Dirt 3 wastes no time in making the point that rallying is back. While it was present in Dirt 2, the extreme sports aesthetic and overall feel made it seem slightly out of place--but in Dirt 3, point-to-point races in classic rally cars are front and center.
The first thing you notice when starting the game is that the paddock and RV from the previous game are gone, along with all the product placement and extreme sports lifestyle gubbins. Your pre-race car selection is now set up as a team selection but can be done on an ad hoc basis, with the vehicles determined by your reputation rather than by your ability to afford them. Once you've picked your team and car, you find yourself in the "service area" near the start of the race, where you can tweak individual car settings, as well as the difficulty level of your opponents, the number of available flashbacks, and the driving assists.
To begin with, you're presented with two classic rally stages in Finland, which do a good job of setting the scene for the game. Despite the trimming of the fat that got between you and races in Dirt 2, it will feel instantly familiar for fans of the series. The two stages you hit first are challenging but not punishing: relatively open bends and small jumps that help to ease you into the driver's seat. The choices of a Peugeot 207 and Abarth Grande Punto are hardly the most thrilling, but they're good little rally cars that are fun to throw around the track.
Your co-driver is as useful as ever, giving you information on upcoming track conditions and direction changes. One neat change is that each team gives you an additional challenge for each race you enter, with varying numbers of extra reputation points for completing them. These could be as simple as finishing a race with a clear second lead, beating a certain lap time, or even crossing the finish line over a certain speed.
After the rally stages in Finland, we were thrown halfway around the world to the Michigan Smelter. This grey, industrial wasteland is the venue for the very opposite ends of Dirt's competitive spectrum--the Rally Cross event. After being tossed into either an Impreza or Lancer, you blitz around a track with other racers, which is a nice change from the straight-up rally action for those looking for a more varied experience.
After that, we got thrown right back into the rallying again, with a couple of spectacular stages in Kenya in some decidedly more old-school ralliers: an Opel Kadett GT and Fiat 131. The sandy, gravelly track was a nice change from the mud of Finland, and the contrast between the lush forest and the sun-bleached desert couldn't have been more extreme. After that, it was time to check out one of Dirt 3's new events, the Head2Head. This was in Michigan and was a hybrid of track and point-to-point racing. It was a multistage track that you race over at the same time as a single competitor, but the track design ensures you never meet. Your co-driver is in the car with you giving directions and lending a more traditional feel to the event than the rallycross races, and it proved to be a fun intermediate point between rallying and rallycross.
Later in the first season, we got a chance to see some the game's party tricks with the addition of some fairly extreme weather. Snow features quite heavily, both on the ground and flying through the air as you race in many of the events. Old favourite events such as Land Rush also made an appearance, along with the newer drift events, making Dirt 3 a satisfying mix of the old and the new.
The climax to the first year was one of Dirt 3's flagship new features: gymkhana. Though it started with some simple smashing, this quickly escalated into full-on jumping, donutting mayhem. While difficult at first, it became satisfying and fun as we learned to do all manner of deeply unnatural things with the vehicles. Thankfully, it never felt like the game's general sim ethos was being lost, at least during our brief look.
Dirt 3 looks to be packed full of features both on the disc and to come--the ability to upload your replays directly to YouTube via the flashback menus could be a winner, and the plethora of online features have us really excited to see how it all comes together. The changes to the game look to be generally positive--the replacement of the RV with a sleeker, geometric menu system looks to be a great improvement, and the refocusing of the game on the racing was a welcome return to the series' roots.
Stay tuned to GameSpot as the game's release approaches later this month; we'll have a review up as soon as we can.