It’s a kind of lunacy, really. A sickness, in a way. Those that have it are usually born with it, and it doesn’t take long for the symptoms to show. It can be seen in the stroller with the toddler that screams and cries if some other mom pushes her stroller faster. It’s apparent in the kid that has to always be the first to get to where the gang is going. That kid down the street that always has skinned knees and elbows, and graduates later to broken bones? Yeah, that one has it too. I’m speaking, of course, of the innate, visceral need to race. “First one to the corner wins!” Or, for the slightly less infected, “Last one in the pool is a loser!” These are the unmistakable signs.
Some outgrow it. Others suppress it. A small minority, however, embrace it as a lifestyle. Many of these select few find their way into auto racing. An even smaller portion of that select group find their calling in what has to be one of the most lunatic forms of auto racing: rally racing. And the very best of them compete in the World Rally Championship, or WRC. These racers compete on rural, unimproved roads in desolate and dangerous environments, driving full-tilt on gravel, snow, and sometimes paved roads that they may never have seen before. It’s a totally unforgiving type of racing, often ending badly when a car leaves the road and ends up either crumpled in a ditch or wrapped around a tree.
Tremendously risky racing tends to breed tremendously interesting personalities, many of whom become household names around the world. One of those was the late, great Colin McRae whose name was introduced to many a young aspiring racer in the form of the eponymous Colin McRae Rally video games, the first of which hit the shelves in 1998. As a jewel in Codemaster’s crown, the game has grown in complexity and quality through each of its eight iterations through the ensuing years. Although the ‘McRae’ name was dropped from the title after the tragic helicopter accident in 2007 that claimed McRae’s life, the spirit of the game lives on. This is readily apparent in the ninth release, DiRT 3.
According to Codemasters, one of the fundamental tenets of this new release was “More, More, More!” Included in the new version are more than 100 racing routes and a line up of cars that features not only the latest modern vehicles but also includes classic cars from the last five decades. While rally racing is still the primary focus, DiRT 3 also introduces Gymkhana, a new form of competition made famous to the YouTube generation by rally racer and Gymkhana enthusiast Ken Block. That isn’t to say that the rally racing that is the core of the series hasn’t been improved as well; with the release of DiRT 3 players will be able to enjoy racing at night or in the snow and ice. Perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the right word....
If the solitary nature of rally racing isn’t quite your calling, there are also rally cross events that let you race head to head with a ravening pack of other cars on closed circuit race courses replete with plenty of jumps and tight turns to keep things interesting. Here too you will be offered the dubious opportunity to race through inclement weather conditions and deal with the reduced control and restricted visibility that come with rotten weather. If you want to experience the full gamut of racing flavors, opt for the World Tour setting, which is DiRT 3’s career mode. The World Tour will introduce you to every form of rally racing in the DiRT 3 repertoire. It’s also how you unlock content, so in this case variety is not only desirable but mandatory.
While the usual online multiplayer options will naturally be available, DiRT 3 actually takes a step back in time and re-introduces split screen multiplayer to a genre that had largely forgotten it. This will be a welcome addition to folks that prefer to race/play with people right there in the room with them. There’s also a much better “party” aspect to split screen play; a couple of buds can sit down with a couple (or more) Buds, a bag of chips, maybe a pizza, and race away an evening. Online multiplayer simply doesn’t have the same feel to it when it comes to trash-talking your way through a session of fender rubbing racing on an icy track.. And with the customizable difficulty settings that run the range from “you’re kinda just along for the ride” to “omagod, I’m in the trees again!!”, just about anyone will be able to play.
