Dirt 3 may be the first title in Codemasters’ offroad racing franchise to have dropped the name of the late, great Colin McRae, but oddly it feels more like a celebration of the discipline he helped make famous than any other title in the series. Dirt 2’s teeth-grating slide into easy Americanisation is well-documented and oft-lamented, but for all its overuse of “extreme” this and “radical” that and an overbearing preponderance of brightly coloured shoe manufacturers, it was a fundamentally excellent game. The same remains true of this title, but the balance between “yoof” friendly commercialisation and rally-anorak enjoyment has been tweaked to near perfection. Yes, there are still buggy and truck based events featuring relatively large packs racing on mud and snow-strewn circuits, but they feel like an enhancement to the rally sections, rather than a replacement for them.
Rallying, for all its historical import and fervent fanboyism, is an unusual motorsport. It’s not particularly televisual because it happens mainly in crappy weather along remote routes dozens of miles long that it would cost a TV company millions to line with cameras. The competitors race the clock, rather than each other, so there’s no overtaking to speak of. In fact, it’s a wonder anyone enjoys the damn sport at all. But they do, and the sadly deceased Mr McRae is as responsible for publicising it on these shores as almost anyone else. Sadly his departure from the sport, and its move to the ignaminy of obscure satelite TV coverage means that most people’s only experience of modern rallying will be in simulated form via their PCs or consoles, and probably via a Codemasters game. Barring the stillborn challenge of rivals like V-Rally and WRC, the Codies have long held a near-monopoly on videogame rallying success, first with the long-running Colin McRae rally series and latterly with the reinvented Dirt franchise.
Trouble is, with no one watching the sport in real life, and with no new British heroes to replace the like of McRae and Richard Burns, interest in the sport is waning. I’ve not followed the WRC for many years, but I understand that much like Formula One every race is one by some guy called Sebastien. That’s not great for ratings in the UK and is even worse for Codemasters, who can n0 longer cover the increased development cost of next-gen titles with a few niche European sales. It’s easy to see then why they jumped on the bandwagon of the American skateboarding generation and pitched Colin McRae Dirt 2 at a transatlantic audience. Problem is, it backfired and too much of the game was spent being lectured by voiceover artists doing their best impressions of Brad Pitt’s character from True Romance or engaged in lifeless, artificial-feeling landrush and truck races.
As much as the popularity of rallying might have waned, its still the purest and most exhilarating form of offroad motorsport. It may not be the easiest to follow on TV, but it’s a whole lot more fun when you’re actually doing it yourself. Fortunately Codemasters have realised this and brought rallying, and it’s steroidal, hillclimb-cased cousin trailblazing back to the fore. Indeed the UK release of Dirt 3 proudly boasts on the box that it contains “the most rally content in the series ever”. And it’s certainly a welcome return. While it’s nice occasionally to ram a few opponents off the track and to lap a back marker or two, the tension of going up against the clock, at night, in the icy rain with only your co-driver’s pace notes and your reflexes to keep you from smashing into the nearest tree is still the definitive off-road experience.
Codemasters have always succeeded where others have failed in getting the balance right between rally realism and arcade enjoyment. While you can tinker with tyre setups and gear ratios, very few people will actually bother or need to. The handling is on the twitchy side of realistic, but gets away with it, just like every Codemasters racing games since TOCA. There are six difficulty options, driving aids like braking lines and that now ubiquitous Codies invention, the flashback. As has bee noted elswhere, the flashback is brilliant because it allows the game itself to be reasonably brutal, with solid race ending crashes and the ever-present danger of a big accident, without leading to frustration. You can drive on the ragged edge because there’s the chance to reset things if you balls it up. Equally, the limited availability of the rewinds mean that there’s no absence of challenge, keep the risk-reward balance right where it should be. It’s an approach Codemasters have consistently got right through their recent racing series, from this to Grid to F1 2010.
