Dirt 3 review: Pep rally

Dirt 3 really, really wants you to love rally racing as much as it does. It wants you to love the speed, the grit, and the cheers of the crowd just barely audible over the roar of your engine. It also wants you to love how difficult the sport is, how tough it is to keep your off-road vehicle on the road in muddy terrain. It's a good thing that it does, because it doesn't find any qualms with dropping you right in the middle of its world of drifts, revs, and ... zombies?%Gallery-99276% Codemasters has a long history of making exceptional off-road racers, and it has certainly learned from its successes. For Dirt 3, it has taken the formula from the 2009's wonderful Dirt 2 and expanded on it in just about every way possible. There are more cars, more tracks, more locations, and a slew of new modes in both single and multiplayer. The four racing seasons in the campaign mode (and the masters-only World Tour mode after them) take your lead foot through 100+ different tracks, in locations as disparate as Kenya, Lake Michigan and Norway. Quickly switching from a muddy course in the middle of a torrential downpour to bone dry deserts, or from time trials to one-on-one racing not only isn't unheard of, but will often happen multiple times in the same tour.

Even if you're not the type who likes to get your car dirty in the multiplayer modes, Dirt 3 has a bunch of modes to play around with on your own. Off-road addicts can take their trucks or other properly equipped vehicles through rough terrain in the uphill Landrush races or wilderness Trailblazer events, while those who prefer power slides to speed runs can take on the myriad of Drift Showcase tracks. For those who prefer their tracks a bit more well-groomed, the X Games style Rallycross events are available, the most popular of which takes place in the LA Coliseum in front of packed seats and screaming fans. There's Head 2 Head races, which pit two racers against each other on concurrent courses, racing at the same time to beat one another's time but never actually meeting. Combining the large number of modes with the vast quantity of weather conditions and locations ends in a ridiculous amount of variation in the single player modes alone. Don't expect to get bored any time soon.

In order to deal with the constant changes in venue and weather, you've got to learn how to drive in a wide variety of terrain. Taking your Audi Quattro around a hairpin turn under ideal conditions on an asphalt track feels completely different than attempting the same turn in a muddy forest, and knowing how to deal with that change is crucial for attaining victory in some of the more exotic locales. Initially, getting the little necessary tricks down can get frustrating, especially when you've hit the same group of trees on the outside of a turn for the fifteenth time, but figuring out the perfect angle and speed to take get around a particularly nasty curve is exceedingly rewarding. Some of the more technically difficult courses feel like puzzles the first time they're tackled, and solving them is a great challenge.



Intimidated by the sport's high learning curve? Don't fret, little racer, Dirt 3's got you. The Casual difficulty gives even the worst drivers a chance to compete with those who have already made their name on the track. For Casual players, brakes are automatically triggered and the game gives little nudges to keep the care on the right path, effectively making an experience more akin to an arcade racer. Sure, it takes away some of the satisfaction of taking on a difficult course on your own, but if you're simply looking to have a good time and speed around some very pretty and well-designed courses, the option is there. There's also the Flashback system (available in most difficulties), which allows you to turn back time at the push of a button. Take a nasty spill off a cliff? No problem, just spin that clock right on back. Flubbing that last turn take you out of the race? Time travel will solve that problem.

That isn't to say that Dirt 3 doesn't reward players who spend a lot of time learning the intricacies of off-road racing. Reputation points are awarded for feats like finishing highly in races, limiting Flashbacks in a race, or completing laps under a certain amount of time. Obsessively learning the ins and outs of tracks is rewarded by higher standings and nets more rep, which in turn unlocks tons of cars, including many rally classics from as far back as the 60s and 70s. Always wanted to take that 60s-era Mini Cooper for a spin like some kind of off-road Italian Job? Now's your chance. And if that Mini isn't performing like you want it to, you can customize it right down to its gear ratios, suspension, or ride height. That is, if you know what those things do.

New to the series is the trick-oriented Gymkhana. Basically street skateboarding for gearheads, points are awarded for pulling off crazy maneuvers in specially designed courses. A completely different experience than racing, these events break up the events focused on pure speed just as you start to get a comfortable. Gymkhana is all about scoring big points by linking together tight spins, massive drifts and various other risky maneuvers that aren't recommended amongst the general public. Watching an expert pull off a perfect run is a thing of beauty, and stringing one together yourself is as difficult as it is rewarding.

There's no better place to test out your newfound skills than one of the huge number of multiplayer modes. For those looking to mix things up, there are a few new multiplayer modes that lean more towards the arcadey. My favorite is Transporter, a capture-the-flag-style game where teams attempt to snag a marker and drop it off at a particular point on the map while opposing teams try to slam into them and steal it. With four teams of two racers flying around, it gets frantic and hilarious quickly. Outbreak is a zombie mode, with one player starting as the infected and attempting to tag everyone while they do their best to hide. Both modes are fairly unexpected in a sim-ish game like Dirt 3, but they clearly had just as much love put into them as any of the modes intended for more "serious" play.

Even the few minor things that hold Dirt 3 back are really just stumbling blocks keeping you from playing more, not problems with the game itself. There are a ton of loading screens and menus in the way of actually racing, which would be fine if it weren't for the relative shortness of the races. I'd rather not spend just as much time wading through customization menus and their subsequent loading screens if I want to get down and dirty. The announcers that often accompany it all are annoyingly overenthusiastic X Games types, that end up up being extremely grating after the hundredth time ingesting their incessant prattle. All I want to do is race, not listen to some clowns blabber about how important the next race is to my career.

Speed bumps aside, Dirt 3 succeeds in accomplishing what it wants to do. It has the capability to convert people who aren't particularly interested in rally racing to addicts who need just one more race or Gymkhana event. It would seem that Codemasters' love for the sport is infectious.

This review is based on 360 code of Dirt 3 provided by Codemasters.

Taylor Cocke is a Bay Area-based recent graduate from University of California Berkeley. After spending a couple years as the world's greatest lowly intern at Official Xbox Magazine, he has begun his life as a freelance games journalist.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.