With most any game genre, you cannot underestimate how a rivalry between two game series helps push one another, where the consumer becomes the ultimate winner. It was an especially exciting time when we had both the Colin McRae and Rallisport games pushing the all-terrain envelope in the early 2000's. Yet Rallisport developer DICE has long since devoted themselves to EA's Battlefield series, making our rally racing buying decisions all the more easier. So it is somewhat surprising that Codemasters has managed to belt out quality sequels every other year without the need of bona fide competition.
The since-retitled Colin McRae series Dirt is just weeks away from its third installment, and I'm about as excited as any racing fan. So leave it to Codemasters to tease us with a preview build containing the first season of Dirt 3 as well as a few other extra features including the much hyped Gymkhana.
I'm a sucker for details, so Codemasters gets props for starting me off on a Season race that really shows off some of the best of what the rest of Dirt 3 will offer. This initial track is based in Mutanen, Finland, a lush wooded area that can’t help but give a pleasingly greenish hue. Lighting effects are ever-present but doesn’t go nuts with the lens flare and light bloom like many rally games a decade ago. While many of the little details aren’t new to Dirt, they aren’t any less impressive, like the change in sound when my Castrol-endorsed Peugeot 207 drives over a bridge or when I see risk-taking spectators cross the track before I have the opportunity to run them over.
Not much has to be done to unlock other cars and liveries, outside of performing well in races. This first season (as well as the different races offered in Single Player and Time Trial) present the games various disciplines: Rally, Rallycross, Trailblazer, Gymkhana, Landrush, and Head 2 Head. I was especially addicted to the Drift Showcase, a medal-based race against time where I had to pull off as many drifts as possible.
I was also impressed with how every car handled compared to the already-superb car performance in Dirt 2. There's a much better sense of weight distribution during turns, and the way the car body shifts and tilts adds to the believability. There’s also a wealth of control and difficulty options; nothing intimidatingly deep like in Gran Turismo 5, but enough to give you a sense of personalization. I particularly enjoyed seeing the immediate results of tweaking my downforce, suspension, and break bias. For assists, beginners who don’t want their hand held entirely can toggle ABS, the racing line, and corner breaking to name a few options. And the Prince of Persia-inspired rewind option makes a return, pleasing those who want an instant do-over without having to restart the entire race (although you will not get the maximum amount of points).
With over 10 years of well-lit tracks and sandy settings that bring out the vibrancy of sunlight, I shouldn't be surprised that my favorite courses in Dirt 3 are the overcast and gloomy ones. The overall grayness, brick buildings, and spotty dilapidation in the Smelter, Houghton stage (based in Michigan) looks like something straight out of Alan Wake. I was also impressed with the frosty downpour at the Buttermilk resort in Aspen, where the path of the falling snow realistically shifts based on the camera movements. With its steep climbs and challenging turns, Buttermilk made me wonder why there aren’t more inclined ski resort tracks in rally games.
It takes about 12 race wins to unlock the first of the Gymkhana sections, which happens to also round out this 20-race first season. I’ll be interested to see how rally newcomers take to Gymkhana. Although the first five missions are presented as “Tutorials,” there really isn’t much teaching going on, at least not until the later missions when Ken Block briefly extols on Spin and Donut tips. So don’t expect to get the platinum medals in this section at your first few attempts.
Although this build kept the second season locked, beating the first year did give me access to the Battersea Compound. Here is where I really got to hone my Gymkhana skills, motivated by 80 missions, 23 in the first area called the Parking Lot. I found it had a solid difficulty mix of assignments. Easy ones included smashing blocks and weaving between a series of lamp posts. Harder ones, at least for me, involved drifting through narrow pipes and pulling off double donuts around certain structures.
I also recently attended a Dirt 3 hands-on event that focused on the Gymkhana multiplayer. It's the game's way of featuring a party mode without having the "casual" stigma that is often associated with party modes in other games. Seeing many of your friends driving frantically throughout the compound felt like the most stylish form of bumper cars ever designed. Two of the modes, the zombie-inspired Outbreak and the capture-the-flag style Transporter actually require hitting other cars in order to win. If you want to worry less about hitting others (or getting hit) and really want to make the most of your Gymkhana skills, you’ll want to check out Invasion. Here, you’ll have to run over a series of pop-up giant robot standees while avoiding the pop-up buildings.
Dirt 2 was undoubtedly a bold statement and direction for the rally racing genre. The menus themselves were some of the best user interfaces of 2009 (and would have been recognized as such if game news outlets actually handed out awards for menus). It was built around a glossy, well-produced X-Games motif where even the thick plastic of your profile lanyard looked gorgeous. As impressive as it was, this one-directional Americanized presentation was an understandable turn-off to some non-U.S. gamers. The great news is that Dirt 3 doesn’t go with the return-to-roots approach so much as it looks to be a fine blend of its European and African pedigree while still including some X-Games sponsored tracks and aesthetics.
After these five hours of engrossing drifting, smearing donuts, and general scenery enjoyment, I came away with a seemingly trivial but lasting thought. This in-depth glance at Dirt 3 called to mind how the futuristic Wipeout series chose to follow up their blockbuster Wipeout XL with Wipeout 3 back in 1998. Like Wipeout 3, Dirt 3 impressively scales down the menus and presentation and instead focuses on an improved gameplay experience and a solid selection of modes. That said, I'm highly doubtful that Dirt 3 will replicate the poor sales performance of Wipeout 3, not if Gymkhana can help it.