I still remember the first time I played the “crash mode” in Burnout 2: Point of Impact for the Nintendo Gamecube. It changed the way I thought about racing games and how I believed they could be made. What made Burnout’s crash mode so endearing and earth shattering was that it was a racing game that wasn’t about racing. The Burnout series, and specifically the crash mode, concerned itself with moments, not races. It didn’t matter who won or lost. What mattered was who could produce the coolest moment: the biggest crash, the most destruction, the most cinematic near miss. And until I played Dirt 3, I believed this was an anomaly.
First a caveat: I’m new to the Dirt series and haven’t spent time with the previous two games. That said, Dirt 3 is gorgeous. The environments are crisp and eye catching, even as you rip past them at dangerous speeds. The lighting is dynamic and reflects realistically off of the cars. And the vehicles themselves are painstakingly detailed, right down to the underpinnings of the car that are exposed as you hurdle around courses and demolish everything in your path.
But the presentation’s brilliance is out of necessity. As you quickly discover, there’s not a lot of meat to Dirt 3; it’s about moments.
When you first start the game, it offers you the ability to login via YouTube to upload and share races and crashes to your account. In most games, this would be a conceit to the growing importance and viral marketing capabilities of social media. In Dirt 3, this feature emphasizes the game’s focus on brief, explosive cinematics. And unfortunately, this device governs nearly every aspect of the game.
Dirt 3 is a remarkably difficult game. As such, you’re afforded several difficulty levels that have progressively more features unlocked. In Casual gaming, the AI actually brakes for you, requiring you to simply hold down the acceleration and turn (not unlike Family gaming modes on the Wii). A single level-setting higher reveals the game’s true racing mechanics. If nothing else, the driving in Dirt 3 is realistic. Turning is a harrowing, uncontrollable experience while braking seems necessary, not integral. More likely than not, any race in Dirt 3 will produce more captivating crashes than close calls and strategic passes.
Because race-crippling crashes happen frequently and with only a slight twist of the wheel, races are short and terrifying. This creates tense races that require your full attention, but it also makes racing a frustrating slog. I found myself restarting courses repeatedly in an effort to finish anywhere other than last. To ostensibly extend short courses, rally races are featured, which track your splits from multiple courses to determine the winner. Yet this only exacerbates Dirt 3’s short, punctuated experience.
The game is so unconcerned with traditional racing mores that selecting and owning a car, improving it, and evaluating its relative merits and faults are all absent. You’re given a selection of racing teams to choose from before each race and are forced to select from any number of nondescript cars (each vehicle profile shows primarily only weight and horse power).
None of this makes Dirt 3 a bad game, necessarily, but it does make it remarkably joyless to play. Repeatedly struggling through races because of twitchy controls isn’t enjoyable—imagine if it was difficult to stop Mario from running into a pit because the designers thought it looked cool. Outwardly, though, Dirt 3 has everything you’d expect from a contemporary racer: pristine graphics, multiple cars and vehicles, various racing styles, and varied environments and racing surfaces. But unless you’re a devoted fan of the series or interested in boosting hits to your YouTube account, there are far better racers on the market.