Once the purveyor of budget-priced adventure games starring sentient eggs, Codemasters has recently turned out some of the finest driving simulators available. Race Driver: Grid provided some of the very best racing experiences of the last five years, and Dirt 2, the last game in the long-running Colin McRae series, provided an engagingly raw simulation of rally driving.
While Dirt 2 wasn’t without its faults – the rather fussy caravan-based menu system was rather distracting, for one thing – it was still the pinnacle of the series so far, adding greater variety and realism to the rather unglamorous world of off-road racing.
Dirt 3 builds on the groundwork laid by its predecessor, providing a new set of cars that are more detailed and handle more realistically than before, as well as adding in a greater variety of weather effects and more varied tracks.
What’s immediately notable about Dirt 3, though, isn’t what’s been added to the racing series, but what’s been taken away. The cluttered front-end of the last game has been replaced with a menu system that’s cleaner and less intrusive, and the previous game’s attempts at shoehorning in a story have, thankfully, been ditched.
When Dirt 2 came out, some criticised the fact that the series had taken a shift from pure simulation to a more mainstream, arcade-like experience. With Dirt 3, the series returns to the more sim-like design and handling of the first game, while still retaining the accessibility that the second title introduced.
To this end, we still have the ‘flashback’ mechanic brought in from Race Driver: Grid, which allows clumsier drivers to undo their mistakes by winding back to an earlier, pre-crash point in the race. And if you play Dirt 3 in casual mode, which turns on all the driver aids, you’ll find the game as forgiving and fun to play as any arcade racer you care to name.
With those driver aids turned off, though, you’re given a real impression of what driving a tuned Subaru through a forest might feel like. Your vehicle’s back end skitters and slides as it loses traction on grit and water; attempt to tackle a bend at the wrong speed, and you’ll soon find yourself facing the way you came, or worse still, upside down in a ditch.
This brutal sense of danger was present in the previous Dirt games, admittedly, but here it’s more defined than ever. This is due, in great part, to the addition of more detailed weather effects. In Dirt 3, driving in the pouring rain at top speed is precisely as challenging and unpredictable as it should be, while the snow-covered courses of Aspen provide obvious hazards of their own.
And anyone disappointed at the drone drivers of Gran Turismo V, who largely followed the racing line like Scalextric cars, may be pleasantly surprised at the fallible computer-controlled racers of Dirt 3. It’s not uncommon to see an opponent spin out of control on a tight bend or drive over a crest too fast and land on its roof. It’s details like this that give Dirt 3 an engrossing frisson of realism.
This greater variety of surfaces to drive on (and weather conditions to drive through) is matched by the wealth of different styles of driving, from solo point-to-point races to Gymkhana, which involves sliding your car around as nimbly and balletically as possible to earn points. As ever, more challenges are unlocked as you win races and your reputation grows.
In terms of multiplayer, these challenges are joined by several modes, some of which are genuinely fun. My favourite is Outbreak, which is like a game of zombified tag – one car becomes ‘infected’ (turning the vehicle a queasy shade of green), and the other seven players have to avoid it. It’s a simple concept, but enormously entertaining.
Another mode, Transporter, is essentially capture the flag with cars, and as frenetic, though less original than Outbreak. The introduction of a split-screen mode, an option increasingly neglected in racers these days, is enormously welcome.
If I were to pick fault with Dirt 3, I’d immediately point an accusatory finger at the game’s background chatter between races. No fewer than three voice actors take it in turns to offer words of encouragement, tell you not to crash, or try to convince you upload your latest replay video to YouTube. It’s a minor niggle, admittedly, but can become mildly annoying after you’ve played the game for a while.
Otherwise, Codemasters has served up a sterling new entry in the Dirt series, and one that takes a decisive step towards the sim realism of earlier Colin McRae titles, while retaining much of the arcade immediacy of Dirt 2.
Like the newest iteration of a well-established make of car, Dirt 3 is recognisably like its predecessors, but offers a considerable step forwards in terms of handling and design. What Codemasters has made, then, isn’t revolutionary, but it’s most definitely the best driving game of the year so far.
You can rent or buy Dirt 3 at Blockbuster.co.uk.