Fundamental game play is just about exactly what you’d expect from a modern title. The graphics are as spectacular and the sounds as compelling as one would expect from a top-tier product. The included directions are sparse to a fault and the navigation of the menus can be inconsistent at times, but it doesn’t take long to get a profile put together and enter your first race. As mentioned before, there is quite a bit of configuration that can be done to the difficulty settings, and interestingly the settings can be easily changed just before each segment of a race. As always these days, the most useful setting is the dynamic track line which guides the driver through unfamiliar tracks. It also has the deleterious effect of making it possible for the lazy racer to never really learn a track, but that’s offset by the way it enables rookies to hold their own against competitors that are more familiar with the route.
There’s not much tuning available when it comes to configuring the controllers, though. Beyond button selection, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the designers. While it could be hugely detrimental to not be able to set control rates in a normal “civilized” racing genre, it doesn’t seem to matter quite as much in rally racing where abrupt control inputs are the norm. Even with that having been said, it was not uncommon to find myself zigzagging down the track as I over controlled from one direction to the other. With a little practice this became less of an issue, but it does take a measure of self discipline to maintain a gentle touch on the analog stick.
One of the more unique facets of rally racing is the co-driver. This brave soul rides along and reads the pace notes that enable the driver to safely (well, usually anyway) navigate unfamiliar roads at high rates of speed. DiRT 3 provides two selectable co-drivers, one male and one female. The default setting was for the female co-driver and while it wasn’t as bad as it could have been to have a woman constantly telling me how to drive, I wasted no time in finding the setting that would replace her with a guy. The challenge to being a good co-driver (above and beyond the challenge of not constantly emitting primal screams of fear) is in the timing of the reading of the pace notes. If the co-driver gets too far ahead, there is the risk that the driver will forget what’s coming. If the reading is too slow, the driver doesn’t have time to react. Not surprisingly, each driver has his own preference. The co-drivers in DiRT 3 get the timing right for the most part, but it is not rare to hear “medium left into................” with an uncomfortably long pause before the sentence is finished.
The co-driver may also elicit unintended guffaws at times. The damage model in DiRT 3 allows for quite a variety of bent metal and broken windows. I can’t swear to it, but I think I even had a door pop open once. With that in mind, consider how funny it is to be halfway up a tree with smoke pouring out of the engine bay and not an unbroken piece of glass to be seen and to hear the co-driver confidently state that “it’s just a scratch in the paint - keep going!”
In situations like that, you can afford to laugh because the resumption of your race is only a flashback away. The flashback is a handy little feature that allows you to rewind the most recent few seconds and resume your race at a point where you hopefully haven’t made the terrible mistake that landed you up a tree yet. You can do that up to five times per race, although they aren’t free: each use of a flashback deducts reputation points from your score. Also note that the sparse instructions don’t mention how to use the feature. I personally couldn’t see the value in it when I kept hitting the flashback button only to find myself resuming the race still up against the tree. Hint: you have to rewind the replay first.
Another feature that I couldn’t quite get my head around is the ability to upload replays to YouTube. Now, this could just be me showing my age, but I think YouTube is great for videos of talking dogs (“The meat drawer? What was in there??”), cats playing patty cake, and plane crashes, but I can’t see myself browsing through a few thousand replays of DiRT 3 crashes, having personally experienced nearly that many myself. I suppose this might sound like just another way of me saying that I couldn’t figure out how to get the replays to upload to YouTube, but that’s only partially true. It’s certainly true that I couldn’t figure it out, but it’s equally true that I didn’t much care. Still, if you’re into that kind of thing, the capability is there. Somewhere. You find it.
With DiRT 3, Codemasters has reached what surely must be a pinnacle for this venerable series. If there is anything significant missing from this version, I don’t know what it is. There are a wide variety of race formats with each offering approachable levels of difficulty for every imaginable player from rank novice to hardened veteran. With two distinct flavors of multiplayer available, the social aspect of competing with other human players is easily accessible, but the single player mode offers every bit as much of a challenge. For anyone infected with the immutable need to race but perhaps not quite ready or able to satisfy the urges with a real race car, DiRT 3 is a good stopgap measure. For good, dirty fun, DiRT 3 is the way to go.
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