When Dirt 2 was released in 2009 it boasted a lengthy and varied career mode, numerous multiplayer options, and uniformly excellent presentation. Its sequel loses none of those things and also makes some great additions to the formula. Split-screen multiplayer is now an option, there are more vehicle classes to choose from, gymkhana events and snowy conditions pose fresh challenges, and new multiplayer modes put interesting automotive spins on some first-person shooter favorites. Dirt 3 brings a lot of superb content to the table, and because it offers a plethora of customizable difficulty settings and assists, newcomers and veterans alike can enjoy its excellent off-road action.
Regardless of which difficulty level you play at and whether or not you take advantage of stability and braking assists, Dirt 3 handles like a dream. There are dozens of great-looking modern and vintage vehicles in the garage, and you race them on all manner of surfaces and in changing weather conditions, but getting behind the wheel of one that you haven't driven before is never a problem. The controls are responsive, and while it's certainly possible to mess up so spectacularly that your ride loses panels and becomes deformed to the point that it's unrecognizable, there are gameplay mechanics in place that ensure you don't feel the need to hold anything back. Even as you hurtle along narrow dirt trails and around icy hairpins, Dirt 3's cars, trucks, and buggies encourage you to push them harder by using excellent audio and rumble feedback to let you know that you're not quite on the edge yet.
Demanding new gymkhana events in which you're challenged to perform tricks in specially designed arenas reinforce how excellent Dirt 3's controls are. In these exciting sessions you score points for crashing through carefully positioned destructible blocks, and for performing donuts, spins, slides, and jumps. String different tricks together to get the crowd pumped, and you build up a score multiplier; display anything other than masterful control by colliding with something, and your multiplier goes down. It's not entirely dissimilar to performing combos in a skateboarding game, except that the tricks are significantly less complex. Stringing successful tricks together against the clock is still plenty challenging, though, and as a result, gymkhanas are great practice for other events. Once you can make a car dance around a cone and slide at speed through a gate or underneath a truck, getting it around a corner in a race doesn't seem like such a big deal.
Every event in Dirt 3, whether it be a point-to-point rally through a Kenyan desert, a head-to-head race in the Aspen snow, or a circuit-based rallycross event that weaves in and out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, demands precise driving. You can get away with a few collisions here and there, particularly if you take advantage of the five flashbacks at your disposal to correct your mistakes, and it's entirely possible that you might find finishing in first place too easy if you're an experienced player. Turn off some of the assists, crank up the difficulty, and switch from cosmetic damage to realistic damage, though, and you'll find that Dirt 3 is exactly as challenging as you want it to be. At the other end of the scale, if you're new to off-road racing and looking for a way into the genre, Dirt 3 has you covered. In addition to the aforementioned assists and other options, it's the first game in the series to offer a dynamic racing line like those seen in both the Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo series.
That racing line can be invaluable as you learn your way around Dirt 3's 100-plus circuits and stages; position yourself poorly as you take a turn or jump over a crest, and you might make a subsequent corner unnecessarily difficult. Also invaluable in the events where she's available is real-life co-driver Jen Horsey, who always delivers the information you need in a clear, concise, and timely fashion. (A male alternative is also available, as is an option to have either co-driver use more complex and detailed language.) If you listen to her carefully, rally stages that wind through the forests of Finland or around the lakes of Michigan don't seem nearly as daunting. You still won't have much time to admire the impressive scenery or to contemplate the foolhardy fans that occasionally run across the track ahead of you, but you're far less likely to wrap your car around a tree or crash through a barrier and into the crowd.
Many of the events in Dirt 3's lengthy Dirt Tour career mode span multiple back-to-back races at the same location, but the game does an excellent job of keeping the action from feeling stale. After finishing the first of three rallycross events in dry conditions, for example, you might race the next during a grip-changing downpour and then the final in wet conditions after the rain clouds have passed and your visibility is improved. And in point-to-point rallies, racing the same stages in different directions can make for a very different experience, especially if you're under a desert sun one stage and having to use your headlights to cut through the black of night the next. Also lending variety to your career is that you invariably have several different events to choose from. The dozens of events that compose the Dirt Tour are organized into four seasons that must be completed in order, but your progress through each season is anything but linear, and you always have the option to return to events that you want to replay in an attempt to improve upon your position or best score/time.
