DiRT 3 tries hard to stand out, but it ultimately winds up falling short of its predecessor's excellence.
Visually, the game is excellent with only a few exceptions. The menus are slick and pretty if a little difficult to sort through and sometimes a bit sluggish, and the new clean, almost sterile triangle theme seems to work relatively well despite its contrast with the series' focus on making messes. It's not until you're actually in a race, however, that the visuals really start to shine. The lighting effects have been greatly improved, and it only takes one dusk race in a Norwegian forest for you to be sold on the new version of the Codies' engine. The night races are also stunning, with high beams glancing off of snow and disappearing slowly into the darkness as the moon hangs menacingly overhead. During snow races, flakes of snow will actually hit and stick to the chase camera (in third person view), a nice touch that adds some depth to the visual experience. The environments themselves look good as well, but there is a noticeable lack of foliage on all but a few of the courses, a small factor that somewhat diminishes the organic, natural feel that DiRT 2 had. Some of the car models also seem to have been downgraded since DiRT 2, with textured, detailed headlights and other detail features being replaced quite noticeably with flat, boring decals. Still, DiRT 3 is a fantastic looking game by all accounts, so if all you're looking for is a pretty racer here's your ticket.
DiRT 3 also succeeds with its sound design. The engines are appropriately loud or meagre sounding depending on the class of car you are driving, sliding across gravel sounds just like you would expect it to, and the sound of wind rushing past your car at high speeds can be exhilarating. As is often the case, though, it's the small things that really make the sound stand out. For instance, on the dirt tracks of Kenya you can actually hear small stones thumping up against your bumper and the sides of your car. Anyone who has driven a dirt road will recognize the sound, and it goes a long way towards "selling" the experience to the player. That kind of attention to detail is what pushes DiRT 3's sound over the line between excellent and incredible, especially if you are playing with a decent sound system.
Unfortunately, I can't say that the game's soundtrack keeps pace with the rest of the audio experience. The new emphasis on fairly mellow electronic/European music may do it for some fans, but it was a bit of a mood killer for me. I understand that rally racing is a primarily European tradition, but a game like DiRT 3 really needs energetic, fast music to compliment its gameplay. Fortunately there are a few faster rock tracks sprinkled throughout the game, but they are few and far between. Additionally, unlike DiRT 2 the player has no control over which tracks will be played. Gone are the informational song lists and playlists-if there's even a way to see what the names of the tracks are I certainly never saw it. I suppose this isn't a major problem since both systems allow for custom playlists to run simultaneously with the game, but I sure could have used some more motivational music or at least a little control over how much electronica I was subjected to.
Technical successes aside, DiRT 3 has a major problem that becomes apparent very early on: it simply doesn't have as much variety as DiRT 2 did. The excellent Raid truck rallies from DiRT 2 have been cut nearly entirely, the number of buggy races has been substantially reduced, and most of the Land Rush races are so short that they are barely worth playing. Yes, we have the new snow races-which are highly entertaining, to be fair-and the new emphasis on Gymkhana racing, but there isn't much else here to fill in the gaps or break up the rally racing romps. Beyond that, the locations of the races are severely limited when compared to DiRT 2. While that game offered a variety of events in Utah, Baja, Japan, Eastern Europe, Malaysia, Australia, and Africa, DiRT 3 only offers Norway and Finland, which are so similar to each other that they may as well be the same place, Aspen, which only offers racing on closed, relatively boring tracks, and Kenya, which is so similar to Morocco in DiRT 2 that I suspect that the Codies may have just slapped a new name on their older designs. There are a few other locations that offer urban racing like Monaco and the BatterSea Compound, but who really cares about road racing in a game that's all about offroading? The sense of globe trotting variety that kept DiRT 2 so interesting for so long is gone, and it didn't take long for me to begin to tire of the same old races in the same old locations. I understand that there are several different sections that are raced in different ways for each area, but in practice it all feels the same if the setting doesn't change.
Beyond the repetitive settings, DiRT 3 also has noticeably less in the way of content or customization than DiRT 2. You are no longer able to upgrade your vehicles by buying new performance packages for different races; instead, you select your vehicle from one of several different time periods or classes before the race and off you go. I suppose this makes the game very slightly more accessible to newcomers, but I miss even the superficial ability to upgrade my vehicles' performance. DiRT 3 does have more vehicles to choose from than DiRT 2 did, but DiRT 2 seemed to offer more in the way of vehicle variety. Most of the cars, trucks, and buggies in DiRT 3 feel roughly identical to one another, so don't be surprised if you find yourself struggling to remember which vehicle you used on the last rally race or which truck you liked best.
The lack of difference between the feel of each vehicle can be attributed mostly to the far more sensitive controls that DiRT 3 offers, another of my issues with the game. While DiRT 2 boasted many vehicles that handled very differently from one to the next-some were sensitive, others were heavier and more unwieldy-DiRT 3 has replaced the smooth and steady control system of DiRT 2 with a far more twitchy-feeling input design. The cars are incredibly oversensitive to nearly every move you make, and even when you have them tuned to decrease instability as far as possible you will frequently find yourself losing control during simple turns or overcorrecting yourself into a full blown spin when coming out of a slide. This can lead to some crashes that feel frustratingly unavoidable, and a good majority of your flashbacks-a feature that allows you to rewind to a point before your crash-will most likely be used either directly or indirectly in response to a loss of control due to oversensitivity. The control system in DiRT 2 worked wonderfully and allowed the player total control while the interesting track design was used to make things more difficult. DiRT 3 reverses that by making the tracks relatively boring by comparison and instead relying on less natural and more frustrating controls to up the level of challenge. This means that most mistakes or crashes wind up feeling less like the epic and impressive results of rally racing gone bad and more like cheap and irritating interruptions that one has little control over. I'm sure that there are players out there who can and will master the twitch reflexes and fine motor control necessary to succeed on the harder levels of DiRT 3, but I find it hard to motivate myself to commit to mastering such a system while I have the more enjoyable DiRT 2 calling to me from my library.
The final gripe that I have about the game is the new focus on Gymkhana racing. For those of you who don't know, Gymkhana is essentially trick racing. In DiRT 3, this equates to doing donuts around obstacles, spinning in place on a designated piece of ground, or drifting through a set of gates on a fully paved closed course. I guess there is a demographic out there that finds this kind of racing interesting and fun, but I long ago decided that I detest trick racing, and that is especially true in games that should really have nothing to do with trick racing in the first place. I have to assume that Codemasters was trying to provide a more varied experience by including this event type, but it feels so out of place in a DiRT title that I found it difficult to get into. Why not give us back the Raid events or even the Hill Climb events from the first DiRT? At least those would be in keeping with the spirit of the game. Even worse, the twitchy controls, picky trick points calculator, and some pretty questionable course design (closing off a tiny spin area with k-rails? Really?) mangle what little value the experience had. While a few of the most dedicated of players may take the time to master this new race type, I imagine most people will respond like I did by avoiding these events at all costs. Unfortunately, there isn't much variety outside of gymkhana and one is thus ultimately left to choose between boring repetition of the same courses or a frustratingly out of place side show.
I know I've spent a lot of time ripping into DiRT 3 here, so I just want to be clear in saying once again that it is a good game. In fact, it's one of the best racers we're likely to get this year. Still, with DiRT 2 offering a more varied, less frustrating, and more true-to-spirit offroading experience at less than half the cost of a new copy of DiRT 3, it's hard to recommend picking up this latest instalment up unless you've already beaten DiRT 2 to death or are a hardcore gymkhana fan. I recommend a rental.