Over the years, we've come to see excessive tinkering with presentation in racing games as a bad thing. It is one of the few genres where franchises fade away because they become too competent: developers run short of ways to improve on the gameplay and turn to visual elements like the HUD and menu system instead. So it was with heavy heart that we encountered DiRT 3's new, minimalist front-end, a far cry from the brash, colourful aesthetic of its brilliant predecessor, and a portent of disappointing things to come.
And all of this note-perfect gameplay is smothered in layer upon layer of polish.
There are times when it feels very, very good to be proved wrong, and this is one of them. DiRT 2 was so well crafted and so rewarding to play it's difficult to see room for improvement, but Codemasters has re-examined practically every area of that game's design, making dozens of telling refinements, a handful of major additions, and more of just about everything else. If you're comfortable with DiRT 3's focus on off-road racing, there'ÃÂs nothing that comes close to the breadth and depth here.
But before we dive headlong into DiRT 3's generous feature-set, let us stop for a moment and look at the fundamentals. Codemasters is the industry's premier racing studio, with at least three top-tier franchises in development at any one time, and that reputation is based on its uncanny knack for tight, responsive, physics-based handling. In that respect, DiRT 3 is arguably its masterpiece, perfectly capturing the speed, unpredictably and moment-to-moment thrills of off-road racing, and including a number of well-judged assists for players who don't want to memorise every minute detail of each turn.
The pure joy of driving is supplemented by the new weather system, which adds tremendous replay value to many of the game's 100 or so tracks spread across a wide variety of locations, from the Kenyan desert to frost-bitten Norway to the lights and crowds of the L.A. Coliseum. Rain can turn stable terrain into a frictionless nightmare, snow-fall can make easy turns almost impossible to spot, and night races, in particular, are wonderfully gripping exercises in white-knuckle tension, your co-driver's commands often the only way of navigating the inky darkness.
And all of this note-perfect gameplay is smothered in layer upon layer of polish. Saying that DiRT 3 is the best looking multi-format racing game ever made might sound like hyperbole, but it's difficult to convey just how beautiful the game can be. Driving across the African savannah at sunset provides the sort of vista that, in any other genre, would force you to stop and just drink it all in. Of course, driving at 100 mph against a timer makes that practically impossible, but the visual splendour of DiRT 3 is yet another incentive to play.
With such a strong base to build on, Codemasters could easily have use it as a crutch, but DiRT 3 has the most diverse and inventive crop of race modes in the series to date. The Career mode is split up into four seasons with a fifth World Tour season for those who complete them all which serve as a tour through the many manifestations of off-road racing. Rallycross, Landrush, Trailblazer; all of your favourites are present and correct.
You unlock new events by winning or placing, while new vehicles are earned with "rep points", which are tied to sub-objectives like hitting certain speeds or finishing with a certain numbers of flashbacks Codemasters' ingenious mechanic that lets you rewind a small portion of the race when you make a mistake. Indeed, the vehicles are another major draw, with Codemasters plundering the history of the sport for its most iconic machines.
But even beyond this embarrassment of riches, DiRT 3 still has more to offer. Fans of Ken Block'ÃÂs insane disregard for his own safety will be delighted to see the inclusion of Gymkhana a sort of cross between drift-racing and a game show, where players have to drive with as much flash and flair as possible, jumping and smashing through obstacles as they go. The Gymkhana mode has been compared to Tony Hawk's Skateboarding and Project Gotham Racing due to its emphasis on scoring points, and that holds true. Tearing around Battersea Power StationÃÂ where all Gymkhana races take place offers a completely different kind of fun to that found elsewhere in the game, and the whole package is far stronger as a result.
And we haven't even scratched the surface of DiRT 3's numerous multiplayer modes, which take familiar FPS game types and repurpose them for the racing genre. There's traditional fare like capture-the-flag, a mode where one team has to protect a small car from the opposition's much larger vehicles, and even a riff on a zombie outbreak, where one car has to try and 'infect' other vehicles with its virus. It's all very daft, and an awful lot of fun.
The racing genre, which is entirely predicated on quality gameplay mechanics, can make that difficult, and games as good as DiRT 3 render it nigh-on impossible. There's really nothing to do but gush with praise. Codemasters has built an absorbing, rewarding and generous experience without ever putting a foot wrong. Forza 4 will have to be nothing short of a masterpiece to best it.
A ravishing, exciting, damn-near flawless racing experience that capably inhabits the hinterland between simulation and arcade with the same confidence that Project Gotham Racing once did. DiRT 3 may well prove to be the best racer of the year.