Your progress as a driver is measured in reputation points, which are earned after every event. You score points for podium finishes, for not using your flashbacks, and for completing any team-specific goals. Teams aren't a big deal in Dirt 3; where in some games you're expected to commit to them for entire seasons, here you can drive for a different one every time you get behind the wheel, if you wish. Early in your career only a couple of teams have any interest in you, but as you earn reputation points and level up, more teams (and by extension, more cars) become available to you. Your choice of team before any event is likely to be motivated by its car first and foremost, but the number of reputation points that the team is offering for completing its bonus objectives is also a consideration. Sadly, you don't get to see what the actual objective is when choosing, so your decisions aren't nearly as well informed as they could be. Regardless, none of the challenges are so difficult that you're filled with regret for choosing a particular team; most involve simply reaching a certain speed, finishing with no damage, or making it through an entire event without ever spinning or rolling your vehicle.
On top of the events that form the four seasons, Dirt Tour mode boasts a number of unlockable extras that add to its longevity considerably. For starters, there are world tours specific to each discipline; choose to race and subsequently do well in point-to-point rallies, and you unlock a rally world tour with dozens of those events. Furthermore, you can unlock a playground of sorts in the form of London's Battersea power station and its surrounding area. Here, not only are you free to practice gymkhana techniques, but you can also complete a number of varied challenges to earn extra reputation. These challenges include everything from completing jumps and performing tricks in specific spots, to crashing through fences that divide the different unlockable areas and locating hidden Dirt 3 logos. Visiting Battersea makes for a welcome change of pace, and it's also a great way to prepare for some of Dirt 3's more unusual multiplayer offerings.
In addition to online versions of all of the conventional races, rallies, and gymkhana events, Dirt 3 features some unique vehicular versions of modes that you might already be familiar with. Transporter, for example, is a capture-the-flag game, while Outbreak is an Infection-style game of tag in which your car turns bright green when you're hit by an infected player. Another highlight of Dirt 3's sizable multiplayer suite is Invasion, a game in which you score points for crashing through cutouts of alien robots but lose points for causing collateral damage when you crash through cutouts of buildings. This mode, perhaps more than any other, puts the skills that you pick up in gymkhana events to great use, because you have to be both fast and precise to beat other players to your targets. Some of these multiplayer modes can get a little too chaotic at times (when everyone descends on the flag at the same time in a relatively confined space, for example), but it's still a lot of fun and hugely satisfying to win or even score a single point in a closely contested session.
Split-screen multiplayer for two is also supported, and like the online play, it's practically indistinguishable from playing solo where the game's performance is concerned. The only noteworthy difference is that you don't get the option to drive using the cockpit camera. With the exception of gymkhana events and joyrides around Battersea, split-screen races with a friend in any of the available disciplines (rally, rallycross trailblazer, head 2 head, landrush) can support up to six AI drivers competing alongside you. Advanced options, which are also available when you host unranked Jam Session games online, include allowing custom vehicle setups, forcing manual gears, and choosing between visual and full damage. Basically, whether multiplayer or solo, you can play Dirt 3 however you like; it can feel like a forgiving arcade game, a challenging simulation, or just about anything in between.
Regardless of how you play Dirt 3, there's no denying that, like its predecessor, it looks and sounds fantastic. Despite the fact that you rarely get to stop and admire the environments, the level of detail in them is great, and the cars--while not quite up to the standards set by the best that Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 have to offer--are even better. Seeing these brightly colored vehicles get caked in mud and snow and take believable damage from impacts is a treat, and the incredible noises that their engines make never leave you in any doubt about the amount of power you have at your disposal. Audio is impressive across the board: you get plenty of feedback from whichever road surface you're driving on to let you know how well your tires are gripping, and the licensed soundtrack with tunes from the likes of Chromeo, Drive A, Hudson Mohawke, RJD2, and We Are Scientists is appropriately eclectic and energetic.
Dirt 3 improves and builds upon its superb predecessor at just about every opportunity. The new multiplayer modes and gymkhana events are great additions, and if you're interested primarily in traditional racing disciplines, it has more than twice as many routes to race in more varied weather conditions and in an even greater selection of vehicles. The option to upload replays to YouTube isn't as exciting as it could be, given that you're limited to 30 seconds and there's no other way to save them, but this is a small blemish in an otherwise superb game. Whether you're a veteran of the Dirt series and the long-running Colin McRae Rally series that preceded it, or someone looking for a way into off-road racing, Dirt 3 is the game you should be playing.