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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dirt 3 Game Review: Just the Sort of Ambassador Rallying Needs in the U.S.

The Dirt video-game series is Gran Turismo for the tarmac-averse, with rallies, hill climbs, X Games–style head-to-head racing, and stadium-truck events. The just-released Dirt 3 builds upon the series basics, adding nighttime racing and Ken Block–inspired gymkhana challenges that do not, in fact, take place on dirt.

Twin-Turbocharged Physics Engine

Like Gran Turismo, Dirt 3 employs a hyper-realistic physics engine for intense gameplay—nailing a decent time on a rally stage or beating the competition in a full-field truck race takes some concentration. The cars respond well to finessed inputs, but ham-fisting your car down a winding, narrow rally stage will put you into the trees faster than you can say “Scandinavian flick.” Just like in real life, slides induced by the flick take quick hands to control.  We found trail-braking or a quick handbrake application to be the much more manageable way to nudge our tail out in a tight turn, and a brief mid-corner lift of the throttle or jerk of the handbrake was usually more than enough to re-vector the car in gentle sweepers.

The same physics engine that punishes less-than-perfect driving also lends crashes an addictively cinematic flair. Cars roll and tumble, flinging debris and bodywork. Players choose whether damage is merely cosmetic or if it affects the car mechanically. If you go the realistic route, race-ending crashes are accompanied by a pop-up window displaying impact speed and g-force (our best was over 100 g’s, or double the human injury threshold). Fortunately, Dirt 3 carries over the “flashback” in-game rewind function, which players can use up to five times during a race to retry a difficult corner—or flip into the trees at just the right angle.

The Where and the What

Those trees spot the roadside in nine different locations, from exotic Finland, Monaco, and Kenya to the less-than-exotic Los Angeles Coliseum and Michigan (woo!). Each site has multiple track configurations and surfaces ranging from gravel and tarmac to dusty sand and—new to the Dirt series—snow. The added gymkhana mode puts players in vehicular playgrounds like those seen in Ken Block’s sensational internet videos, where they earn points for sliding around, under, and through various obstacles. And for a complete break, the game also offers a party-game mode that includes events like capture the flag and, um, zombie-infection tag.

There are more than 50 rally, hill climb, and off-road cars and trucks from which to choose—most of which are available in several different liveries—and Dirt 3 maker Codemasters has already released the first in what will be an ongoing series of downloadable packs of cars, liveries, and tracks. It’s enough diversity to be interesting without being overwhelming, and there’s a lot of cool stuff on the roster. The historic-rally garage includes venerable offerings like the original Audi Quattro, the Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500, the Lancia Delta HF Integrale, and the original Mini Cooper S. Ken Block’s Monster-sponsored Ford Fiesta and a Mini Countryman rally car are among the game’s contemporary rides. Players also can slip behind the digital wheel of several Pikes Peak hill-climb racers, including the Hyundai-powered Rhys Millen Racing PM580, and a generic stadium truck and off-road buggy. Unlike other racing games, Dirt 3 doesn’t make its players buy cars. After all, who wants to be broke in real life and in video games? More cars—and liveries for existing cars—are unlocked as a player progresses through the game, and you simply choose from all unlocked cars for each specific event. We really dig this approach, as it eliminates those hair-pulling decisions about which of two fantasies to buy.

We also really appreciate the simplified in-game menu. Those who played Dirt 2 likely will be thrilled that 3 does away with its predecessor’s obnoxious motorhome-based career interface, replacing it with a tremendously streamlined structure—although players still have several annoying disembodied voices explaining things along the way, and you can’t skip these pep talks. In addition to career mode and the quick-hit arcade mode, multiplayer allows for two-player split-screen play or for up to eight people to duke it out online.

Seriously, Couch Potatoes? Please Try Real Human Interaction

Prior to online matches, savvy competitors will be able to scout potential competitors thanks to a new feature that uses the gaming system’s internet connection to upload replays to YouTube. The replay functionality makes any pilot look like a champ, with sweeping “helicopter” camera shots teamed with in-car and stationary ground-level views, although the occasionally awkward camera angles mean some perfect drifts or epic crashes might be obscured by a tree or other scenery.

The YouTube bit strikes us as tremendously gimmicky—and we’re horrified to think how much utter crap will be posted to a site already rife with crap—but that’s one of few complaints we have about Dirt 3. While the realism makes the game challenging, we never felt it was so intense that it could turn off the casual gamer. Rallying doesn’t have much of a following here in the U.S., but Dirt 3 is a fantastic ambassador for the sport.

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