If Codemasters’ rally-driving franchise was human, it would make an ideal candidate for a TV show such as the X Factor; it has suffered some incredible slings and arrows over the years, yet has managed to emerge triumphant.
Originally Colin McRae Rally, it had to overcome the tragic 2007 death of the man whose name graced it (although it had already morphed to Colin McRae: Dirt) and, more recently, reinvention was required after the appeal of the World Rally Championship, on which it was originally based, waned drastically. With Dirt 3, though, the franchise has well and truly repositioned itself in a 21st-century world characterised by social networking and extreme sports.
Dirt 3′s poster-boy is Ken Block, a charismatic American who, though sufficiently accomplished a rally-driver to appear in the WRC, has earned YouTube super-stardom through being the world’s finest proponent of “honing” – essentially, driving like a maniac in order to entertain.
Block invented a fantasy motor-sport he calls Gymkhana, which involves showing off around obstacle-encrusted courses by jumping, drifting, pulling doughnuts and smashing blocks designed to disintegrate, and Dirt 3 gives you the first chance to test your Gymkhana mettle – around a number of courses, including one set in the grounds of Battersea Power Station in London (which Codemasters set up in real life to publicise the game).
Anyone who played Shift 2: Unleashed will feel their spirits sinking at the mention of drifting, but Dirt 3, thankfully, should restore their faith. Mainly because the game’s underlying engine (which also powers the Formula One franchise) is so good.
The cars you’re given for the Gymkhana levels are considerably easier to drift than they would be in real life, which means that getting your tyres to lose adhesion becomes fun once more, rather than a chore.
Dirt 3 isn’t just about the Gymkhanas (although you can head to the Gymkhana courses whenever you fancy, once you unlock them). It has a beautifully structured single-player mode which encompasses proper rallying – in some of the finest machinery ever created, such as the Ford RS200, Metro 6R4 and the cut-and-shut Audi Quattro, as well as countless Subaru Imprezas and Mitsubishi Evos, plus the latest S2000 cars – rallycross, buggy-races (in imaginative surroundings such as the snow of Aspen) and head-to-head, Super Special Stage-style show-downs.
It’s all presented in a brash manner featuring vast amounts of branding, reminiscent of an X-Games event – which may offend beard-stroking rally-nuts, but makes great sense in the context of a video game. Put in an impressive performance, and you can upload it as a video straight to YouTube.
A marvellous dance-music soundtrack impresses, as does the fact that it is simply one of the best-looking driving games ever.
Initially, it pays to mess around with the driving assists. Novices will find the Intermediate difficulty rather tricky (although you do get Flashbacks, enabling you to erase mistakes by rewinding time), and the Casual setting is too easy – we selected casual then turned off most of the assists. There’s a fairly standard levelling-up system in which earning Reputation points by doing well in events opens up new events and cars.
Despite its fantasy-sport emphasis, it has an underlying stamp of authenticity – it still requires you to adhere to the basics of rallying, keeping things smooth, braking early and balancing the throttle to get satisfying four-wheel drifts going.
Dirt 3 has come a long way from its straight-up rallying roots: it may still employ rally cars, but mostly as a means of engaging in a rather thrilling sport shot through with 21st-century attitude that would most likely see you arrested if you tried it in real life.