Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics)
By Billy O'Keefe
It stands to reason, unless you're unreasonable, that "Dirt 3" isn't going to be the leap forward for off-road rally racing that its immaculate predecessor was only two years ago.
That doesn't mean, however, that some pleasant surprises don't lie in wait.
From the top, the best news about "D3" is that everything that was great about "Dirt 2" either remains great or has ever-so-subtly improved.
Visually, it's still at the top of the racing game class, equally in terms of car detail, track detail and how good everything looks in motion. "D3" increases the variables with regard to weather and time of day, and while a dirt track race under the sun looks predictably terrific, a late-night race on snowy terrain is jaw-dropping (and a little unnerving when you realize how little light there is to guide you).
The sense of danger is a credit to a physics engine that is equal parts authentic and rivetingly unwieldy. "D3's" default handling makes for a perfectly challenging game — punishing if you drive carelessly, but rarely cheap in terms of physics snafus _ and the equal prioritization of speed and weight allows it to strike a balance between manageable and thrilling without letting either side win.
If you disagree, the game is better than its predecessors about letting you correct it. Along with providing three difficulty presets, "D3" also lets you tailor the experience as needed. So if, for instance, you don't want the auto-braking assist enabled but would like the opponent difficultly toned down and could use some stability control assistance, you can set each slider as you please with no penalty to your advancement through the career mode.
(If even that fails, a limited-use Flashback function lets you literally rewind a race a few seconds and take a mulligan on a bad turn.)
In terms of career, "D3" largely builds on its predecessor, mixing traditional checkpoint rally events with races on various terrain and with different classes of cars, trucks and buggies. The game liberally rotates through tracks (set across eight new locations), conditions and event types and ties everything together under an experience points-style Reputation bar, which rewards your ability to win events skillfully (instead of, say, qualify after using the Flashback feature three times) with new vehicles.
The big new addition here — and also to "D3's" multiplayer (eight players online, and in a welcome series first, two-player splitscreen) — is the Gymkhana, which takes all those terrific racing physics and applies them to open-ended stunt wonderlands that challenge your ability to jump ramps, drift through gates, spin out and string together trick combos for high scores.
The Gymkhana stands in excellent contrast to the tenor of "D3's" other events — a sharp change of pace from the normal "Dirt" gameplay, but one that capitalizes perfectly on the gameplay fundamentals established by those other modes.
It also, at least on the multiplayer side, lets "D3" do things it could never do if it was just a straight-faced rally racer. You can now, among other things, play Capture the Flag with rally cars or engage in a mode where you must crash into alien cutouts without damaging surrounding building cutouts in the process. If you can imagine some of "Mario Kart's" best party games, but instead with world-class vehicles obeying the laws of one of the genre's best physics engines, you have an idea of how this works. And like everything else in "D3," it performs as good as advertised.
(c) 2011, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.