DiRT 3 is a lot of things, to a lot of people. It's a realistic, gritty rallying game, that sees you barrelling down narrow dirt paths, come rain or shine, in a battle between heart and mind as to how soon you should brake for the corner. It's a game of observation, as the rain batters against your windscreen, and your wipers fight a losing battle to clear it, while you try to remember which way your co-driver said the next corner went, and attempt to spot the bend in the track amongst the trees up ahead. It's a game about showing off, where it's not how fast you drive, but how you drive that matters, with your doughnuts, jumps, and drifts earning you points in the Gymkhana mode. And it's simultaneously the most realistic, and one of the easiest racing games you're likely to play all year.
On the middle difficulties, like I usually play on, DiRT 3 errs strongly towards the former. This is a heart pounding, pulse racing rally game. Strapping you into the driver's seat of your car, from a cockpit view, the game can be as realistic as it comes, as you tear along narrow Norwegian lanes, drift through the Kenyan desert, and struggle to steer your car on the Aspen snow. It's a gruelling battle between man and machine, as you balance your acceleration and your grip, carefully turning into corners to maintain your traction, as you do everything you can to stop yourself from spinning out. Even a minor collision with an opponent can mean a quick tête à tête with a tree, and rubbish finishing position for you. It's a frustrating challenge, but one you'll want to conquer nonetheless - even if your car is a bit too happy to spin out. We didn't know Peugeot 207s were all that heavy at the back.
If you're not a sworn petrol head, much of what you've read so far may be making you feel a little overwhelmed. There's no need to worry, though, as Codemasters have thought of you, too. All you have to do is flick a switch (OK, OK, technically it's a menu option), and something magical will happen. You can tame the wild DiRT beast, and all of a sudden, what was once an incredibly challenging racer becomes a game almost anyone can do.
With a new mantra of accessibility, DiRT 3's been designed with players of all abilities in mind. Along with being able to take your opponents from racing like "yoofs" in a shopping centre car park on a Saturday night, to making them drive more like a cautious pensioner in the snow, there's a wide variety of driving assists to turn on, which do everything bar drive the car for you. From the standard, and not all that impressive ABS, all the way through to auto brakes (which automatically slow your car down for corners), stability control, auto steer (which stops you steering too hard and ending up spinning out), and a full racing line for you to follow, there's options galore you can enable to make your job that much easier. That being said, it is important to remember that these are assists, not overrides. You may still need to take your finger off the trigger to slow down, you may still need to brake, and you certainly need to steer - all auto steer does is make it more difficult for you to spin your car out. It's an important distinction to make, as it means you never feel like the game's doing the hard work for you - it's still you driving, you deciding where it goes, and when it goes - it just makes things a lot easier for you.
Unfortunately for them, though, it doesn't seem that the AI drivers have access to the same assists. Round a corner, and you'll often see computer controlled players hilariously getting into a pile-up, driving up a wall (literally), or slowly rolling to a stop. It's fender bending racing at its finest -although it does give you something extra to try and dodge. Even if things go horribly wrong, though, there's plenty of help to get you back on track, thanks to the game's now often-copied Flashback.
Should you find yourself accidentally wrapping yourself around a tree, spinning your car, or otherwise getting involved in an accident, all you have to do is press the Back button, and you'll be shown a replay of the last few seconds of action. All you have to do is find where you want to restart from, press a button, and jump back into the action - only this time, hopefully you'll avoid the disaster. Sadly, it doesn't always work as well as we'd hope, as by the time we've realised we won't manage to steer out of the skid, we've been in the skid for so long, even rewinding to the beginning of the flashback won't take you back far enough - doubling the length of it, at least on the easier difficulties, would have been much appreciated.
