Codemasters undoubtedly has one of the best racing game development studios in the industry. With DiRT 3, and the help of the ever-improving EGO engine, the team has delivered what is unquestionably the most fun, stylish and gorgeous rally racer I've ever played. Numerous racing disciplines, an exhilarating sense of speed, the brand-new Gymkhana mode and a handling model that's hard to master make DiRT 3 a game fans of a good powerslide will find hard to resist.
Racing games might be struggling in the marketplace at the moment, but DiRT 3 drips with trendiness and manages to feel like rally racing while also being clearly influenced by the arcade racers of yesteryear. The relentless breakneck speed of DiRT 3 requires ninja-like reflexes and the concentration of an air traffic controller; your ears, eyes and fingers working in tandem to process co-driver instructions or glimpses of a road map and then react on the dirt, snow and tarmac as your car struggles for grip.
As you attempt to take every corner perfectly, shaving seconds off your best time or edging closer to a rival who started the stage a few fractions of a second ahead, you're only ever a twitch of the analogue stick from smashing head-first into a tree or rolling as your car catches a bank at the side of the road. Thankfully the rewind feature that Codemasters introduced in the first DiRT returns here, so you can travel back in time as if that horrific collision with a wall never happened - it also looks mighty cool.
Your DiRT 3 career will span four seasons (thankfully presented in a more streamlined fashion than the pseudo "being a rally driver" caravan seen in DiRT 2), each packed with race events that are unlocked as you earn reputation points and increase your overall driver level. Reputation points are awarded for your position in events, achieving specific bonus objectives (such as a certain top speed) and for any unused rewinds. Do well (and the various difficulty levels mean you should be able to progress even if you're not a racing expert) and you'll cruise through the opening season and then embark on tougher events and longer races.
Most of the excellent event types from DiRT 2 return, mixing classic rallying with racing: point-to-point Traditional Rally courses have you competing for the fastest times against opposition over numerous stages; Rallycross pits you against other drivers on the same circuit over a series of laps; Trailblazer puts you in a super-fast car that hugs the road as you attempt to guide it around a point to point course; and Head 2 Head has you competing against a single opponent on a course that's been designed so the cars cross paths at certain points.
The above events are all superb, offering some brilliant courses and thrilling high-speed racing. Less brilliant is the Land Rush event type, which switches vehicles to more robust buggies and trucks, and makes you race on bumpier courses. While these events add variety to DiRT 3, I'm not a fan; for me they seem at odds with the rest of the game, feeling more like what you'd find in a game from the MX vs. ATV series. If Codies hadn't included Land Rush, I wouldn't have even noticed it was missing.
Much, much better than Land Rush is Gymkhana, DiRT 3's brand-new event type that swaps the twisty-turny courses and stages for car-control performances involving doughnuts, slides, jumps and more. Some Gymkhana events focus on certain trick types or speeding through gates, while others test all your skills in freestyle tests. Initially these events are incredibly tough, with the cars on offer seeming too nippy for the nuanced control required. You'll overshoot almost every trick point, fail to doughnut around obstacles, and drift wildly into walls, all the time tearing your hair out and swearing what the game is asking you to do is impossible.
Then something clicks. You'll no longer be too heavy on the accelerator, the use of the handbrake will come naturally and your car will slide with the grace of Torvill and Dean. You'll begin to chain tricks together, earning more points in the process, and at times the thought will cross your mind that you are in fact a driving god. Of course, things will come crashing down very quickly, but for the moments of brilliance Gymkhana is almost worth the price of admission alone. Winning events and setting new personal best times is great, but it's the Gymkhana mode and the included playgrounds that will likely gain the most hardcore and competitive following.
Playing through the four-season career will take considerably longer than your average video game, time trials and single-events can be tackled if that's your thing (complete with ghosts and leaderboards as expected), and there's also a neat YouTube upload feature that lets you share your finer moments with the world. Online and split-screen multiplayer is on offer too, with a redeemable VIP code included in all new copies of the game needed to access online features.
On top of the expected multiplayer versions of all the standard event types in solo and team varieties (Rallycross works best for standard racing, but Gymkhana is great for some multiplayer showing off), various party event types are included that offer something a bit different. These cover knocking down robots to score points, a car version of playground game "It" and a neat take on capture the flag. Playable by up to eight players individually, or in teams, these modes are unlikely to capture the attention of hardcore racers, but they are surprisingly good fun if you want a break from proper competition.
Codemasters' brilliant use of lighting has been combined with some top notch environment and vehicle modelling to create one of the most visually resplendent racers on the market. At the same time the dev team has managed to make a game look close to photo realistic and extremely stylish, all running at a smooth frame rate. If you look for it you'll find the odd duff texture, but for sheer spectacle and wow factor, DiRT 3 is the most gorgeous racer I've played. Backing up the visuals is a supremely cool soundtrack that echoes the effortlessly trendy feel the game manages to convey.
DiRT 3 is hard to pick fault with. It's got the looks, the style, the superb sense of speed, and spot-on handling model that blurs the line between sim and arcade. It also introduces Gymkhana and with it excellent potential for players becoming addicted to going for new high scores. What it doesn't do is innovate in the racing game genre, generally making refinements where needed rather than redefining what's expected in a modern racer. It's at the top of the tree as far as rally racers go.