If there’s one word that sums up this game more than any other I can think of, it’s the word “Loading”. Furthermore, if there’s one thing I would very much like to never see again, it’s the three little triangles that sort of flash and spin in the corner of the screen to let you know that “Loading” is the task at hand.
It’s been a very long time since I played a game as infuriatingly handicapped by excessively long loading times as this one. What the hell were they thinking signing off on that as a good idea? The situation with access and navigation throughout this game is so significant that it colours every other aspect good or bad, and there’s plenty of both. How good the rest of the game is (and some of it is great), almost becomes irrelevant thanks to just having to hang about so long all the time.
I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, so let’s back up and have a quick recap of the basics.
Fans of rally driving games will know that this is the third instalment of Codemasters’ successful Dirt series that originally grew from the loins of the Colin McRae rally games, first appearing for the PS1 (and other platforms) in the late 90s. This latest version has dropped the association with McRae completely and fully shifted away from the original game’s simple licensed WRC rallying concept. Naturally, this means there’s no official team tie-in, known drivers or any significant “real world” rally associations. What the game does have in abundance though is cars, international locations and tracks. In fact Dirt 3 brings together a truly impressive haul of vehicles both modern and vintage/classic – rally cars, Group B monsters, hill climb cars, stunt driving cars, trucks, and buggies. Some of the most famous (and infamous) cars ever unleashed on the world of rallying are here, resplendent in satisfyingly well realised hi-def clarity for your competition car-porn pleasure (if you dig that sort of thing).
Or at least it would be a pleasure if the game’s aforementioned access and menu navigation wasn’t so bloody frustrating.
So let’s talk about the game play. Well in-game racing dynamics are really impress…. no wait, it’s no good. I just can’t continue any further with this game review without getting the main gripe out of the way. It’s that significant. As you may have guessed, loading times are abysmal and delays occur too often during normal game play. I think most gamers (myself included) these days expect a certain level of fluid movement when navigating back and forth through menu screens, setting things up, etc. By the same token, we also accept that once (in the case of driving games) all race choices have been made, a loading period before actually racing is perfectly normal. Then once plugged into the race, operations should be fairly fluid again. Now, quite apart from the principal pre-race loading time feeling significantly “extra” tardy, there are other times during normal operations that Dirt 3 renders you frustrated, sitting, waiting, staring at those frikkin’ little triangles. Like after a race, it seems to take forever before you’re free to navigate again, and you get seriously bored with looking at the slow panning lingering shots of the car you just raced. Yawn. Come on come on! COME ON!!!!
It just seems like EVERYTHING takes a long time, and you find yourself constantly hitting X or Start in frustration to see if you can speed things up a bit.
I’ve always been a firm believer that the best design and style never compromises functionality. Or at least that there’s a point at which the scales tip and a stylistic choice compromises usability just that nadge too much and it begins to irk. Anyone here remember the original “hockey puck” mouse that Apple shipped with their desktop computers around the late 90s? My G4 tower came with one when I bought it in ‘9. This mouse was a rare ergonomic misfire for Apple. It looked pretty interesting, but was a total pain to use. No-one liked it, and it was soon replaced with a new mouse design that was even more stylish and cool, but crucially, really friendly and comfortable to use. My point? Dirt 3 definitely has a few too many Apple “hockey puck” elements so to speak i.e. stylistically driven menu animations that take valuable seconds to play out (and NEVER seem to let you hit X and skip).
Ok, so loading times and the general feeling of prolonged inactivity between races has been covered I think. Although at this point I need to mention YouTube. Dirt 3 offers a cool feature which I was initially very impressed with. That is the ability at any time during a race to hit a button, pausing the action, then scrub through the last minute or so of it, set start and end points and create a clip that you can upload directly to YouTube without leaving your race. Naturally it goes without saying that your PS3 (or platform of choice), must be hooked up to your home network, and you need a YouTube account.
On the whole this sounds like a pretty cool feature, and it is. The only downsides are again related to time. Once you’ve created your clip (and this does take a little familiarisation), and hit upload naturally you expect the clip to immediately begin uploading. What actually happens is you get put in a queue, and…….. then it uploads. The first time I tried it I was in a queue of about 97 (presumably other gamers) and waited. After gazing at that figure for a minute or two while it steadfastly refused to decrease, I went and made a cuppa and visited the bog. The queue count did eventually click down and down and the clip began uploading. This part actually didn’t take that long to complete, and went off without a hitch. But I do think that some work needs doing on this feature. The most obvious being perhaps the ability to undertake all this queuing and uploading in the background once initiated so you can get back to the race action. Or, the ability to create your clips and store them locally for upload at a more convenient moment.
Anyway, kudos for including a very 21st century feature, even though it needs work.
So technical flubs, frustrations and drawbacks aside, the actual business of racing is a lot of fun and looks glorious. You can set your own level of vehicle assists before beginning the race. The level of assists available range from nothing right up to steering, braking and throttle assists, making it almost impossible to lose. I’m not too sure of the usefulness of a fully assisted set-up but it’s cool if you just want to rock through the game’s campaign mode as quickly as possible. The only types of races a fully assisted set-up isn’t available in are the gymkhana and drift races (more on that later). Your vehicle’s dynamics can be further fine tuned if you wish, but after a little tinkering I found I just wanted to get on and race. The rendering and realisation of cars, scenery, and lighting effects are excellent. In fact my favourite type of race to do in single player mode (where you get to choose), is a night time forest rally stage. The way the car’s spots light up the surroundings as you rocket through them is very nice indeed, and promotes a whole level of involvement and concentration higher than normal. It’s great!
Other features include an in-game news service, single player arcade mode, multiplayer, downloadable content and online leader-boards and stats etc. The in-game’female commentary is interesting because it occasionally refers to you by name (as long as your name is in the game’s database). I liked this feature, but the other commentator, not so much. The American dude (why American?) who does most of the race-side intros refers to everything as “sick” which as an Englishman, I find abhorrent, although I’m sure the kids will dig it. So, as already mentioned briefly, this game also features a big slice of that oh so modern a “sick ”discipline, gymkhana. Although this type of showboat style stunt driving is about as far away from the WRC rallying origins of this game series as you can get, I have to admit to enjoying learning the techniques. Whether it’s drifting, donuts, spinning, or jumping its fun and satisfying when you get things right.
I feel like I’ve painted a mostly negative impression of Dirt 3, and that’s a shame. On balance, I have to hold my hands up and admit that for me (and I’m quite a patient gamer), I’m not really drawn back in to the game, and simply can’t be bothered to make my way any further into it. And I’m running the risk of the word “Loading” becoming welded to the inside of my eyeballs like a pin hole camera image. It’s a shame, but I just can’t deal with the plethora of built in delays in getting my knobbly tires to the dirt. There are great aspects to the game and they’re trying very hard to shine, but I for one would need it to be massively more user-friendly in between races in order to give it a proper thumbs up.