The problem with making something very, very good is that it’s often hard to know how to make it better. But a concern on top of this problem, in a videogames industry so focused on the lucre of sequels , is that you’re nearly always expected to do so. Somehow.
Codemasters set about the rather Herculean task of improving on Dirt 2 with an almost religious focus on public feedback, and as a result Dirt 3 is a curious mixture of genuine improvements and odd cosmetic fiddles. It immediately feels a bittier experience at the frontend, eschewing that sensation of a gleaming, high-production package that its predecessor’s trailer-bound menus and scuzzy world map progression system brought to the field. Instead, there’s a borderline worrying obsession with clean triangles, origami-like menus and competitive leagues unfurling before your eyes as Battersea Powerstation looms dreamily behind a Ministry of Sound backing beat. With the chirpy voices of your sparring management duo and ebulliant Aussie mechanic burbling over the top, there’s an unnverving surreality to the whole thing that almost makes you wish you were back doddering round that dusty forecourt, no matter how unpopular it proved to be.
The important thing, of course, is the racing, and the Codies tinkering permeates that with force, adding and subtracting features with gusto. Most alterations in this area, however, are welcome and inherently sensible.
The much-vaunted Gymkhana mode, for example, is an absolute triumph, tantamount to an entirely new game in itself once its depths are fully explored. Encouraging you to really get to grips inherently with how the game’s cars work, the mode includes an excellent, gently sloping tutorial system that sees you donutting and powersliding around its arenas within half an hour or so’s careful training. Once the schooling ends, however, Gymkhana contest events ramp swiftly in challenge, forcing you to develop your appreciation of chaining tricks together, that tantalising promise of success ‘next time’ dragging you back time and again to invent new and desperate ways to shave off those crucial seconds.
It’s time well spent; the skills you’ll learn screeching around earth movers, you’ll be surprised to find, are often transferable back into the standard track racing experience.
Woven skilfully into the single player career mode, the Gymkhana is an excellent pace breaker for a competition that, while it improves slightly on Dirt 2’s dearth of locations and tracks anyway, now feels like an experience focused on far more than simple racing.
Dirt 3’s other race modes are numerous, but all of individual worth. Standard Rally mode –which while we’d be pushed to agree has become quite as primary a focus as some PR hype has stated – is certainly the most enjoyable experience Dirt 3 has to offer in terms of pure, simple thrills. Bolstered by added weather effects and an often breathtaking dynamic day/night system on loan from F1, the sense of variety in driving conditions is a massive improvement, even if the locales are slightly less imaginative, possibly due to their quest for physical realism. Instead, though, the tidy offering of a choice of classic vehicles from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as the contemporary ‘S2000’ high-end rally cars, ensures such memorable scenarios as tearing ,in a panicked funk, through an Aspen blizzard in a Mini Cooper at the dead of night. They’re the sort of epic adventures in driving we’ve come to expect from a Dirt game, albeit with a little more depth and maturity than Dirt 2’s Americana-loving smash-ups.
Ken Block’s real-life venture into the European WRC rather than the American X-Games has actually, conveniently, removed Dirt 2’s truck obsession. While they’re still here, they’re more than overshadowed by a host of other modes that contrast satisfyingly with the serious rallying events. The previous game’s Elimination races, for example, which always felt simply like a more frenetic Rally Cross as the straddler in each defined race section was knocked out, has now been contracted into an event known as Head 2 Head. Often pitched as a league finale, this contest sees only two competitors begin the race at different ends of a circuit, passing at various points as the Scalextric-like routes snake around and above each other. Other events see competitors tasked with demolishing plywood robot invaders, or simply speedrunning through gates in increasingly complex circuits.
It’s testament to Dirt 3’s perfected vehicle handling model that the cars are portable to such varied and lunatic demands, really showcasing Codemasters’ mastery of simulation handling. With a satisfying heft, each and every vehicle is a simple tactile joy to throw around, the in-car view’s driver hands feeling they could be torn from the wheel any moment as each and every bump, pothole or snowdrift is felt, the game’s stunning sound design recreating every thud, snap and in-car rattle as the high-performance engine drones with a dull urgency from outside. In-car, in fact, is now such an atmospheric experience it feels almost the only way to play, as wipers frantically brush away dynamically adhered splashes of snow or sand, and an ill-timed corner can leave a windscreen embarrassingly – and inconveniently – marred by hairline cracks.
Dirt 3 is a technically and creatively impressive instalment in Codemasters’ progressive renovation of what was once the Colin McRae series. The question that probably remains to be asked, though, is ‘is it better than Dirt 2’? The answer, glib as it may feel, is: Dirt 3 is different. While it’s certainly a less inclusive experience, there are many who’ll prefer the return to the simple joys of racing over grungy flimflam. In return, improved handling and memorable environmental effects, coupled with the excellence of Gymkhana, presents a raft of pleasures no fan of the series, or genre, can really live without. Our advice is to own both Dirt 2 and Dirt 3, and enjoy both sides of the same, highly polished, coin.