While Dirt 3’s rally credentials have certainly been upgraded, it’s not all about the rallying, and Codemasters has chosen something special to spice up Dirt 3. It’s roped in YouTube viewer magnet Ken Block, and introduced his choreographed gymkhana stunt displays as a new part of Dirt 3. The player is given a gymkhana nirvana of skidpans, cones, jumps and objects to drive donuts around, then tasked with racking up a monster score.
Of course, donuts and reverse handbrake turns aren’t the easiest stunts to perform in a game with a realistic physics engine, so there was a fair degree of artificial assistance in the build we played. Starting a skid near an object such as a lamp post saw a green circle appear around it, with the game softly ‘locking’ the car into the circle until you steered away. It was a fun change to the rally genre, bringing a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater feel to the world of rally and helping you move fluidly from skid to skid.
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In a neat touch, Codemasters has also added video-editing and a YouTube upload option to Dirt 3’s replay modes, enabling you to easily show off your ninja gymkhana or perfect rally stages.
Another side of Dirt 3 that’s received a significant boost is the multiplayer, into which Codemasters has invested plenty of time, creating new modes beyond just racing to keep players interested. Sadly, it still uses the loathsome Games For Windows Live matchmaking system on PC, but the new eight-player party modes look like they could be well worth it.
Capture the flag is an FPS staple, but in Dirt 3 it involves either two teams or a free-for-all of drivers chasing down randomly spawned flags and then trying to return them to randomly placed capture zones. You’re able to rob the flag from an opponent by smashing your car into them, with the match played out in a large arena strewn with jumps and obstacles. The result is unashamedly fun; the flag spawns and competitors race to grab it as a tense destruction derby develops. We saw more than a few players hanging back to ambush the flag carrier too – sneaky.
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The new infection game mode, meanwhile, will be familiar to anyone that’s ever played a Half-Life 2 zombie mod. Again, it’s played out in arenas filled with obstacles, and starts with all eight players in healthy cars. Ten seconds in, one player is randomly infected and tasked with infecting the other seven racers. Smash into an opponent, and they’re contagious too, until the last man standing (or whoever can survive for two minutes) wins. Again, it’s a lot of fun in the short bursts we tried, and adds some much needed variety to the racing genre.
There certainly seems to be no laurel resting at Codemasters, with the introduction of gymkhana likely to pull in a whole host of new fans, and the rebalancing of the game more towards rallying sure to please purists. Dirt 3 still isn’t a hardcore rally sim - it's just as approachable as its predecessor - but make no mistake that the difficulty is still there to challenge even the most weathered rally veterans should they wish.
As arguably the industry's dominant studio when it comes to racing games, Codemasters has a lot to live up to with Dirt 3, but from what we’ve seen, the 2011 model looks to be the best yet.
Dirt 3 will be published by Codemasters on 25 May 2011 and will be available for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3.