introduced in Grid. While it can still be a tricky game for those used to more arcade-style experiences, all these tweaks mean that almost anyone can hop in and race fairly well.
Dirt 3 isn’t brutally realistic or anything, but it does command a level of respect. Like any good off-road game, the various surfaces all feel different – dirt tracks are fast, snowy tracks are slippery, wet areas are slick, and regular asphalt is almost a reprieve. Dirt 3 can punish bad drivers – taking corners too fast or being too reckless in other spots can lead to disaster. More importantly, your success can vary depending on your ride – almost every car feels different in one way or another.
The problems with Dirt 3 are the odd differences between the rally races and the non-rally stuff. When in a rally race, the game really shines – the track design is superb and challenging, with a ton of awkward corners and frightening straightaways that let you get to very high speeds on very slippery roads. These battles against the course are downright epic. On the other hand, the tracks used for standard head-to-head racing are fairly ordinary, and the AI is mostly a pushover at default levels. Due to the renewed emphasis on rally, this isn’t a big deal, but those large discipline championships got really tiring due to these… boring courses and AI tendencies.
Unsurprisingly, Dirt 3 looks great. From the slick menus and presentation to the gritty visual design, it really creates a solid atmosphere. Considering Dirt 2 was pretty incredible looking, it’s a huge feat to actually surpass it on a technical level. Where things get frustrating is the frequent lack of color. There’s nothing as strong as Croatia or Malaysia from Dirt 2 – picking places like Michigan and Kenya means you’re getting more “dirty” environments. The tracks that take place in Nordic territories are different beasts due to their snowy locales, but without colorful locations, the game seems a bit drab despite the great technical accomplishments. There’s not much to say about the audio presentation – the reduced emphasis on loud-mouthed rival drivers in favor of a Grid-like “team leader” setup classes up the game in a good way. The soundtrack features faceless licensed fare… and that’s about it.
Codemasters almost always delivers great racing experiences, and Dirt 3 is no different. It’s realistic, and has a vast amount of customization and tweaks, but not so much so that it’s inaccessible to all but the most hardcore. The returning focus on rally means it should drag longtime fans back, especially if Dirt 2 was a turnoff. Plus, the game maintains its great presentation and strong visuals. In short, it’s a great racing title that isn’t perfect, but considering how few realistic rally games are out there these days, it’s definitely worth adding to your collection if that’s your thing.
Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Dirt 3 was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.