Race driver Ken Block has a voice for mime, in the same way that Howard Stern has a face for radio. Or at least he does when he’s introducing Gymkhana, rally’s YouTube-friendly answer to equestrian show jumping. He sounds like Nicolas Cage with a hangover, droning on in such a way that if you accidentally knocked the sound off, you’d assume he’d fallen asleep. He is, however, the most important character to date in Dirt, Codemasters’ grand foreign exchange experiment with the Colin McRae franchise.
It’s been a provocative ride, this trilogy. During our most recent visit to its UK-based creator, the taxi driver remarked: “I stopped caring when they went all American.” A true story, and a common indictment of Dirt’s necessary evil. The extreme sports branding, the battle racing, the fear of an imminent “Dude!” around every corner: it’s turned a local hero into a global, recession-proof superstar.
There’s a lot more traditional rally in Dirt 3, for sure – a lot more everything, in fact – but it’s still not a Colin McRae game. There’s a lot more history in it, too, with cars dating back to the ’60s Mini Cooper S, darling of the Monte Carlo Rally; but it’s modern, full of references to YouTube and online fans. It’s serious and zany. Eurosport and MTV.
This time around, though, the pressure of those opposing forces has crafted a jewel in its centre. Gymkhana, a sandbox stunt mode pitched as the ‘ultimate in self-expression’, really isn’t far off the mark. In playgrounds made of lampposts, ramps, exploding blocks and stunt scenery, you rock and roll the cars until everything but the wheels falls off. Codemasters’ engine, bound by four years of strait-laced games, is finally unleashed.
Staged at places such as the sprawling DC Compound at Battersea Power Station and the LA Coliseum, Gymkhana takes many forms. Single- and multiplayer dashes to crush cardboard cutouts of a robot are probably the weirdest, with others including checkpoint races and speed runs. Its true identity, though, is the freestyle score attack that covers donuts, drifts, jumps and trips through the tyre-shredding spin dryer. Mix up tricks for a multiplier, repeat and they go stale; you know the drill. The game doesn’t just spring to life in these modes, it parties hard.
More than snow, rain, Finland or Kenya, Gymkhana is Dirt’s pinnacle, because it heals the rift between target audiences. During the preceding run of venues and race types, things are actually touch-and-go. The jovial banter between British and American announcers makes James Franco and Anne Hathaway look like seasoned raconteurs. The series’ trademark colour-grading and bloom – affectionately dubbed “the piss filter” in some circles – are back in varying degrees. Worse, though, faux-CinemaScope borders have been applied to the UI and replays, meaning that much of the game isn’t even running fullscreen.
Even when they’re ditching the paddocks from Dirt 2, shortening the transitions and quickening the menus, the UI engineers can’t help themselves. To their credit, the Triforce-themed frontend is a gorgeous flashback to simpler McRaes. But why can we still not skip or disable the umpteen tutorial videos? Or silence the inane post-race commentary? Or watch a replay without watermarks? Or take photos rather than upload to YouTube? The game has a ‘My Dirt’ menu option for settings such as navigator complexity and car horn, but pays mere lip service to really owning the experience.
The Dirt Tour career mode is something of a smorgasbord, with so many flavours of race that there’s little overarching feel to it all. But given the hearty, well-prepared portions – nine-class Rally, high-speed Trailblazers, head-to-head Rallycross, truck and buggy Landrushes, and the aforementioned Gymkhana – most will agree that’s a good thing.
Visits to Aspen, Michigan, Norway and elsewhere aren’t in themselves the biggest change to the Tour. It’s more the range of events available at each stop, and the attempts by various circuits to appease the Euro crowd while evoking hallowed names such as RalliSport Challenge 2. Even the unlikely Michigan Smelter has a sodden, deciduous quality that brings it in line with the Nordic routes, while the LA Coliseum has a Roman glow. The Rallycross events are brilliant throughout, calibrated to keep equally matched drivers parallel and in sight of each other at all the right moments.
And actually, once you’re out of the menus and throwing up dust, you’ll remember that Dirt is all feel at its core. You won’t find a more tactile and likeable arcade handling model, even if the AI lacks the fight of Race Driver: Grid’s.
There’s no point wasting words on how great Dirt 3 looks. Occasional bloom crimes aside, its art and technology are still running parallel, which – when you’re talking about the ever-evolving Ego engine – speaks for itself. Suffice it to say there isn’t a time, place or condition that doesn’t look magnificent. Nor does much need to be said about its audio beyond the purposefully global choice of music.
But it’s not enough to say that Codemasters has simply done it again. The story here is Block, who by introducing Gymkhana becomes the acceptable face of Americanisation. With help from much-appreciated splitscreen support, his freestyle events take multiplayer, especially, to places previous Dirts only dreamt of. At best, they remind us who gave us Micro Machines. A vast, almost encyclopaedic look at the united nations of rally, Dirt 3 doesn’t feel definitive despite America – it wouldn’t feel definitive without it.