Dirt 3--the third game in Codemasters' popular rally racing series--is branching out. Instead of just being a game about the lifestyle of a racing star, Dirt 3 is going back to the series' roots by focusing more heavily on the rally racing gameplay of the first game. But it's also going to offer some alternative gameplay in the form of gymkhana-style stunt racing--the kind that has been popularized by racer Ken Block. These different elements will both appear in the game's revamped Career mode, which you'll begin as an established racer who travels freely across the world circuit with more much freedom to hop between different international venues (rather than being stuck in the same region, rerunning the same races until a season ends). When you're not competing on the circuit, you'll have access to your own custom lot behind South London's Battersea Power Station, where you'll be able to practice gymkhana-style stunts before taking on a variety of different challenges. We sat down with the game and tried out a few of the standard racing tracks, as well as puttered around the stunt course for a bit.
The two circuit tracks we tried were the Sweden course we've covered previously, along with a brand-new track based on the Kenyan Safari Rally course, which has sadly been abandoned by the World Rally Championship but remains as challenging as ever. In the case of both tracks, and all other tracks in the game, multiple play-throughs will be different because Dirt 3 will have alternate lighting for different times of day (including pitch-black night races for which you'll need a codriver calling the next turn), as well as different weather conditions. These include driving rain, which obscures visibility; it also makes asphalt roads nice and slippery, as well as dust roads muddy. As designer Paul Coleman explained, the real variety in running Dirt 3's courses will come from the combination of weather and road conditions, along with Dirt 3's tighter handling, which models a slightly lower center of gravity for its cars.
We experienced how the slightly modified physics make a real difference in the game as we played through the Sweden course and then, again, on the Kenya run. While Sweden was a relatively easy course with a wider-than-normal road, the Kenyan Safari Rally took place on an appropriately narrow road that alternated between cracked pavement and full-on dust bowls. While cracked pavement is already not ideal for high-speed racing, dust roads slow your vehicle noticeably, adding an additional challenge to the course's tight turns and occasionally hilly terrain. Even on our Sweden run-through, which was in clear weather, we occasionally found ourselves struggling around hairpin turns when we tried to get cute and play the game like a full-on arcade racer. Yes, you can absolutely drift around turns by jamming the hand brake and accelerating into the turn, but depending on the road and on your vehicle (we played our courses in a rally-ready Quattro), you can and will go flying up that quaint little Swedish atoll to slam your rear bumper into that tree.
The lower center of gravity for Dirt 3's vehicles lets you really throw the chassis's weight into a drift (or a gymkhana-style donut), but overdoing it will generally have you flying off track and looking like a jacka**. Fortunately, Dirt 3 will have ambient crowds that will show up to spectate certain races (depending on the weather and time of day--you won't see many crowds in the driving rain at night, for instance), so at least you'll have an audience for that shining moment when you go overboard with the oversteer and over the rail.
And, of course, the game will realistically model damage on your car, from layers of grime that pile up on the chassis after a hard day of rallying to all the dents, cracked windows, and hanging-by-a-thread bumpers that are the wounds of war to a rally racer. (In Career mode, having a damaged vehicle will actually impede your performance on the track, but in multiplayer, the damage will mainly just be for show.) More practically, Dirt 3 will have the flashback function of Dirt 2 and GRID, which gives you a limited ability to rewind your race if you completely screw things up. It'll also have an optional, per-race racing-assist function that will help you around turns, collisions, and other challenging hazards at the cost of limiting your absolute top speed.
After our whirlwind tour of Sweden and Kenya, we retired to the River Thames to explore the Battersea Power Station--our own personal gymkhana practice course. The station was already set up with numerous challenges baked into the layout, and the challenges activated seamlessly as soon as we approached. These included doing perfect donuts around a series of poles; knocking out piles of stacked boxes around corners; and jumping gaps, which we accomplished with a minimum of banged-up fenders and cracked mirrors. Each of these challenges requires a different approach to conquer, and they'll be color coded so that you can tell at a glance, for instance, that the next stunt will require you to drift around a turn to take out a pile of boxes in the advanced challenges. This is definitely a very different experience from the ebb and flow between the careful, calculated turns and the pedal-to-the-metal hard driving of rally racing. The final version of the game will have challenges narrated by Ken Block himself. (Don't worry, rally purists--while the gymkhana content will appear in the single-player experience, about 60 percent of Career mode will be devoted solely to rally racing.)
In addition to authentic rallying and stunt racing, Dirt 3 will offer several new multiplayer modes that encourage group play on the couch, supporting up to eight players online and two-player split-screen. These include party modes such as Cat and Mouse, a team-based mode in which two teams of four players each have three "cat" rally cars and one smaller "mouse" car (a 1960s-era Mini). In this mode, the mouse of either team must cross the finish line first to win, but the cats on either side can do whatever they want, whether that is protecting their mouse car from being run off the road or aggressively running down the other team's mouse first. In keeping with the continuing popularity of zombie outbreaks in video games, Dirt 3 will also have an Infection multiplayer mode where one player will start as the "infected" car (and carry a glowing-green aura) and must get close enough to infect as many other players as possible.
And, of course, the game will include head-to-head racing by way of its customary track playlist mode, though the game will also include a new Pro Tour mode for hardcore players, which locks each player's perspective into a first-person headcam mode (no third-person view to see upcoming turns or obstacles in advance) and all mechanical damage affects your car's performance permanently over the course of however many tracks are lined up. Dirt 3 will have a lot to offer both rally purists and more-casual racing fans when the game is released later this year for the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the PC.