Rallying isn’t dead. Not even close to being another fragrant corpse in the annals of failed and forgotten sports if this year’s iteration of the Dirt franchise is to be believed. I’ve always had a soft spot for the rallying discipline, a peculiar derivative of motorsport that has the driver (and a co-driver with nerves of steel) careening down narrow, mostly unpaved roads all in the pursuit of that elusive perfect drive. Rather than racing against a full grid of competitors, rallying tasks willing men and women with individually tackling a hazard filled course and beating each other’s recorded times. Man, machine and nature. There’s romance in the air.
While rallying has unfortunately fallen out of favour with an increasingly fickle public in recent years, the FIA seems to now have a renewed focus in wanting to return it to the glory days, with rules designed to make races more competitive (Hi, Sebastian!) and spectator/television-friendly. So it would seem like an opportune time for Dirt 3 to feature an increased focus on rallying (albeit without an official WRC license) and make an about-turn from the in-your-face, energy drink swilling, extreme sports Americana from the last game.
You’ll notice this character switch right from the first menu screen, with a return to the hyper stylized yet minimalist approach from the first Dirt game. It isn’t often that you fawn over developers for their menu design, but Codemasters has it down to a fine art. There is a thematic focus on two basic geometric shapes, with the humble triangle in particular being given heaps of love. And before you ask, there hasn’t been any compromise in usability either. There are three voices that guide you through these menus, with enough nationalities being represented to balance out the over-excited American in the group. While some may miss the RV from Dirt 2, the disembodied voices that are supposed to represent your agent and mechanic do a fine job in explaining car tuning, car classes, sponsorships, how the different game modes work and just where everything is laid out in the menus.
Gone are Travis Pastrana and his X-Games pals from the last game. That’s right, no more inane comments from opponents during races either. Small mercies. Ken Block does make a return however, but in a much more subdued role. His presence is mostly felt in the Gymkhana events, which are large arenas filled with obstacles that you have to skillfully trick your way through. Think of the challenges from the older Tony Hawk Games and you’ll have an idea how this works. You’re given objectives in each section of the arena that, when completed, open up other sections with their own set of objectives. While this could have been a superfluous addition, the cars control well enough that you’re able to pull off complex drifts, donuts and powerslides with ease.
You’re also faced with Gymkhana challenges during the career mode that task you with getting a specific number of points that’ll net you one of four medals. Keep in mind though, that you’ll be much better off using your DusalShock 3 instead of a racing wheel if you’re looking to master Gymkhana. Mileage may vary, but I found myself doing abysmally when it came to chaining Gymkhana tricks whereas I had no problems using the wheel in the regular career events. While the career events are perfectly suited and balanced for both controllers, it’s only the nature of Gymkhana itself that makes it more befitting one than the other. Your career is divided into four seasons represented by triangles that unfold to reveal a variety of events, which are sure to keep you playing for a good number of hours.
While races do get progressively difficult, there is a broad selection of driving aids and difficulty settings to help you out. Even though they all work as you’d expect, I did find the racing line aid hard to read on some occasions and found myself relying more on my co-driver to read tracks and stages, which to be honest, is the right way to go about it. You have a choice between two individuals as well as having them read out simple or complex directions. I do wish there was a rally driving school, however. Not everyone knows what a Scandinavian flick is or how to pull one off. While we’re talking bad driving: the ability to rewind and re-do your immediate actions returns, but the number of rewinds has now been made constant irrespective of your difficulty level. You’re allowed to level up faster the less rewinds you use up.
Another change for the better is how you’re no longer required to purchase each and every car for them to show up in your garage. Instead, you unlock cars, sponsors and associated liveries as you level up. I find this preferable to how most racing games normally work, where you’d most likely never drive a lot of the vehicles that the developer took so much trouble to model for the game. And there’s a pleasing selection of cars to experiment with in Dirt 3, with all classes and decades being more than adequately represented in addition to buggies, stadium and raid trucks, and ridiculously overpowered trailblazer cars. There are six tuning sliders that you can use to tweak your car depending on the course you’re about to tackle. And while this may not seem as robust a selection as other sims in the market, what’s here does make a perceivable difference to how your car handles and you should be able to hammer out and save a setting that suits your style.
And these do matter in game. Richard Burns Rally this isn’t, but Dirt 3 does a fine job in straddling that fine line between simulation and arcade. The various road surfaces feel amazingly tactile and are able to convey enough feedback for you to be able to shave off precious seconds from your stage time. An accommodating driving model ensures that you’ll have a blast with the game irrespective of your skill level. You also have to deal with environmental variables such as snow and rain, large puddles of water as well as the challenge of night stages. There’s something beautiful about driving a stage in the dead of night with only your headlights between your car and the cliff edge. Add an immersive cockpit view and working windshield wipers to the mix, and you’ll be running for a change of pants soon enough. In addition to standard rallies, there are also lap-based rally cross races against a full grid of cars or trucks, drift challenges and super special stages to enjoy. It’s a pleasing mix of off-road racing that strikes the right balance without alienating anyone; something the previous game failed to do.
Whatever the weather or time of day, let it be known that you’re in for a graphical showcase. There’s also a return to a more traditional set of rallying locales.You’ll watch the scenery fly by in the likes of Norway, Finland and Kenya, for instance, along with the slightly more modern climes of Monaco and Battersea. The tracks are intricate and challenging, and they also capture the atmosphere of the actual location. Snow flurries blind you in Aspen as does the sun in Kenya. The Ego engine’s now characteristic bloom effects make a return, although not nearly as overused as it was in some of the overly hazy Dirt 2 tracks. There are also a number of pleasing little touches, such as post-crash digital distortion and spectators that run out onto tracks. Damage modeling is nice enough in isolation, even if crashes still don’t feel as brutal or visceral as they did in the first Dirt. As with every Codemasters game, the soundtrack selection is loaded with quality tracks that are as classy as the game itself. The replays in particular are so well produced with near-perfect editing that you’ll wonder how they manage to get it this right.
In addition to single player and split-screen local multiplayer, the game also comes with one of the best multiplayer offerings I’ve seen in a recent racing game. Not only are there modes you won’t find in the single-player games, but some of them are arguably the most fun you’ll have tooling around in a virtual car. Cat n’ mouse, infection, outbreak or multiplayer Gymkhana are some of the modes you’ll find yourself playing repeatedly. And yes, those modes are as fun as they sound. Games are easy to join with no perceivable lag.
With the extrication of Colin McRae’s name from the series, there was a danger that it would lose its rallying focus while becoming a catch-all cesspool for anything remotely off-road. Dirt 3 proves that a balanced approach rather than wholesale omissions is the way to go. This game spreads the love around, and in turn becomes the best racing game yet this year.