I love driving games. Even though I drive extremely conservatively in real life–and wouldn’t have it any other way–I really let loose with my inner aggressive driver with various video games.
Codemasters games are amongst my favorites. I got introduced to the company through GRID (where’s the sequel dammit??), then DiRT 2 and now the third game in that series. We’ll get to talking about the game itself in a bit but first a little digression about presentation. One of the reasons I hate EA so much, in fact, is that despite buying the rights to use ESPN’s style of broadcast presentation for FIFTEEN FUCKING YEARS is that they have hardly done a damn thing with it until the last few years. Most of us watch football on TV and we’re used to flashy graphics, interesting stat presentations and whatnot. ESPN 2K5–STILL the best NFL football game EVAR–made use of the ESPN experience in a way that still pulls me into the game more than any other. Yeah, EA bought the rights to kill the 2K series but DAMMIT do something with that shit. Grrrr.
Presentation is everything to me in a video game. Most people don’t give a shit about clever menu design or loading screens or intro sequences or musical choices for any particular game. But to me it’s like the perfect wrapping paper for a pretty shiny new thing, and Codemasters absolutely excels at all aspects of this facet of “presentation”. From the shiny plastic look of GRID to the festival atmosphere of DiRT 2 to DiRT 3’s use of pyramids and triangles to emphasize the “3” aspect of the game, I absolutely love how the menu design is so seamlessly integrated into each game. 3’s use of three-sided (or five-sided) pointy things almost–almost–makes you feel like you’re playing ZELDA THE RALLY RACING GAME but it works. Loading screens are cool, as first you see the logo of whatever competition you’re running and then when the model of the car loads up the camera slowly pans over to it, showing off whatever vehicle you’ve chosen to race with in high detail. All of this takes place while the track itself is loading and … well I for one don’t mind waiting. It’s miles better than watching a progress bar, and it increases my anticipation for the race to come.
The soundtrack is a pleasant mix of hard rock, pop, hip-hop and dance music, heard only during menus and replay sequences, so it doesn’t intrude into your actual racing experience. A good choice. And the soundtrack (3 CD’s worth of music, more or less) makes for a good mix when you’re ACTUALLY on the road. I play a lot of games, and many of the songs/artists in my personal collection comes from games, where I’m introduced to genres/artists/songs I wouldn’t normally hear. Codemasters always seems to have good choices for the most part.
The game itself? Quite possibly the best driving game I’ve ever played. I’m not into EXTREME sim games like Forza or GT, where you spend as much if not more time tweaking your car’s performance. I don’t know enough about cars to do that, and Codemasters has made DiRT 3 extremely accessible in this regard. On the default “casual” setting the game practically drives itself but the experience changes entirely if you turn off the assists and crank up the difficulty. You can also tweak your car’s performance a little bit if you so choose, and each option has a voiced explanation of what the various assists/tweaks will do. In fact, there’s a lot of voices in the game. You have a manager, an agent, a garage expert, and a choice of two co-driver voices (one male, one female). This may be a bit of overkill but I still giggle when I hear a videogame call me by my first name and then offer me advice or plaudits … or even a dressing-down for poor performance. Once again, this is all seamless and gives you a real sense of progression.
The main mode of the game is the tour, which starts you out slow and introduces you to all the various types of tracks, race types, cars and weather conditions. You play through four seasons (plus an open arena for you to practice, and a slew of “world tours” for each of the racing types) so there is more than enough material here to keep you occupied. One of the most fun–and frustrating, for me–race types is the new Gymkhana, where you’re expected to do various jumps, spins, donuts, and crashing through foam blocks in a way like one would assemble a long string of tricks a skateboarding game. It’s a lot of fun, but I haven’t come close to performing tricks as well as I race. Fortunately, except for a few instances, these events are not necessary to progress along the tour.
Once you’re actually in the race, you have your standard choice of views, including in-car. A nice little touch for 360 owners is seeing your avatar dangling from the rear-view mirror. The tracks are beautifully designed…you never lose a sense of speed or the feeling that one small mistake will send you hurling off track in spectacular fashion. The flashback device introduced in GRID is present here, and you get five per race, though you’ll lose points for using them, and you need points to unlock the next event/tournament/season. You also earn “rep” which as you progress increases your fame, and thus more cars to drive. It’s a little disappointing that you can’t trick out your liveries at all but it does serve to keep you solidly in the racing experience.
The graphics easily make DiRT 3 the most beautiful driving game ever made. The Ego engine just keeps getting better and the cars, large-scale environments, and damage modeling are absolutely amazing. During a race you hardly have time to notice all the graphical beauty. And there’s a LOT to admire, from sunsets to blizzards, to the slick sheen of rain on the road, not to mention the damage your car takes from various bumps and scrapes. You can also choose from visual damage only to damage that actually affects your ability to drive, though this option is not as forcefully present as in past games. All of this combines to make you WANT to watch the replays of your races, just to admire the sheer beauty of the game and all the little details (are those FLIES buzzing in front of my car in hot environments??) the game provides you. Sadly, you cannot save entire replays to your hard drive, but you can upload 30-second segments to your YouTube account. Small consolation–and the process takes about 10 minutes from start to finish per 30-second clip–but at least you can show off a particularly good/dramatic portion of your race with your friends and fellow gamers. The sounds during your racing experience are also amazing. Screeches, squealings, crunches, growlings … they are all pitch perfect.
Control is beautiful, especially steering. Using standard racing controller setup design, DiRT 3 manages to make everything feel comfortable. Even in the most difficult of race events and weather/day-night conditions I have yet to throw my controller at the screen due to control. Collision detection is another story as there a few instances where, when you’ve plowed head on into an obstacle, you tend to get “stuck” on it and your only way out is to burn a flashback or just start the race over. But this is a minor gripe in an overall awesome game.
I’m just starting my 3rd season of driving single-player style and I haven’t even delved into multiplayer but from the (mostly) stellar game reviews out there multiplayer can be quite a lot of fun if that’s your thing. Also, if you’ve got the muscle, the game is absolutely STUNNING on a PC. I “demoed” the game on the PC and while I don’t really have the equipment for a racing game on a PC it definitely influenced my decision to get the console version of the game to play on my big-screen.
To sum up: whether or not you like driving/racing games DiRT 3 makes the experience accessible to everyone, no matter their skill. This game will quite likely nab “driving GOTY” honors and you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t try it out.