The racing genre is a crowded one. Old, well established series like Gran Turismo and more recently the Forza franchise seem to cast a long shadow over the competition, and rightfully so. Both IPs have maintained pole position for years by perfecting the art of racing simulation. Yet back in the real world, the advent of web-based video streaming have moved car nuts somewhat away from the rigidly structured world of professional motorsports portrayed in these games. With cheap and easy access to cameras of their own, drivers across the world have taken to the streets to show off their hooning skills in a public forum that didn’t exist just 10 years ago. Much like the early days of skateboarding, it was homemade skate videos that finally rocketed the sport from underground to mainstream. Ken Block’s gymkhana videos, released on both Youtube and Vimeo, have given a glimpse into a new era of auto-racing. A world that appeals not just for old racing fans, but a new generation of drivers who realize that racing isn’t just turning left (I’m looking at you Nascar).
Enter DiRT, a series of video games that older gamers may remember as Colin McCrae Rally but was rebranded and revamped as a more youthful (EXTREEEEEEME) take on rally sports. The latest installment, DiRT 3, adds tons of new content to set itself apart not just from previous versions but it’s competitors too. Events that include drifting, Gymkhana, and a wide variety of vehicle types make it the most versatile and broadly scoped vision of rally racing as a sport portrayed in video games to date. While some rally purists may take issue with the low difficulty of the game, its slick graphics and sound, exciting physics system, and a broad take on the sport make DiRT3 a solid game that’s definitely worth a look. It should be particularly rewarding for car enthusiasts who want to quickly jump into the sport without all the fuss of a racing simulator.
Now saying “slick graphics” in a genre populated by Forza 4 and Gran Turismo should make a lot of you skeptical. I knew going into it that I might have to lower my standards, reassuring myself with phrases like “it’s about cars not graphics” and “not every game can look that good.” Rest assured, racers, there’s no reason to lower your standards. DiRT 3 has done a great job. The particle effects are convincing and well used to give it that rally racing feel. Cars in front of you will dirty up your windshield (you do play in the driver’s seat perspective, right guys?) and adds a new layer of strategic thinking I found intriguing and fun. The car models are spot on, as are the lighting effects. I did find the occasional low-res texture on an interior but this was infrequent and only a minor gripe when compared to the quality shown on the rest of the car. The level textures were appealing, although because the game is essentially an XBOX 360 port I found myself wishing there was one higher level up to reward those gamers willing to buy DiRT 3 on their computer.
The included soundtrack features an assortment of solid artists. Acts like Hudson Mohawke, Atmosphere, and Chase & Status bring an electronic and hip hop vibe that’s exciting and vaguely reminiscent of the eurobeat albums that made the old Initial D racing games so memorable. The sound effects in general are very well done, especially with a decent set of headphones.
Sliding around on a dirt or gravel track in DiRT 3 is every bit as rewarding in real life, if not more so because DiRT 3 has taken the learning curve from years to a few days of gaming sessions. The slightly exaggerated ability to whip your car around is welcome for someone who wants to jump into Gymkhana events (think gymnastics, for a car) or drifting challenges quickly. The various levels of achievement for each grade (bronze, silver, gold and platinum) represent hours, rather than days worth of effort. Frankly, I found anything less than the top ranking for every challenge was too easy. As an intermediate level racing game enthusiast, this was a bit disappointing. While fun, I think that if the 2nd level of a challenge is obtainable within three tries, you’ve set the bar too low. With a less forgiving physics system I think the game would’ve been more rewarding to simulation nerds, although less appealing to a wider audience who wants to feel like Ken Block on their first run.
The broad spectrum of event types and vehicle types the game offered really shows where this game shines. What it lacked in difficulty per event was made up for in sheer volume of race types. Everything from Group B style rally challenges like those featured in previous versions of DiRT to the new Gymkhana events, and unique vehicle types should make every new unlocked event interesting and somewhat difficult on the first few goes.
Each of these events has different unlockable car types, and cars. Once a stage is unlocked the player is asked to choose a racing team which essentially represents a companies specifically tuned version of some car. A few times the player can also choose an era of cars he would like to play from. This was a nice feature, and allowed me to experience the broad spectrum of performance levels and handling from the 60’s era of rally sports onwards. Still, I feel this take on the “story mode” will be a let down for gamers used to the depth of franchise modes of games like Forza 4 and the Gran Turismo Series. Not having your own garage of cars to customize made me feel less invested in the game and my virtual career. Instead it felt like a fighting game where choices reflected more about what the “best” car was than personal driving style.
Further disappointment came when I realized you couldn’t unlock most event cars early on. Instead, you had to play through the whole game racking up points that unlocked cars in events you had already mastered. While I’m sure Codemasters intended to increase the replayability of older stages, I think they underestimated how not interesting it is to come back to a stage you’ve already demolished just to take a spin with another car.
The only other gripe I had about this game was the inclusion of Windows Live for non-steam versions of the game. While I won’t waste too much time reviewing Windows Live here, I’ll just say that the way it was integrated into DiRT3 caused a few annoyance, slowdowns, and silliness. Having a game distribution system is one thing, but bundling it and forcing it on customers who specifically chose not to get the Steam or Windows Live versions is something game developers should avoid at all costs. For me it was not a deal breaker, but for some members of the PC community it would be a major turn off.
Overall Windows Live, along with the difficulty of the game and the oddball take on a franchise mode are really the only areas to make serious complaints about the game. Of those three, franchise mode and shallow learning curve are the only places car enthusiasts will be reminded they are playing something more arcade styled. Otherwise, I believe the game is a great title for anyone who loves racing, and particularly rally. Given the fact that so many racing titles do not even come to PC in the first place, this title shows gamers are underserved but not forgotten by Codemasters. If you have a racing itch, I strongly encourage you to check out this title not as a replacement for a more serious simulator like Forza 4 or Gran Turismo, but instead as a game that allows you to relax and have some fun in an underrepresented aspect of racing games: the rally.