Have fun making a mess.
Racing games come in four flavors: simulation, arcade, kart, and DiRT. The late Colin McRae’s off-road franchise, now handed off to rally champion Ken Block, always demanded Gran Turismo’s precision control while serving up the comedy physics of Burnout. DiRT 3 holds those standards high. You’re constantly encouraged to break traction and drive wild, snatching the grip back just before you spin out. If that gentle prodding doesn’t work, fine…the next challenge will score you solely on drifting.
So let other racers take the high road. This game’s at home in the mud.
And that mud looks gorgeous. Graphics get a nice bump, and you’ll know whether you’re slip-sliding through Finland, Aspen, or Kenya just by the color palette. Cars look great, if not exactly pretty, but rely on skins rather than dynamic dirt and grime to match the dynamic damage. Other lapses, like an oddly dull cockpit view, also show up.
That said, Codemasters’ attention to presentation still leaves bigger-budget games in the dust. They’ve traded in DiRT 2’s beat-up trailer hub for a classy, clinical look, and while I miss reading my stats during loads–a bit too long and too frequent–at least you get good car porn while you wait.
Ah yes, and about those cars. DiRT 3 offers five decades’ worth of muscle and steel, stacked by era and class and unlocking at a friendly clip as you progress through the DiRT Tour’s beefy four-season run (plus bonus invitationals). In all, Codemasters more than doubled the number of cars and tracks from previous installments. I got fairly attached to my Audi Sport Quattro, but I can’t honestly say it drove any differently from the MG Metro 6R4 or Ford RS200, its companions in the famously brutal Group B. You won’t mistake a flyweight buggy’s handling for a truck’s heavy load, but in-class, cars just don’t distinguish themselves outside of good looks.
But then, where most race games brag about what you’re driving, DiRT’s strengths lie in what you’re driving on. The best tracks feature multiple treacherous surfaces, each requiring a different touch to keep from flying into a tree, which is ridiculously easy to do if you’re careless. That’s when a simple race elevates into a thrilling experience. You’ll crowd through a wheel-to-wheel Landrush in foot-deep snow and suddenly glide across icy tarmac. You’ll drift through dirt onto a metal ramp, cross asphalt for two seconds, and splash through a water hazard. You’ll tear ass through a tight Norwegian rally course. At night. And constant snowfall changes the handling as you go.
It’s also cool to see a renewed emphasis on rally challenges, but the game benefits from a solid collection of race types, including the hilarious introduction of gymkhana events. These turn you loose in a rodeo arena to smash, jump, drift, spin, and donut your way to glory through a haze of smoking tires and popping backfires. Very entertaining.
In fact, for the first four or five hours, you’ll always feel like you’re doing, seeing, and hearing something new. The flow is that good. Then repetition slowly creeps in until tracks become little more than re-dressed versions of roads you already conquered. Still, the game throws out decent twists and surprises like rainy conditions to keep things lively. No build-a-course features here, but free-roam areas unlock as you progress and the multiplayer goes beyond standard Vs. races to include modes you’d normally expect from a shooter, such as Infection and capture the flag.
DiRT 3 isn’t for beginners. You can turn on enough assists to make the car practically drive itself and the returning Flashback feature allows do-overs, but really, this one’s for people who walk in already knowing how to pull a smooth power slide. It may lack polish in spots, but guess what? You don’t polish a rally car. You drive that mother. That’s what makes it fun.
SUMMARY: A well-made, challenging driving sim that will put even the most seasoned drivers to the test, DiRT 3 is in a class all its own.
- THE GOOD: Gloriously intense off-road racing, goony Gymkhana.
- THE BAD: Occasionally repetitive, absolutely not for casual drivers.
- THE UGLY: Do all the demo videos stutter? Why yes…they do!