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Wot I Think: Dirt 3

Dirt 3 slid neatly into its release spot on Tuesday, before accelerating its way onto my hard-drive. Ah, driving metaphors. That's enough of those. Let me tell you Wot I Think.

There's no accounting for taste. Good thing too, because I've come to realise that my tastes are not consistent. Sorry about that. In some areas of gaming I enjoy simulation, even crave it, but not in racing. Never in racing. Perhaps it's down to years of trying to compete with my Grand Prix Legends-loving chum and sliding off at the first or second corner on each attempt, or perhaps it's because I just want something different from racing. I just want to throw a car about and not care about the consequences. I want the thrill of sliding on gravel, but not the actual physics. I want the sense of speed and the feel of mass, but without the hubris of honest handling.

It's been true that Codemasters' recent racing games have satisfied these desires for me for the past few years, and Dirt 3 is no different. Accurate simulation it is not. Tight, satisfying, forgiving off-road racing, it most certainly is. It takes a broad approach, and tries to be as lively as possible in its portrayal of hi-tech hatchbacks and vintage rallycars alike. I've enjoyed it a great deal.

This third Dirt game seems to have stepped back a little from the excesses of the previous game, in which the attempt to merge the relatively austere accelerated dangers of rallying with the XTREME AWESOMENESS of our American Cousins' X-Games branded attitude sports experiences seemed a little-the-top. There's no carnival trailer-yard pseudo-character menu here, just some platonic shapes floating in a strange menu dimension. I'd imagine it's a place that cars dream of, and Codemasters have been granted access to it by the ghost of a Ford Cosworth, or something like that.

Anyway, the transatlantic nature of the game has not disappeared, because one of the core sections is a Ken Block-led “Gymkhana” series. The first of these might be set in Battersea power station, but it is most certainly not within the spirit of old fashioned British Rallying. Instead you are obliged to spin and slide your way around a number of plastic bollards. This would have been fine if it was optional, but it is not optional. I could have screamed when I realised I was going to be forced to make my Ford Fiesta dance like a ballerina for an imaginary crowd of open-mouthed Londoners. It's a stage that you cannot skip in the single-player tour – a baffling decision when the previous tour menus of Dirt 1 & 2 were so open and forgiving of what events you'd have to participate in.

We'll let that pass, however, and focus on the stuff that I do enjoy, which is pretty much all the other racing events. Once again there's some traditional rallying, complete with reliable navigator noises, some rallycross, and a few other random events, such as hill-climbs and Preposterous Offroad American Truck Thrashing (I think that's what it's called). Once again there's also the return of the superb trailblazer tracks, which essentially see you trying to make the best time along a single course with an absurdly overpowered car and no navigator. I love these the best, and there are plenty of them.

Disappointingly, however, the true rallying stages do seem short. Too short. What I really want from an offroad racing game is a fully afternoon of rally, and there really isn't enough of that here, with each section being a couple of stages taking up a couple of minutes. You pretty much have to go off and do other events, which wasn't quite as true in Dirt 1, or indeed previous rallying games in the Colin McRae series. I don't begrudge this now being General Offroad as a game theme, but we all know that rallying is best.

What I do love is the breadth of options that the game provides. The default setting for driving is the gaming equivalent of leaving the house wrapped in cushions and wearing a crash-helmet. It artificially stabilises the car, gives you the perfect racing line as a visual cue (as you will have seen in F1, I believe) that even tells you went to brake by showing whether you are going too fast for a corner. It's so friendly that even our time-travelling correspondents from the 1870s should have little trouble getting their head around good track times. Of course where the joy is for the likes of me is stripping that away to a point where it feels challenging, without actually being treacherously simulatory. Fewer assists here, more challenging AI there, until the races become a competition, without ever really making me accept that I am just a retired boy-racer from Kent.

Speaking of treachery (and retirement from boyracery, come to think of it), one of the additions to the game includes the weather stuff from F1, which now delivers heavy snow and pouring rain the tracks. These result in some spectacularly tricky conditions, as well as looking superb. That stretches to pretty much the entire game experience, of course, with the Ego engine now flexing its lighting systems across a huge selection of attractive and highly detailed environments. It looks good at different times of day, and under varying atmospheric conditions. It's a racing game that revels in its messy, particle-dusted offroad world, and as such is a far cry from the drier, less interesting track games that I've recently been massaging my gamepad for. (I am thinking Shift 2, right now, which I got bored of in just a couple of hours.)

In fact Dirt 3 goes a long way to try and get your attention – way beyond presentation. It gets downright eccentric in the multiplayer modes, especially in what is available to you in the various stunt-driving gymkhana arenas. There's a capture the flag mode, and also a “zombie” mode where infected cars have to try and hit others to tag them and get everyone on the zombie team. Silly, but there it is. Also on the topic of multiplayer, here's something else that is good: split-screen on the PC! You need two gamepads to play, or a pad and a wheel (which I have!) and it is a splendid thing, if anyone you know likes racing games. Your Dad probably does. Ask him!

Finally, I have one, single complaint remaining, which is this: the game crashes a few minutes after alt-tabbing out. Initially I thought this was a general crash bug and reported to Codemasters that I was crashing after “3 to 4 races”. It turns out that “3 to 4 races” is actually a measure of my attention span, since if I do not tab out to obsessively check RPS comments, or tell John he is a nerd, then the game does not crash.

These issues of desktop-access aside, Dirt 3 is fantastic fun. The driving model is consistently comprehensible while providing options enough to suit a range of traction tastes. Flinging various machines around the exotic lanes of Michigan and Kenya – machines that range from 1960s relics to supercharged contemporary abominations – has been a delight. I just wish my “hosts” wouldn't waffle so much in the interim. Those lavish menus remain lovely, but I am just in it for that sense of speed, and I don't care what you think of my podium position, Ken.

And yes, I always play with the bumper-cam view. And I'm going to play some more of that right now.

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