In real life, I’m not even a Sunday driver. I’ve got a license, but no car, so I “kill” my driving cravings on virtual circuits. Earlier this year we talked about Hot Pursuit, which turned up the heat with police lights, and then Shit 2 Unleashed came to remind us that there are also less ideal poor games in the NFS series. DiRT 3 isn’t a newcomer in the genre either, actually deriving from the Colin McRae Rally series. But since the famous rally pilot went to drive alongside Ayrton Sena on the tracks of Heaven, this year the series took his name out of the title, but that’s not the only change in DiRT 3, and others might annoy those who appreciated the simulation aspect.
Truth be told though, the pure rally races stopped being the main attraction right from the first Dirt, with disciplines like Hillclimb taking the spotlight. Now it’s back to basics, but with special elements in other five types: Head2Head (Spectator Stages), RallyCross, TrailBlazer and LandRush, together with the exotic Gymkhana.
If the first types are based on speed and best lap times, Gymkhana comes straight from a real arcade: do donuts, spin around your own axis like a dog chasing its tail, air time, hit yellow blocks or invading robots-like panels. By far the hardest mode in the single-player part, it’s still the most controversial: I didn’t really find a justification for it in a simulation-oriented game. On the other hand, it can offer a good variation from the normal races that get really boring towards the end of the career; and since most of these challenges can be ignored, those who aren’t crazy about showing off can just forget about them.
In the career mode (Tour) there are four seasons with four cups each, completed by six other individual cups, for each type of race and three tracks for the Gymkhana acrobatics; the single-player also has a skirmish form (Time Trial and Single Race), races to go alone or against a ghost car to establish personal bests on chosen tracks, by day, by night, on rain, blizzard or something else.
Just like the races are varied and interesting enough, so are the cars. We’ve got both “young” competitors and legends alike, so a BMW can drift from under you on the Kenya trails just like a Renault 5 from a long gone era will behave like a wild horse in the Norway snow. In all there are 52 cars, some of them playable, with others to be added in future packages.
Unfortunately, the cars can’t be picked up anymore, they are just added as you level up. Any race brings reputation points, more or less depending on the finishing position. There are also bonuses, from winning under a specific time to avoid spinning or being first after the first lap. Another rather unpleasant part of the liberal access to cars is that the newest ones also come with the biggest reputation, so your favorite models might just be forgotten in favor of more points. Still, from level 20 onwards, I kind of ignored the points and used a Lancia Delta Integrale instead of a modern speeder just because… it’s a Delta Integrale!
Besides normal cars, so to say, there are also trucks and buggies, good variations where I went for a more aggressive style of play, even with full damage on (the visual mode will destroy the car, but not impact the performance). Still, even if you’re race is over when you “kiss” a tree at 150km an hour, the rest of the minor collisions aren’t reflected in the car’s overall behavior, like steering or top speed.
The control and responsiveness are great, even though I preferred a controller over the keyboard. There is a global difficulty setting, but each race can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be, plus the options to adjust the gear, aerodynamics, distribution and suspensions. The assistance offered also varies from zero for driving aces to visual and verbal clues of the optimal path, ABS and automated gears even for cars that never even dream of having such technical allies.
Once more, the options aren’t hugely varied (Live for Speed, anyone?), but you can tweak the levels just to feel how it would be to drive an ‘80s car. I personally recommend at least the Normal difficulty level to get a real view of DiRT 3; on Casual, it’s all too easy, including the finals and you can just floor it all the time, like in a pure arcade; you’re too little punished for wrong curve entries, bad drifts and so on.