The majority of the single player game in DiRT 3 comes from the DiRT Tour, where, after listening to a lengthy and mostly pointless bit of unskippable chatter, you'll begin your "career" as a driver. There's nothing too technical here, as the Tour's simply arranged into four years, which are then divided into tournaments, which are broken down into individual races. There's a huge amount of variety in the things you'll be doing here - from Rallycross, which sees you racing alongside up to seven other competitors, and offers the aforementioned fender bending fun, to a staggered Rally race, which sees you mostly racing against the clock, and the odd DC challenge, which sees you having to clock up a certain amount of points by drifting. To be honest, the game could really have done without these, as not only does the game seem to have a different definition of drifting to us, but they're awkward (the longer the drift you perform, the more points you'll earn, but should you bump into the scenery mid drift, you'll earn nothing), dull, and really not all that much fun. Luckily, you only have to achieve a bronze medal on these in order to unlock the next set of races, as getting anything above that is incredibly difficult, but the game would still have been better without them.
Also making its appearance in the DiRT tour is the now infamous YouTube sensation, Gymkhana, which... can seem a bit intimidating at first. If the word Gymkhana makes you think about horses, you're on the wrong track - this is all about putting your car through its paces as stylishly as possible. For a better idea of what we're on about, take a look at the video below, which we took when we were invited down to London to watch Mr. Ken Block race around Battersea Powerstation - just like you'll be doing in the game.
The Gymkhana mode begins with a series of tutorials that do a fair job of explaining how to do the various manoeuvres - so long as you know which button activates the handbrake. You'll be asked to smash through boxes, perform doughnuts around poles, spins within a certain area, drifts through drift gates, and even jumps (although they're probably more accurately described as "bumps"), with the game taking you through exactly what you have to do, before letting you have a go at it yourself. Again, thankfully you only need a bronze to proceed, as getting anything higher is tricky to say the least. And that's before you have to put it all together at the end.
The tutorials are building you up for when you get let loose on the Gymkhana mode itself. A point scoring competition, it's up to you to rack up as many points as you can, to claim one of the three top spaces. Luckily, by adjusting the difficulty level of your competitors, you can bring the required points down quite a way, so that it's still a challenge, but not one that's completely insurmountable. With a course laid out with jumps to be jumped, boxes to smash, and plenty of things to drift around, you'll get a points multiplier if you can avoid crashing, and add plenty of variety to your performance. It can take a bit of getting used to, but we can see this being incredibly popular online, as people go for "perfect" runs. And, more importantly, it's certainly do-able, and not the terrifying obstacle we thought it might be.
Of course, as accessible as DiRT 3's tried to become, there is the odd time it scores somewhat of an own goal. The menus for the DiRT Tour - and in fact, the majority of the game, can occasionally be a bit confusing - but at least they're better than the god awful ones found in Codemaster's last racing game, F1 2010. A case in point is when you're choosing which assists to turn on - with the names of the assists being a bit ambiguous sometimes, it'd be nice to have a further description of what each one does - and it turns out that if you press A, the game will play you a nice little sound clip explaining what they all do. The only problem is, there's nothing to tell you you can do that. When it comes to choosing which car you want to race in, the options are similarly bad, as there's nothing to tell you how well each car handles/how fast it is in an easy to understand bar form, and there's no way to change your car's paintjob, either, other than choosing a different "team", which often just puts you in a different car. Boo-urns.
In terms of multiplayer, you can read a lot more about the modes on offer in our recent hands-on preview of the game, as little's changed since. One thing we can confirm, though, is that the split-screen multiplayer is far from what Codemasters described as wanting to "do it right". Limited to two players, and only allowing for offline play, you can't play online with a friend against other people, you can't have weather effects, and you can't have a cockpit view. It's disappointing, to say the least - so thank God the rest of the game makes up for it.Going from heart-pounding, finger twitching rally game, to accessible madcap racer with the switch of a few menu options, DiRT 3 is an incredibly impressive package. It's a game that everyone, from racing game novice to veteran motorsport fanatic will be able to mould into a game they'll be able to enjoy - and that's something that has to be applauded. Whether you're playing on the easiest, or the trickiest difficulty, the quality that courses through DiRT 3's engine never fails to impress. It's exciting, it's exhilarating, and in the in-car view, at times, it's downright terrifying - but more than anything, it's an achievement, and a game you should really be buying.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 3