I was a little worried when I first started playing Dirt 3. It seemed, in those first few hours, pretty similar to Dirt 2. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course, but if it’s just more of the same, why buy it? But after thoroughly exploring all the game has to offer, I can assure you it's much more than a simple rehash of 2009's offering.
The first thing you notice about any Dirt game, Dirt 3 included, is its interface. The Dirt series has developed a reputation for flashy menus and strong tone, most recently in Dirt 2, which maintained an almost overwhelming “totally rad Mountain Dew bro” attitude throughout the game. Dirt 3 sheds all this and instead opts for something more like “hanging out at the bar in a trendy Berlin hotel,” with its artsy triangular motifs and chill electronic music. While I personally preferred the stronger, more cohesive tone of the previous game, others may find this to be a welcome change. In any event, the menus are much faster and easier to navigate than Dirt 2’s immersive but somewhat cumbersome RV interface.
Selecting Dirt Tour will take you to the campaign, where you’ll see familiar modes like rally (point-to-point races), rallycross (motocross with cars), landrush (like rallycross but with trucks or buggies), trailblazer (like rally but with super fast cars), and head-2-head (one-on-one circuit races). Dirt 3 has also added a new mode, gymkhana, to the mix, but more on that later. Each mode is featured in a number of multi-race series that are spread throughout the campaign. Series of differing modes are grouped together in events, which unlock as the player earns points by doing well in each series. At the same time, the player earns “rep” points that can be used to unlock more cars. Rep points are earned by placing well, completing optional missions such as reaching a certain top speed, and by conserving flashbacks, the Dirt series’ name for its rewind feature.
Unlike Dirt 2, which grouped series by locale, Dirt 3 jumps around between eight environments: Aspen (snow!), Finland, Kenya, the L.A. Coliseum, Michigan, Monaco, Norway, and the Smelter industrial site. That’s one fewer locale than Dirt 2, but Dirt 3 makes up for it with an increased number of tracks (double that of Dirt 2) and the inclusion of weather and time-of-day options. A wet track plays significantly differently from a dry one, as does one at night that you’ve previously only seen during the day. Some circuit tracks are so dark that you’ll find yourself having to memorize where turns are, turning blindly into blackness, hoping that your headlights will reveal some familiar section of wall. Nighttime rally courses are similarly intense, requiring you to rely almost exclusively on your co-driver for directions. Night races are, in short, awesome.
If that sounds crazy to you, don’t worry. Dirt 3 has made things easier on newer players by including optional throttle, brake, and steering assists. The game won’t quite play itself, but it can come pretty darn close. A dynamic racing line is also included. Like pretty much every other modern racing game, the line shows the best way around the track and changes color when it’s time to brake. As mentioned before, flashbacks are back, except now you get five of them per race, regardless of difficulty. Some may consider this feature a “dumbing down” of the game, but in my experience, having that safety nets encourages you to try riskier moves and ultimately become a better driver. Also, as far as I could tell, difficulty barely matters. Playing on a harder setting, while much more difficult in terms of how good your opponents are, does not affect the amount of points you get at the end of the series, nor does it affect your rep points. Really, the only thing holding you back from blasting through the game on easy is shame.
For those worried that the game may be losing its hardcore roots, fear not. Dirt 3 retains the series’ signature physics-regulated handling system, and even improves it a bit by adding independent suspension so cars rock realistically with changes in direction. It’s hardly a noticeable improvement until you go back to Dirt 2 and try to play without it. The graphics are similarly improved, with many minor upgrades conspiring to create some truly beautiful environments, and at no cost to a steady framerate.
But Dirt 3 isn’t all about improvements to existing features. It’s got some new ones as well, like YouTube integration. At any point during a flashback or after-race replay, one button takes you into the YouTube clip editing mode. Simply set an “in” and “out” point (the clips are limited to 30 seconds) and start uploading. The tools are fairly easy to use and require nothing more than a YouTube user name and password. Your uploaded videos aren’t HD quality, and they take a while to render and upload (about 10 minutes for a 30 second clip with my 3Mbps upstream connection), but it’s a great way to preserve and share any crazy moments you have.
In addition to the standard racing modes in the campaign, players will also run across gymkhana events. Gymkhana events are trick-based, taking place in open areas stuffed with obstacles for you to drift through, jump over, and do donuts around. There are a few different types, namely sprint (do these tricks in this order), smash attack (smack cardboard cutouts of robots with your car), speed run (make it through these gates in time), and attack (do these tricks in any order). This sort of Project Gotham Kudos-meets-Tony Hawk's Pro Skater style of gameplay is lots of fun, but it can get pretty challenging. Fortunately, Dirt 3 features a free-roam area known as the Battersea Compound where players can practice their drifting skills without the pressure of a time limit. Collectibles and missions unique to this open area, like drifting around a backhoe, make Battersea a pretty cool spot to hang out in.
Gymkhana, as well as the rest of the racing modes from the campaign, also makes an appearance in multiplayer. Players can test their skills against each other in point-based matches, but the real action is in the party games. These modes, available as team or solo ranked and unranked matches, eschew most of the racing pretext and become full-blown minigames. They range from Outbreak, which takes place on a gymkhana course and is sort of a free-for-all capture the flag-meets-tag, to Cat ‘n’ Mouse, where two teams of rally cars have to escort their team’s underpowered “mouse” car to the finish while blocking the other team. These modes are a ton of fun. The game also supports local split-screen multiplayer for two people, a first for the series.
In order to play online, however, players are required to enter a code for the game’s “VIP Pass” (included in the game case), which also unlocks five additional cars and the ability to upload YouTube clips. As of this writing, the PlayStation Store is offline, making it impossible for PS3 players to redeem this code and consequently take part in any of the VIP Pass benefits, including online play.
The Dirt series has carved out a nice little niche in the racing game genre, one between the who-needs-the-brake-button-anyway madness of games like Motorstorm and Burnout, and clinical, it’s-fun-because-it’s-real simulations like Gran Turismo and Forza. Dirt splits the difference, offering crazy mud-covered tracks and approachable yet nuanced controls, which combine to create the perfect blend of fun and challenge. Dirt 3, the latest installment, is no exception, and everything fans of the series have come to love in past games has been tuned and upgraded, making it feel an awful lot like the definitive off-road racing game.