It's been almost two years since the racing fanatics over at Codemasters shipped out DiRT 2, and in the ensuing time, players have spent many hours tearing up the virtual dirt tracks, both on- and offline. With DiRT 3, the development team has attempted to one-up virtually every element of the prior game, and with a few notable exceptions, it seems to have succeeded nicely.
The first thing you're going to notice about DiRT 3 is the visuals. If you've seen any of the YouTube videos (more on that later), trust that they give you an inkling of what to expect, but don't do the game justice. What you see on those low-resolution clips is a pale imitation of the visual fidelity that awaits you on a high-definition screen.
Whether you're racing through the forest in Finland, over an icy stretch of snow-covered road in Aspen or roaring across the desert in Kenya, the sharpness and fluidity of the world is enough to impress even the most jaded gamer. The illusion breaks down a bit if you stop and smell the roses, but when you're flying along at high speed, the realism is somewhat surreal.
It's not just the world that is immaculately rendered, either. The hardcore who prefer to play with a cockpit view will find that the interior of their car is incredibly detailed as well — right down to the custom avatar charm hanging from the rearview mirror.
Having a high level of visual detail is important in DiRT 3, if only because the type of material on which you're racing has a direct impact on the performance and handling of your vehicle. A rally race down a muddy track is going to feel a lot different than a Gymkhana exhibition run on dry pavement, even if you're using the exact same vehicle.
In terms of events, DiRT 3 offers up a full slate of racing disciplines, including Rally, Rallycross, Trailblazer, Land Rush, head-to-head and the all-new Gymkhana. A relatively new addition to the racing scene in general, Gymkhana is a pure exhibition sport where drivers are challenged to push their cars to the limit. Instead of trying to be the fastest racer down a pre-determined course, Gymkhana ranks you on trick points.
Let loose on the Gymkhana field; it's up to you to determine a routine. Mix it up with donuts, drifts, jumps, smash blocks, spins and more. A good variety of tricks keeps things fresh, and with it, your multiplier stays high. Keep repeating the same move, and the crowd quickly gets bored, eliminating your multiplier. In many ways, Gymkhana could be described as the figure skating event of the motorsports world.
Building on the foundation of DiRT 2, DiRT 3 is no slouch when it comes to control. Turn off all the assists and set the difficulty to "experienced," and you'll quickly find that anything less than perfect driving results in your car flying off the road. If it happens in real life, it'll happen here, with the only exception being that the game is much more forgiving when it comes to damage.
While it isn't quite a true simulation (DiRT 3 limits the amount of changes you can make to your vehicle), it comes pretty darn close on the hardest difficulty. Thankfully, the difficulty curve scales nicely, all the way down to "pure newbie." If you set the game on casual difficulty and turn on all the assists, it is nearly impossible to wreck. On this mode, you don't have to worry about much of anything except pointing the car in the right direction. Mash the gas and go; DiRT 3 will take care of the rest.
Having this wide range of difficulty settings is a blessing because it means the game truly can be played by anyone from rank beginner to rally expert. As you start to perform better in-game, the announcer encourages you to turn off the driver assists and take more control for yourself.
In case the physics engine isn't real enough for you, DiRT 3 goes one step further in making things seem real. It has full support for the Xbox 360 racing wheel. Trying to master a vehicle on any difficulty level is much harder to do with the wheel than the controller, but it is also that much more rewarding. Once you start learning exactly how to push your car to the limits with the racing wheel, it's difficult to return to a standard controller. To put it simply, drifting with the wheel in hand is crazy fun.
Just as polished as the single-player portion, DiRT 3's multiplayer has a great deal of depth in its game modes, offering content for both on- and offline players. If Xbox Live isn't your thing, then you can jump into multiplayer via split-screen as well as system link. When entering system link mode, the game even reminds you to first connect to Xbox Live once to ensure that every copy of the game is at the current patch level.
Multiplayer supports the standard racing mode in both free-for-all and team matchups, as well as some nifty Gymkhana variants. If you just want to experiment, then joyride is the way to go, but it is Outbreak that will likely see the initial rush of players. Think of it as "zombie bumper cars." One player starts out as the infected and has to spread the infection by crashing into other vehicles. Other modes include Invasion, which has you taking out evil cardboard alien robots, and Transporter, which is capture the flag on wheels.
Topping off the feature set is the included YouTube support. Assuming you have redeemed a VIP pass and have a hard drive on your system, DiRT 3 allows you to select a 30-second clip from any replay, save it and upload it to YouTube — all from within the game. Granted, the editing tools are a bit limited and you can't do more than 30 seconds at a time, but it's an incredibly slick feature that makes it super easy to share your best moments with the world. Our only complaint is that the YouTube uploads seem to be limited to 480p, which, as we mentioned earlier, just doesn't do DiRT 3 justice. Given the sheer number of gaming videos on YouTube, we wouldn't be surprised to see more developers following DiRT 3's lead in this regard.
With everything that DiRT 3 does right, there are a few key areas where it stumbles. The first, and most noticeable, is the loading time. Switching between tracks can be downright painful at times, with loading screens taking anywhere from 30 seconds to over a minute. This may not seem like much, but when a single race can be less than two minutes, you're constantly going back to the main menu, making a selection and then seeing a loading screen again.
The loading annoyance is doubled up by the unskippable and somewhat inane announcers. Any time you access something new, DiRT 3 locks you out of the UI until the announcers are done listening to themselves talk. Net result? More time staring at the screen, and less time racing.
Another annoyance has to do with how the VIP Pass is handled. For the most part, DiRT 3 does a good job with the VIP Pass extras. You need the pass to access online multiplayer, exclusive cars and the YouTube upload feature. A pass is not needed for split-screen or system link multiplayer. New copies of DiRT 3 come with the pass, and otherwise, it's 800 MSP ($10 USD) to purchase. What's the problem? Assuming you don't have the pass, DiRT 3 nags you to purchase one on every single boot. We don't mind the game popping up an upsell screen when you try to access one of the locked features, but nagging you every time you start the game gets old fast. It's something to consider if you're planning on buying DiRT 3 used.
It may not be perfect, but DiRT 3 is still an impressive package that is worth your gaming dollar. Once you look past the incessant loading screens, the purity of the racing is sure to get you hooked. Mix in a solid multiplayer component, intelligent AI, and spot-on, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-slightly-out-of-control-pants racing experience, and you've got DiRT 3. Forza Motorsport 3 is still the best racing game on the Xbox 360, but DiRT 3 is coming in a close second.
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