So the racing is good, the Ego-graphics engine ticks along smoothly and with admirable visual polish and the rallying is plentiful. Does that mean Dirt 3 is entirely shorn of its teen-friendly Americanism and has returned to a niche racer for fans of muddy Welsh forrests. Not so, and for once, that’s a good thing. See, the thing Codemasters did brilliantly at the outset of their love affair with rallying was to marry a promising game to the star quality of the only megastar British offroad racing has ever produced, and with Dirt 3, they’ve done the same internationally. For while there’s no licenced name above the title of this release, it should really be called Ken Block’s Dirt 3. While you’re still forced to suffer the endless yammering of annoying “mentors” over every loading and menu screen, the real star of the show is the DC shoes founder and US rally star, who is best known for his YouTube sensation Gymkhana videos.
These feature Block and a batshit-crazy Ford Fiesta donuting, powersliding and jumping his way around an area laid out with cones, ramps and obstacles. It’s far better than it sounds, and is a mecahnic Codemasters have cleverly brought into Dirt 3 in a big way. Progression through the game can be achieved without ever having to enter Gymkhana mode’s Tony Hawk style trick contests, but the experience is far richer for those who compete. The precision driving skills and car control needed for Block’s events are not far removed from those required in the hardest rally races and the player is given just enough freedom to make chaining tricks together fun, and tricky, but never frustrating. Block also lends the game’s cheerily transatlantic branding an air of veracity. The man may not be in anything like the same off-road league as McRae, Loeb or the like, but anyone who’s seen his appearance on Top Gear knows the man is a genuine sensation.
The other key innovation with this year’s Dirt is the realisation that rallying’s best days may well lie behind it. It’s telling that access to modern WRC cars is left until pretty late in the game’s single player progression, by which time they feel pretty superfluous. Truth is Sebastian Loeb’s Citroen may well be an engineering marvel, but modern class rules and general apathy towards the sport among even motorsport fans mean that most will turn to the startlingly complete array of historial motors instead. Almost every race can be tackled with modern cars, or a selection of greats from yesterday. That means hillclimb legends like the Pikes Peak Audi Quattro or Ari Vatenan’s Peugeot 405 are available in hillclimb mode. Rally fans can compete in anything from a 1960s Mini Cooper to a Group B Lancia. Rather than being tied to a restrictive WRC licence, it means Codemasters can draw on the rich pallete of rallying history to paint their masterpiece. And it works. No one can tell me there’s any better motoring experience on Xbox 360 than yumping a Group B Quattro over the crest of a Kenyan dirt track at 120 miles an hour while spectators run for cover. That’s exactly what rallying is about, and Codemasters genius is to ensure the game can be tackled almost entirely with historic or brand new cars, please players of all ages and perspectives. You can even upload minute long replays of your greatest moments straight to YouTube if you like, to show your mates the moment you had a Stratos sideways in a Finnish forest.
Sadly though the pace of progress has left is mark on the game in a couple of truly irritating ways. Firstly Codemasters have now jumped on the same bandwagon as EA and are including “online pass” codes with each game. That means anyone picking Dirt 3 up second hand will have to fork out again if they want to compete online. I know it’s standard form, but it still feels like gamers are being robbed just because publishers can get away with it. On the same note there’s an intrusive amount of game content that’s locked off, waiting for DLC purchases. After shelling out £40 on a game, its pretty unfair to hide eight or so cars and an entire racing environment behind £16 worth of extras. It’s made especially galling because the extra cars and races are included in the vehicle and track selections for each section of the Dirt Tour, meaning the experience is part rally career, part advertising showcase for the Xbox Live Marketplace. DLC should feel like its adding value. Witness the fine add-ons for titles like Mass Effect 3 and Red Dead Redemption that are welcome and compelling once purchased, but not glaring omissions should the user decide to leave them on the shelf. The online money-spinning doesn’t quite have what it takes to ruin a fine game, but it does take the shine off the whole package somewhat, especially if you’re the kind of completist who feels compelled to unlock everything game like this has to offer.