Dirt 3 Updated Hands-On

We met up with gymkhana expert Ken Block and the Codemasters Racing Studio to see how Dirt 3 is shaping up.

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While Dirt 2 was another highly praised, commercially successful racing game for Codemasters, the studio received plenty of feedback from fans about how to improve it. Tackling criticism is never an easy task, but the team is up front about how it aims to appease fans. More rally driving, more cars, and more variety in stages are the main points they are aiming to address, as well as a greater level of visual and aural fidelity. We found out about the developer's aims during a recent visit to Cardiff, Wales, and spoke to legendary driver Ken Block about gymkhana's inclusion in Dirt 3--the first time the discipline has ever appeared in a racing game.

Beat Ken Block at his own game with gymkhana runs around Battersea Power Station.
Beat Ken Block at his own game with gymkhana runs around Battersea Power Station.

The main criticism that Codemasters faced post-Dirt 2 was that the game sacrificed rallying for other disciplines. As a result, Dirt 3's career mode will be 60 percent rallying. We got to race the Audi Sport Quattro around one of the new rally stages set in Finland and were impressed with the myriad of improvements. The physics engine is noticeably more advanced, resulting in very realistic differences between surface types. As we went around corners, the wheels touching the grass would slow down, meaning that we could use the rougher surface to tactically aid drifting. As one representative noted, the undulating dips on some of the tracks can also be used to your advantage, acting as grooves for your wheel to follow round the bend.

There are also new assists that help novice rally drivers when they're just starting out. These were turned on by default in our playtest and included stability control, corner braking, and throttle management. Once disabled, the car became more difficult to drive and more prone to spinning out, but not uncontrollably so, just adding another layer of challenge during our third and fourth run-throughs of the track. Codemasters has also chosen to keep the flashback feature of the second game, allowing you to rewind and retry any section of your run. However, the overall difficulty levels are still being tweaked at this stage, so we'll have to wait and see what levels of accessibility and simulation are catered for.

One thing's for sure--with gymkhana now included in the game, rally aficionados are going to have a serious challenge on their hands. Gymkhana is a series of stunts and jumps that are performed in quick succession, and it's a sport that has been popularised by Ken Block on YouTube. The track that we got to play on was a short section of the DC Compound, otherwise known as London's Battersea Power Station, which also appeared in Dirt 2. The compound will gradually open up as you progress through the career, but we got a short section to drive around and test our skills in.

The compound run contained six challenges that we had to try to complete as quickly as possible. Pole Dancer required us to lock the handbrake and donut around one of the pillars on the track--a tricky skill that needs a gentle finger on the accelerator and precise application of the brakes. Other drifting challenges were Trailer Thrash, Pipe Dream, and Can You Dig It, which have you balletically careering your car under trailers, through pipes, and under a digger's arm, respectively. Finally, there were Airborne and Block Buster--the former rewarding a jump with a clean landing, and the latter being about smashing all the foam blocks dotted around the track. This course took us many minutes to complete, even after numerous runs, but it's clear that gymkhana will offer hardcore players proving grounds that will separate the best from the best.

The Finnish rally stage combines grit and tarmac for a challenging but beautiful-looking race.
The Finnish rally stage combines grit and tarmac for a challenging but beautiful-looking race.

Developers at the studio have managed to clock a 36-second record--an impressive time that they admit will no doubt be smashed by players once the game is released. Bragging rights will also be improved by the fact that you can edit and upload gameplay clips to YouTube, meaning that Ken Block's real-world runs could very well be bettered by virtual ones.

With two-player split screen play for the first time and a new selection of party mode options for eight players online, Dirt 3 is shaping up to be a robust multiplayer package as well. The game is currently slated for a second-quarter 2011 release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. For a more general overview of the new game and its features, be sure to check out our first hands-on preview, and keep an eye on the site for more on Dirt 3, including trailers, very soon.

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