Dirt 3 Hands-On

We raced up to Codemasters' Racing Studio to get a first glimpse at what the developer is calling "the end" of its Dirt trilogy.

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Judged by our review scores, Codemasters' Dirt series is on a nice upward trajectory--an 8.3 score for the first game rose to a 9.0 Editors' Choice for last year's Dirt 2. The series may have lost some hardcore rally fans, thanks to the second game's obsession with the X-Games and Monster energy drinks, but in Dirt 3, Codemasters is looking to satisfy both parties. With the acquisition of the official World Rally Championship licence, rally is being brought back to the forefront, while fans of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana should be happy to find gymkhana introduced as a new discipline. We went to Codemasters' studio in the UK to find out all about the game, as well as play it for ourselves.

The team is "nine months out" now according to Clive Moody, Codemasters Racing Studio's executive producer, putting the game on course for an approximate May 2011 release date. "It's the biggest game the Racing Studio has ever embarked on," adds Matt Horsman, the studio's design manager. Horsman is referring to the fact that the game will incorporate both the original Dirt's rallying action and Dirt 2's more extreme sports bent. The result is that Codemasters is hoping to attract any and all fans of rally sport, which is reflected in the game's tagline of "Race like a pro…come play in the dirt."

Gymkhana is a brand new discipline that will appeal to fans of the more extreme side of the sport, with Codemasters aiming to bring the excitement of Ken Block's stunt videos to the new game. It's worth heading to YouTube and checking out some gymkhana videos if you haven't already. It's popular around the world, but it was really taken to the next level by Ken Block's multimillion-viewed shorts. Real-world locations, including the LA Coliseum, have made it into the game, and you'll have to career around them in as daring a manner as possible to score points. The more extreme and varied you are in your spins, jumps, and smashes, the more points you'll get as a result.

Also new to Dirt 3 is split-screen multiplayer, which Horsman and Moody acknowledge has been added to compete with the many other recent racing games that have boasted this feature. Eight-player multiplayer will also be returning, but the online features have been expanded more into the social space. For example, 30-second instant replays can be uploaded to YouTube, allowing you to showcase your virtual gymkhana runs to the world. There will also be Facebook and iPhone/iPod apps, allowing you to create clans and tournaments even while you're away from the game.

On the track front, the big new feature is diverse weather conditions that include snow, with new locations to show off the white stuff, including Norway and Aspen. There will also be other conditions, including rain, and improvements to the Ego engine mean that nighttime races are now possible. The development team has devoured racing data from Dirt 2 and found that head-to-head and land rush were the most popular disciplines from that game and will be expanded in Dirt 3 as a result. There's an abundance of new routes--100 over Dirt 2's 41, with rally tracks that are not on the official WRC roster, including Kenya. Battersea Power Station will also make a return, but it will be completely remodeled courtesy of trainer manufacturer DC Shoes--it will now be a compound with corkscrews and jumps that can be used by drivers to film epic stunt videos.

There are plenty of new cars to get excited about, too, with a mix of modern, classic, off-road, and "street cool" vehicles on offer. Ken Block's new 2011 Ford Fiesta will be a big draw for many, but other cars that were shown on our visit included the Lancia Stratos, Mini Cooper S, Suzuki Sx4 Hill Climb Special, and Audi Quattro. There was also some talk of getting the Mini Countryman into the game, although the team is currently in discussion with the manufacturer to make it happen. We learned of another interesting point from research that Codemasters has done: Despite its painstaking efforts to model each car interior accurately, only 5 percent of racers in Dirt 2 used the in-car view. Thankfully, though, Dirt 3's vehicle models look stunning, with new snow and rain buildup and external light spots for the nighttime events.

One aspect of Dirt games that many fans will be familiar with is the presentation, and once again, Racing studio wants to stay on top of the competition in this area. The new front end is early in development, but it looks stunning, with gymkhana-esque stunt cars hurtling round construction vehicles in slow motion. It's simplistic and stylish--the antithesis to Dirt 2's front end, which in hindsight Codemasters believes stalled people from getting into a race. While the front end may lean more toward Dirt 1 as a result, the soundtrack will feature 40 to 50 songs in a similar vein to Dirt 2, so expect a mix of modern rock and dance.

Dirt 3 is coming along nicely, which is good news as some of its staff members were recently seconded by the Formula One team to help finish its development. Dirt 3 is coming out on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in 2011, although nothing has been confirmed for the Wii or DS at this stage. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more info as we get it.

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