I cut my teeth with Dirt on a particularly nasty hairpin run in the series’ second installment. Having previously gotten a small taste for rally years ago with Gran Turismo 3—a game I was otherwise terrible at—I’ve been interested in that kind of racing since, but the prospect of reviewing a realistic racer (even an offroad one like Dirt 2, which just happened to fall into my lap) was an intimidating prospect.
I had my work cut out for me. My introduction to Dirt boot camp was a period of intense concentration spent learning the ins and outs of breaking, timing, speed control and vehicle tuning, among several other rally survival skills; the hairpin run alone took me three straight days, which consisted solely of clawing my way up from blindly crashing through the course’s myriad turns to eventually shaving tenths of seconds off my record in a bid to place platinum. Several days and innumerable crashes later, I was finally ready to dig in to Dirt 2’s ample career mode.
Some might call a work ethic that would allow this sort of marathon play borderline insane, and there’s no question that Dirt’s learning curve can be incredibly steep, especially for newcomers to rally. But there was a valuable lesson to be learned from such rigorous training: the only thing more important than precision in Dirt is the ability to clear your mind. Now, a full two years later, I can safely say that this hasn’t changed a bit in Dirt 3. If you’ve played any iteration of the series you’ll be familiar with this one right off the bat; the core driving mechanics haven’t noticeably changed, right down to the flashback rewind system.
I won’t say that the endless repetition of that particular run eventually led me on a spiritual journey, but the undeniable calm that resulted out of my first experiences with Dirt 2 helped me pick up right where I left off with Codemasters’ latest installment. Like the creative pursuit of writing or music, after going through the many stopgap variations of letting off the gas, breaking and sliding through a turn countless times, your innate abilities as a rally driver develop. Though it had been a long time since I set foot in the rally corral, it only took an hour with Dirt 3 for me to once again being feeling the contours of the track and reacting accordingly. Reaching this point is achieving Dirt’s zen state: it’s likely that running over a track once will instantly, innately tell you with reasonable accuracy what tweaks you need to make to your car’s differential or brake bias, and feel free to turn off the racing line now, since you probably won’t need it. Hell, you can even toggle technical directions on for your co-pilot, so they’ll say “left 4” instead of “medium left,” to use one example.
Though the pursuit of zen has always been a driving force in Dirt, Codemasters has made it a point to strip the series’ elements to their core in its latest outing. No longer do you have to contend with ordinary details of career-related immersion: there is no trailer, Travis Pastrana isn’t telling you where you should go next, there’s no concerts blaring in the background or screaming fans waiting outside. You don’t even need to buy your cars—new teams court you as you move up the pro ladder, delivering vehicles and assorted liveries that come from levels and experience gained through skilled driving and passing per-race challenges (e.g., win a race with a lead of one second or more). Apart from the disembodied voices of your small and at-times overzealous crew, you exist, for all intents and purposes, in a near-infinite white expanse whose only boundaries are the distant shadows of the various landscapes you’ll spend so much time driving on.
Building from a presentational triangle motif (appropriate for a third installment) Dirt 3’s minimalist desert is endemic of the game’s back-to-basics nature. In spite of the fairly sizeable collection of tracks (admittedly many are just reversals or weather and time-of-day variants) the number of event types has been slashed, and elements that the developers must have thought superfluous to the rally experience like, say, winning fuzzy dice for your rear-view or using a social respect system to befriend other real-life drivers have been cut as well. Codemasters’ ideology of contemporary rally racing, it seems, will be tempered by nothing.
Another core embodiment of the zen ideal is gymkhana—a new addition to the Dirt series that more or less adapts the essence of a car’s various maneuvers on an offroad track into a freestyle event where drivers string together tricks combos for points. Rally star Ken Block, a world leader in gymkhana, guides you through a crash course, which involves everything from drifting through obstacle courses and donuts (sliding around a stationary object while keeping your car’s nose as close to the center as possible without touching it) to hitting jumps and spinning (a continuous 360 done by pulling the e-brake, keeping your car turned hard and punching the gas). Gymkhana is, in some ways, the ultimate rally test, requiring both the skills to pull off a series of moves efficiently as well as the versatility to do so quickly in a freeform environment.
Just as it went with my hairpin run training, gymkhana may take a considerable investment of time before you understand how it operates. A typical trick string—say, hitting a jump going full speed, sliding from 90 degree drift through an archway to a 180 before an immediate stop into a spin, followed by a controlled slide knocking down some foam barriers to a finish of a couple of effortless donuts (all in less than 30 seconds)—might take hours to nail at first. To further complicate things, the more tricks you pull off without a crash, the higher your combo multiplier goes, so precision and speed are key;
much like the rest of Dirt 3, the learning process can be pretty unforgiving. And I just outlined one set of tricks—you’ll need to pull off a continuous stream of them to score the highest points in competitions that usually last a couple minutes. The feel of zen mastering gymkhana, however, may be more rewarding than even a traditional race.
Though the driving is as solid as ever and addition of gymkhana is a boon to the series, Dirt 3 does take a couple of missteps. Compared to the diverse locales in the second game, this one may feel a bit stagnant. Though there are a variety of places to go (Aspen, Finland, Norway, Kenya, Los Angeles and Michigan, among others), many of them look and feel very similar depending on the type of race. The snowy regions of Norway and Aspen may as well be different parts of the same location (though Aspen does take place in arenas), while forested areas like Finland could be just right down the road. Arena play in Los Angeles and Battersea also feels same-y, with the focus (unsurprisingly) on Gymkhana, whereas the muddy courses in Michigan don’t seem to have much character at all.
The addition of weather conditions and evening races is great, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the more exotic feel of courses in China, South America and Japan, to name a few distant places from the last Dirt. The X-Games have also been somewhat retooled—rather than competing in events by location, they’re just separated into Winter and Summer games. I understand that Dirt 2’s visual and stylistic approaches are a little messier than Dirt 3’s cleaner approach, but outright ignoring large portions of the racing map feels a little disingenuous. I don’t think some locale overlap is a bad thing, though there are at least a couple of extra locations available as DLC, and you can Gymkhana freestyle to your heart’s content at Battersea after unlocking it.
Still, courses that are available (once again spread out across several rally disciplines) offer varying degrees of challenge, and mastering these tracks is very rewarding; the selection of rally cars, trucks and buggies available, spanning from the 1960s to present day, also doesn’t hurt things, and I personally will never tire of the guttural sound of your vehicle careening through a track—naturally I imagine it’s the same way for real-life rally racing, though I’ll probably never know for sure. Regardless, the series started by the late driving legend Colin McRae is about as close as most of us will ever get. The thrill of rally, at least in Dirt 3’s virtual space, is again present in full form.
Steve Haske is a Portland, OR-based gun-for-hire journalist whose work can be found in Gamepro, EGM, Eurogamer and The Escapist, among other places you’ve probably heard of. When not actively writing he also regularly co-hosts the A Jumps B Shoots podcast and can be tweeted @afraidtomerge.