It might not carry the added allure of the Colin McRae moniker these days but the DiRT franchise is still a big name in the racing genre. By successfully bridging the divide between simulation and arcade flair, the previous titles were both fun to play but also challenging enough to offer a lot more than the street-fighting Need for Speed wannabes flooding the market. With DiRT 3 you can look forward to a lot more of the same, but from what we’ve seen so far that fun factor has been given a very interesting boost.
As you’d expect, rallying is still very much at the heart of the game with around 60% of the gameplay being taken sliding across a rich assortment of on and off-road surfaces. However, it’s the inclusion of the new Gymkhana mode that is understandably drawing the most attention, with its stylish array of spectacular driving moves and showpiece events giving the game the over-the-top edge that should appease those not so keen on simply sitting through a demanding rally simulation. And having played both elements of the game, DiRT 3 is shaping up to be a very promising package indeed.
To start with the core of the game, DiRT 3 takes the sensible option of picking up where DiRT 2 left off, and puts you in the shoes of an accomplished professional racing driver, so you can expect to have access to a decent array of vehicles and high-level races from the very beginning. There are various modes to mix things up and fans of the franchise will be familiar with the likes of Rally X and Trailblazer but our first hands-on was all about getting to grips with the new handling system. Key to DiRT 3 is a new weight-shifting system designed to give the cars a greater sense of movement and it’s certainly apparent from the off.
If you’re used to the likes of Hot Pursuit, then it may take a few minutes to retune yourself to the notion that holding the accelerator down all the time except for when taking 90 degree corners is generally a very bad idea. We got plenty of examples of the car’s weight shifting from side to side as we struggled to keep the back-end in check, with each minor correction only over-compensating and sliding out the other side, simply because we were powering the throttle too much and too often. Of course, there will be a bundle of driving aids to help you out but even so, if you want to set the best times you’re going to have to master each track, memorise the optimum braking points and keep shaving the seconds off through practice and perseverance.
However, arguably the most challenging element of DiRT 3, for the hardcore and casual gamer like, will be the Gymkhana mode. You may have seen video clips of the likes of Ken Block (who’s been helping Codemasters with the game) spinning cars around in spectacular style – but, as you’d expect, it’s really not as easy as it looks. We were dropped into a building site just outside Battersea Power Station and the amount of raw power on offer, plus a surface that feels like an oil-coated sheet of ice, makes handling seem almost impossible. But then that’s the whole idea; to master the art of sliding around with a degree of precision and almost ballet-like grace when it feels almost impossible.
In these Gymkhana arenas, you’re free to simply mess around or you can take on a series of challenges against the clock to rack up the highest possible score. In this particular event there were six small challenges that you’ll need to string together in the quickest possible time. Not only does this make nailing them all first time important, it also makes choosing the order and perfecting the shortest possible route to link them all together. We started off having to do two doughnuts round a pillar – with extra points for being as close to the pillar as possible without actually touching it. It sounds simple, but you’ll need to jump between the brake and throttle to get the car spinning in the perfect circle; something that will surely become more natural and a lot less haphazard than our first few attempts suggested.
This became more apparent when the second task was to repeat the trick, but this time around a small digger and sliding between the main vehicle and it’s extended arm and bucket. This was a gap of barely more than a car length and so precision is everything and we don’t mind admitting this one took a while to get right – but once it did, it was a sweet, sweet feeling and the many failures before it all seemed so very worthwhile. From here we powered into a simple jump, slid sideways underneath a lorry trailer, drifted into a small stack of blocks and finished with long slide through two tunnel-sized pipes. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite as seamless as that, but we can certainly see the attraction of wanting to perfect each move and then string them altogether in a single faultless run.
The fine art of trying to keep a ludicrously high-powered performance car under your control might be the over-riding theme, but the rallying and Gymkhana modes offer up two delightfully contrasting experiences. The former is demanding and challenging, the latter is much the same but it also feels like you’re simply dicking about. There’s certainly a degree of accessibility that should appease the casual gamers amongst you, but this is no Need for Speed and those wanting to simply chase criminals or power comfortably around simplistic circuits may find the handling a little too demanding on your skills. However, the seasoned racers out there may well love the challenge of mastering each event, car and track, and without being pad-smashingly annoying there should be plenty of great fun to be had.
Ian Collen – PlayGamer Magazine
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