Riding DiRTy

My love for driving games is well documented here at TR. Lately, I've been playing a rather good one: DiRT 3. This third chapter in the evolution of the storied Colin McRae Rally series is, at least according to Wikipedia, the first to shed the rally legend's name in its official title. McRae made a name for himself sliding around in a Subaru during the 90s and died in a helicopter crash back in 2007, so it's probably time for the DiRT franchise to move on.

The world of rally racing has changed a lot since Codemasters rolled out its first Colin McRae game in 1998. A new generation of gamers is growing up watching the X Games rather than the World Rally Championship. Travis Pastrana jumped 269 feet in an Impreza to usher in 2010, and Ken Block's epic gymkhana videos have tens of millions of views on YouTube—many more than the most popular footage from the WRC.

Block looks to be the new poster boy for Codemasters' rally franchise, because gymkhana features heavily in DiRT 3. Don't think the game has been taken over by carefully scripted hoonage in a parking lot, though. DiRT 3 serves up an all-you-can-eat buffet of traditional off-road racing modes, including circuits with a mix of dirt and pavement, point-to-point rally stages, and jump-loaded motocross tracks for trucks, just to name a few. The gymkhana and drifting events are more of a salad bar. Although not quite as filling, they're a refreshing break from the meat and potatoes.

Sheer variety is one of DiRT 3's greatest strengths. The wide selection of events goes down in a range of environments, from the deserts of Kenya to the forests of Finland and the snow-capped peaks of Colorado. And, of course, there's an obstacle-filled industrial playground in which to do donuts.

As one might expect from a diverse collection of locales, the weather forecast is mixed. Racing occurs under the beating sun, in the miserable rain, and during a blizzard. The weather effects look pretty good, especially from behind the windshield, which frantic wiper blades sometimes struggle to keep clean.

Then there are the vehicles. You'll find yourself driving steroid-infused pickup trucks, pure racing SUVs like the Bowler Nemesis, and dozens of rally cars spanning multiple decades. While the game's modern-era Subaru Impreza seems to have the same personality and handling characteristics as the Mitsubishi Lancer and Ford Fiesta, the older classics definitely have a different feel. They may be a little slower than the latest rides, but the original Mini Cooper S and Audi Sport Quattro are still a lot of fun to drive—and they look way cooler. You'll have to wait for one of the upcoming DLC car packs to get behind the wheel of a beautifully retro Lancia Stratos, though.

The cars are probably the best-looking part of DiRT 3. For all the game's DirectX 11 effects, the environments look a little bland and low-fi, as if they were built with the sort of strict polygon budgets and texturing limitations one might associate with console games. Layers of post-processing effects smooth out the rough edges, much in the way a little makeup can do wonders for Hollywood starlets who are a bit past their prime. You can still see the wrinkles if you look for them, though.

I played the game on a GeForce GTX 570 with all the eye candy cranked, and it definitely looks good. However, I'm struggling to think of something memorable about the visuals. The tessellated water looks nice and the shadowing is done well, but the one thing that keeps popping into my mind is that the lighting model for night races doesn't look as realistic as the one used in Shift 2 Unleashed. Oh, and there's a neat effect during particularly violent crashes that makes it look like your graphics card is glitching due to overheating.

DiRT 3 is not the graphical tour de force I've been hoping to find in a driving game for the PC. Nevertheless, it's a heck of a lot of fun. The rally racing is butt-clenchingly intense, forcing me to adopt the classic console gamer's lean-forward position on the edge of my couch. (I do most of my PC gaming on the big-screen TV in my living room.) The circuit events seem a lot easier, but an aggressive field ensures that they're always exciting. I have to confess that I'm lousy at the gymkhana stuff, though. My aggressive driving style doesn't lend itself to precision automotive ballet. That said, I do quite enjoy fishtailing around various bits of heavy machinery, shipping containers, and other large-scale items ripped from a construction site—even if I end up crashing into most of them.

Codemasters takes the edge off of epic failures by providing a handy flashback feature that lets you rewind time to just before you slid ass-backwards into the ditch. A handful of flashbacks are available at the beginning of each event, and bonus points are awarded for resisting the urge to use them. I'd rather play the game on the ragged edge, which is a lot more fun, and then hit what I've taken to calling the "ahh @#$%" button liberally.

Flashbacks make DiRT 3 more accessible for gamers unfamiliar with just how easy it is to slide off a rain-soaked dirt road and into the woods. All the usual driving assists are available, and there's even a casual difficulty setting that provides assistance on steering and braking.

There's a sense of maturity in DiRT 3 that I haven't seen in previous iterations. The narration is still a little excessive and too-often peppered with terms like sick, dude, and totally. It feels like the volume has been turned down a little, though. Instead of being yelled at by a teenager hopped up on Mountain Dew, you're spoken to by someone in his late-20s fresh from finishing an iced cappuccino.

Unlike a lot of console ports, DiRT 3 puts little BS between you and the game. The menus are slick and stylish, and you won't have to hit "next" a million times to navigate through them. I do miss the loading-screen stats from DiRT 2. The constantly updated stream of ultimately useless information about your in-game driving at least kept the old load screens fresher than what's displayed now.

DiRT 3 is available on Steam, which is fantastic. Sadly, it's also infected by Games for Windows Live, which is only slightly more desirable than herpes. Wading through the GFWL setup process added a good 20 minutes to the installation time thanks to demands for a client update that failed to download properly the first time. Fortunately, it hasn't flared up since.

The (hopefully) rare intrusion of GFWL is one of only a few blemishes on DiRT 3's record. That and the other minor flaws seem insignificant next to the solid gameplay, expanded depth, and grown-up sensibilities. DiRT 3 has the right mix of elements to appeal to longtime fans of the series and the latest crop of pimply teenagers. Were he alive today, I think Colin McRae might even want to try his hand at chasing Ken Block around the gymkhana arena.

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