DiRT 3 Review
One day, there will be a racing sim that covers every major style of racing, from street to track, dirt to snow, covering all disciplines and racing brands equally well under the same name. But until that day comes, you've got to get your street racing over there (Gran Turismo, Forza, SHIFT, iRacing) and your off-road sim racing over here with Codemasters' DiRT series. This third game in the franchise does quite a few things right compared to its predecessor, and with several realism-focused tweaks, it gets the closest that we might have yet to a true rally racing sim.
The first big change you'll notice is that Codemasters has dumped the ridiculous and annoying DiRT 2 menu system, styled around the almost equally annoying X-Games bro-tastic way of life. Instead, we get something with lots of triangles and shiny things, and it winds up being not only easier to navigate, but the whole thing just looks more elegant, too. Unfortunately, you'll still be inundated with tutorials and introductions to nearly every element of the game; you'll be listening to disembodied voices constantly briefing you about the game's features, races, and just about everything the developers could think of, and it's all wrapped up in in unskippable voice clips and videos. (What is it with racing games and that insistence on ruining that first impression by prattling on seemingly endlessly about stuff that you already knew after a glance at the back of the box?)
Right off the bat, you'll get thrown in the deep end, as you are assigned to a fairly tough two-part rally race in Finland. In your first hour or two you'll quickly move to dirt-track races in both fast rally-style cars, then on to big, beefy trucks, buggies, and finally, the 800 horsepower speed demons in mixed-surface Landrush races. Before long, you'll start getting taught the art of Gymkhana - making cars drift through an obstacle course so you can get millions of hits on YouTube - by none other than the, uh, disembodied voice of Ken Block. Yeah, the game makes the whole thing seem a lot easier than it probably is, as the video of what Block actually does in his pimped-out Fiesta's cockpit looks like a lot more work than what I'm doing on my steering wheel here at home. One annoyance is that unlike what SHIFT 2 did with its admittedly more simplistic drift-only events, DiRT 3 forces you to do all this Gymkhana stuff in order to advance in the World Tour career mode.
Despite the varied events included, more than half of DiRT 3's career is dedicated to rally racing. That's a welcome thing for fans of the classic rally games of yesteryear, but there are also many little things have gone into making DiRT 3 feel more authentic than the second game, even if it's still not quite a sim. The physics and handling are sharper, the rain and wet effects make a huge difference on both the look of the tracks and your handling, the dirt and snow tracks each have a more distinct feel, and the night races are terrifying and intensely difficult - especially if you turn off the assists and use the cockpit view and its realistically limited visibility. Once you get to that part of the game, it is worth trying these races with these settings, just to get an idea of even half of the difficulty these drivers really do have. And if you can excel with these settings, well, winning these races will give you an entirely different and unique feeling of accomplishment compared to winning a no-assists race in, say, Gran Turismo 5.
The Flashback system for fixing your mistakes has returned, and this time all players get a total of five of them to use on any event, no matter what difficulty they're on - as in, you can't actually disable them. Flip your car or put it into a wall, and you can hit the replay button to back up the "tape" anywhere in the last 30 seconds or so, and then you hit the Flashback button to start over from that the exact moment. This system is just as controversial as it was before, with sim fanatics angry over its existence, and casual people wondering why they don't have unlimited rewinds anymore. Can't make everyone happy, especially not if you force everyone to the same standard like Codemasters is doing here in DiRT 3, so I think this is one of a very few missteps that were made in this sequel. For my money, I like the idea of rewinds in general, but I like them more as a learning tool than as a way to enable people to screw up repeatedly yet still easily get first place, even if it's just in offline play. I think the better idea would have been to keep the number of flashback uses configurable and have them listed as one of the assist options you can set in the menus.
So, let's talk about where you'll be racing. You'll fly around the world and do events in an interesting range of locales, from Aspen to Kenya, Michigan, Monaco, and on to Norway, and more. There are about twice as many total tracks here as there were in DiRT 2, and you'll also have the drift competitions and free-roaming Gymkhana arenas to putter around in. You've got six difficulty settings for the driver AI, and those are different from the range of assists that you can toggle on and off for your own car. Finally, all of DiRT 3's major gameplay modes are playable locally and online. You can even do wacky online events like Capture the Flag and such, and they really are entertaining in a team-oriented way that you just don't usually see in a racing game.
On 360, DiRT 3 includes sharp textures and smooth edges, as the game includes a solid amount of antialiasing and a pretty steady frame rate around 30fps - even in the new split-screen versus mode. The game runs as well as it could on the rather anemic Xbox 360 wireless racing wheel, and it's also plenty of fun on a plain old controller, although playing without assists on a standard gamepad is an exercise in pain. That being said, since this is still just a bit more on the arcade side, I'd say that having a racing wheel isn't nearly as important here as it is in the Forza games.
On PC, you've got online play through Games for Windows Live, with all the pluses (few) and minuses (many) that we've seen through GFWL. You've got access to a pretty solid set of graphics tweaks along with a benchmark demo - it's pretty similar to what you saw in the second game, and the DX11 support is nice to have, even if it doesn't add much to the overall look. Unfortunately, I found some strange bugs on the PC version, the weirdest of which was the occasional extremely slow seeking in the replay/flashback mode, which thankfully can be fixed if you use your steering wheel's pedals or controller triggers instead of the keys. Getting into online games on PC was kind of a pain, too, and GFWL certainly didn't make that any easier. I found at least a one undocumented issue with SLI video cards, because enabling SLI on my pair of 1GB GTX460 cards incurred a red flicker over everything that made the game unplayable. Finally, the game doesn't save your control options when you quit, so you have to go back in and re-bind controls every time you fire it up.
DiRT 3 is not a perfect game and a couple of patches will likely fix my biggest issues with the PC port, but none of the problems will really matter too much for rally fans that have been disappointed in the last few years' worth of rally game releases. DiRT 3 finally breaks that cycle by kicking on just enough new sim elements, track styles, and event variety - and it's nice to hear smooth, modern electronic music in the menus rather than angry-at-my-dad independent rock all the time (it's still there, but it doesn't take over the whole game like it does in many "extreme" sports racing games). Despite a few technical and design issues, this is still a very entertaining and challenging effort; if you've ever enjoyed any kind of off-road racing game, then I'm sure you'll agree.