Making a great game is not easy, but how would you keep building a franchise that ‘got it right’ from the get-go? A developer could peruse through the vast swathes of critical reception in the media, scour gaming forums to analyse fan feedback or take on board recommendations from their publisher. It’s an unenviable task, as maintaining a sense of balance is utterly crucial – the removal of any unwanted and excessive gaming blubber requires surgical precision, where the slightest tweak too many could quite easily lead to disaster. Fortunately, the Dirt franchise is in capable hands – indeed, Codemasters are reigning champions of the racing genre, but there is a risk of complacency. The question is, what have Codemasters done to ensure that the franchise remains as entertaining as ever, yet different enough to cease accusations of Dirt 3 being an almost lazy sequel?
The difference between this and its predecessor becomes clear immediately in the opening minutes, with the neat trailer-bound menus and world map progression aesthetic removed entirely. Instead, we’re left with a very crisp, minimalist look which has a strange obsession with triangles. With Battersea Power station looming drearily in the background, with your current ride kicking up lots of…well, triangles, it all feels a bit bizarre, and had us pining for a return to the trailer. There’s also the audio delights of three (yes, count them) people continuously talking you through the game whether it be in the menus or post race, which begins to grate almost immediately, with the cringe-worthy ‘dude!’ American being particularly annoying.
Most gripes end here, however, as once again Codemasters have produced another superb rally experience. Events are diverse, with point to point rallies alongside Rally Cross, the latter being a more circuit-orientated experience. Trailblazer events also feature, which are a Burnout-esque speed run through their own unique tracks. Head to Head seems to be a direct replacement to Dirt 2’s Eliminator mode – these are usually a league finale race that sees two competitors begin the race at differing ends of a circuit, passing one another at various intersections of the Scalextric-like routes as the course snakes around one another. Finally, there are numerous Gymkhana events to explore for the first time, and we’d be hard pressed to state that these are for everyone. The Rally events are the obvious highlight, but we can’t help but hat there are simply not enough events to cater for the purely rally-only crowd. Most runs are desperately short, however these become longer in the latter stages of the game, but one can not help but feel as though these are introduced far too late. Ironically, the other events are overly long, with Trailblazers lasting well over four minutes. As most of those with knowledge of these event types seen in other games will know, a single mistake is enough to instantly having to retry the event altogether.
That isn’t to say that the Rally is poor – variety is excellent, as Codemasters flex their muscle in delivering superb weather variations and an impressive day/night system in place. Vehicle damage is meticulous, and visual fidelity is near-breathtaking, especially when the game is ran on higher-spec PC’s. The in-car view is as visceral as ever, displaying superb sound design as each rattle, clank and thud are meticulously recreated. Whilst the variation of weather elements and time of day are impressive, the locales themselves are less so in that there are simply too few. This will hopefully be remedied with DLC (a Monte Carlo track pack is imminent) but driving around the same three or four locations does tend to become rather stale. Like Forza 3, there are many driving assists on offer to cater for each ability band of gamer, but in order to appreciate the fantastic handling model, we’d recommend that you put aside many of the game’s proverbial L-plates for a more entertaining, if not more challenging, experience.
One of the more the more major additions to the series is the introduction of Gymkhana. Pioneered by Ken Block (who delivers a typically wooden voiceover) several years ago, Gymkhana is an audacious attempt to bring something new to the driving genre, and results are mixed. Here, the player is tasked with scoring as many points as possible by performing tricks in specially designed circuits. Powersliding, jumping and spinning the specially tuned vehicles is an excellent opportunity for Codemasters to show off their driving model, so in that respect it is an emphatic success. One of the problems they inevitably face is the simple question – do players of Dirt actually want to do this sort of thing? It’s invariably morish, with lot of targets to aim for, with your skills being graded accordingly. Acquiring all platinum medals on each Gymkhana run is sure to elongate playtime by a substantial degree. There are also lots of individual challenges to complete in the proverbial playground of Battersea Power Station, similar in style to the Freeburn Challenges seen in Burnout Paradise’s online mode. The crucial factor in all of this is whether or not you find Gymkhana to be compelling enough to do so, and the unfortunate thing is that there is no escaping from it – progress throughout the single player will quickly powerslide to a halt unless you accept the fact that Gymkhana is an integral part to progression, rather than a ‘side-mission’, as it were.
Dirt 3 is overall a thoroughly impressive beast, both creatively and technically that will surely please most fans of the series. Whilst the Gymkhana remains divisive, the more familiar components of the Dirt experience continue to be entertaining. The handling model has been refined, the environmental effects are second to none, and the inclusion of Gymkhana all add up to a memorable experience. To return to our original question, has Codemasters crafted a game better than Dirt 2? Is the franchise still relevant? What we’d say is that Dirt 3 is certainly a different proposition to its predecessor, although this in – in most cases, Gymkhana aside – only a good thing. It doesn’t render Dirt 2 redundant by any means, so both games compliment each other well, and for a franchise which is as excellent as Dirt is already, then that becomes all the more impressive.
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