Thursday, June 16, 2011

DiRT 3 Review

DiRT 3, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Online party mode and hardcore races, stunt-based gymkhana competitions and non-racing challenges, secondary objectives for campaign races, more cars and new tracks, slightly better graphics feature varied weather
The Not So Good: Additional content appropriate for an expansion or DLC, slick menu transitions removed, poor weather insignificantly affects handling, some mandatory races for campaign advancement
What say you? Incremental changes make for a disappointing full-priced sequel: 5/8

DiRT 2 is one of my favorite racing games of all time. I like rally racing, so a game that featured a decent mix of simulation and arcade racing, a variety of game modes, robust multiplayer, and a slick presentation still holds my attention, even earning a coveted place on my desktop as a permanent shortcut. It’s been a long eighteen months since that game’s release, so it’s obviously time for the publisher to cash in once again. DiRT 3 includes the typical advertised improvements for a racing sequel: more tracks, more cars, more modes, more graphics. But is it worth more money?

DiRT 3 enhances the generally stellar graphics of DiRT 2. The new environments have an awesome amount of detail, complete with plentiful trackside objects and easily identifiable regional features, like trees in Kenya, snow in Colorado, or boredom in Michigan. The cars are still excellent, looking just like their real-life counterparts and complete with incremental damage. DiRT 3 also features different weather conditions, like rain, snow, and night, complete with drops of water on the cars and snow thrown up around tight corners: neat. Nobody will fault DiRT 3 for its graphics. The sound is also marginally improved: convincing engine sounds are intact, and the crowds are much more noticeable as you drive around. Also, your co-driver is much more detailed this time around, giving specific gears for corners instead of “medium,” assuming you enable that option. The music has taken a back seat (so to speak) in DiRT 3 and is less emphasized. Overall, DiRT 3 features reasonable upgrades in both graphics and sound.

DiRT 3 is a racing game. Shocking, I know. The campaign tour has been revamped: instead of traveling around the world in your RV and choosing the events you like the best, you are hired by various racing teams one race at a time. The campaign is separated into four seasons, each with four championships of several races. Unlike DiRT 2, each season has a mandatory final event that must be completed (with a top three finish) in order to advance to the next season; this restriction goes against the freedom offered by the previous game, and I actually had to decrease the difficulty to pass the first season’s gymkhana final event (luckily, you can adjust the AI skill on a per-race basis). DiRT 3 also removes the neat loading screens from DiRT 2 that displayed stats while you waited, instead opting for boring static images of your car and random triangles. With good finishes, you earn reputation that unlock new events; you also gain additional reputation for not using flashbacks during each event and for completing side missions like a margin of victory or attaining a top speed. Still, I prefer the old single player campaign.

DiRT 3 adds two new racing modes. The old options are all here: traditional rally (the focus of the game), trailblazer, rallycross, raid, and landrush. New are the head-to-head mode, where competitors race on adjacent tracks, and the gymkhana stunt mode. In gymkhana, you perform tricks in an arena setting to earn points: spins, smash blocks, jumps, drifting, and donuts. It requires a lot of finesse and, subsequently, is quite difficult. Each new race is preceded by a boring, lengthy introduction that can’t be skipped; I want to race, not to hear British people talk. Like before, races are short: only a couple of minutes per event, so not approaching their real-life counterparts in length. Difficulty can be adjusted, changing the AI ability and driving assists like anti-lock brakes, racing line, stability, braking, and auto-steer. DiRT 3 also includes a number of arcade challenges where lots of points earn medals: smash attack (where you destroy robots, obviously), drift showcase, and speedrun (pass through gates as quickly as possible). You can also play time trials to practice each rally event, and compare your times to others online.

Speaking of online, DiRT 3 returns to the multiplayer realm with generally the same features. Yes, Games for Windows LIVE is back, and occasionally not saving my progress and locking up the game (awesome!). All of the single player race types are available online, and you can choose to try them all, or specifically do only rally or circuit events. New is a hardcore mode that removes the HUD, removes all driving assists, and forces all drivers to a cockpit view. There are also a number of party modes: transporter (capture the flag), invasion (destroy robots), outbreak (one driver is infected and must chase down the others), and cat ‘n’ mouse (get a slower car to the finish first). The party modes are decent fun, but the car is too powerful for the tight, small layout used for the matches. The matchmaking could be better, as there is no indication of how many games or players are in each category (a host browser would be quite helpful). Although not important for the PC, as we lack actual friends, DiRT 3 also includes split-screen multiplayer. You can also upload videos to YouTube from inside the game, but they are limited to short, non-HD clips.

DiRT 3 features over fifty cars spread across fourteen classes. This time around, there are more rally cars from many time periods: the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, the infamous Group B, 90’s, Rally America, Super 2000, and current WRC models. You also get SUVs for raid races and buggies and trophy trucks for landrush mode. In DiRT 3, you don’t have to buy your cars anymore: instead, you earn them automatically with experience. In fact, the more recent additions always award more experience for side missions during races, so there’s no reason to pick any older models. This makes you much less attached to your vehicles. There are give options for setting up your car: gear ratio, downforce, suspension, ride height, differential, and brake bias. They produce very minor differences in performance and can usually be ignored completely. The car damage is still quite arcade: running head on into a tree barely impacts your vehicle’s handling.

The new tracks are similar to the old tracks: Aspen is just like a snowy Baja with bumps and tight, banked corners, and Finland could just as well be Croatia. The layouts, a mix of tight and fast corners, are really interchangeable, so I’m not too excited about venturing to Michigan instead of China. Maybe if DiRT 3 incorporated actual rally stages that WRC fans would recognize it would be better, but the generic circuits are, well, generic. Weather effects are now in the game, offering snow, rain, and night conditions that frankly don’t affect the handling as much as they should. The handling is the same mix of arcade and simulation that requires skill without being too difficult to handle. The AI is also the same, performing much better in rally events than circuit races at the same difficulty level. I found that a setting of 4/6 for rallies and 6/6 for circuit races provided a good challenge (not winning, but placing in the top three to five) for a DiRT veteran such as myself. Flashbacks remain an excellent feature that allows you to re-drive the last ten seconds (or so) of a race, just in case: it’s way better than having to start from the beginning just because you happened to drive off a cliff.

DiRT 3 simply doesn’t offer enough improvements (like DiRT 2 did over the original version) to justify a full retail price. The campaign is essentially the same: finish well to unlock new races and cars. The cars and tracks don’t offer new tactics or abilities. The gymkhana and drifting events require some different skills (which I sadly seem to lack), and the online party mode does offer some unique thrills for a racing game (capture the flag, anyone?), but these are small consolations. The remainder of the online component of DiRT 3 is the same (including the constant insanity that is Games for Windows LIVE). While I normally don’t care at all about menus and loading screens, the ones in DiRT 2 were so great (offering personal stats and achievements while you wait) that their removal in DiRT 3 is very disappointing. The graphics have some new effects (rain, snow) and more detailed objects to race past, but overall I was quite disappointed in how similar DiRT 3 is to its predecessor: it’s more like an annual sports game than a true sequel. While DiRT 2 has been removed from my hard drive in favor of DiRT 3 (as this new version has the same content plus the handful of minor new features), I don’t feel good about doing it.