DiRT 3

Good clean fun.

Version tested Xbox 360

Codemasters has always brought the kitchen sink along with it for its racing endeavours. This is, after all, an outfit that in 2006's TOCA Race Driver 3 had players racing in a lawnmower one moment and an F1 car the next, all the while keeping the straightest of faces.

DiRT 3 continues the open-armed approach, embracing every element of off-road racing you'd care to think of. There are Land Rush events, pitting four-wheeled monsters against the Kenyan plains, nestling alongside rallycross races that cascade their way across Monaco's harbour, and wintry duels between a car and a bobsleigh in Norway's X-Games.

But DiRT 3's real achievement and its real charm don't come from its litany of ways to churn mud, gravel and tarmac. It's the inclusion of two separate elements that set it apart, and that help elevate it above its predecessors. There's a proud sense of heritage, both for Codemasters' rich past with the Colin McRae series and for the sport itself, that sits seamlessly alongside a spirit of innovation that the studio has quietly made its own in recent years.

The heritage is explicit in a car list that boasts of the Mini Cooper piloted by Paddy Hopkirk in the sixties as well as its distant German descendant that's at Kris Meeke's disposal in this year's WRC, as well as every other conceivable flavour in between.

It's even clearer in a track list that moves away from the more exotic destinations of the past two DiRT games and returns to the locations that rally can more traditionally call home - though that's not to say that it has quite lost the transatlantic twang the series has picked up this generation.

There's a sweet irony in the fact that Codemasters truly rediscovers its off-road roots deep in the American Midwest. Here, in the midst of DiRT 3's tour and in amongst Michigan's maple forests, is a point-to-point event in machinery so raw, brutal and terrifying that not even the co-driver can be convinced to come along for the ride.

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Replays do a good job of showing off the improved EGO engine, and they can be uploaded to YouTube at the press of a button.

It's about driving solo with 900 horses under your right foot, each and every one of them seemingly hell-bent on throwing you into the scenery. It's about grazing tree trunks at speeds in excess of 120mph, reading the contours of the road and the trickle of the terrain, and about a pure and sublime driving experience that grabs your undivided attention for two very loud and very exciting minutes.

Such thrills aren't new to the DiRT games, but the focus on solo timed runs is. It's what the fans have been calling for, and Codemasters has done well to listen; the bulk of the game's single-player tour is about pitting a single car against the elements and a stopwatch, and many of DiRT 3's developments play to this.

The connection between track and driver, lost in DiRT and recaptured in DiRT 2, is here refined. Cars are responsive, pointy and very much on the nose, their aggressive turn-in seguing neatly into long and pendulous drifts.

There's none of the unruly momentum found in Gran Turismo 5's off-road events, though that's largely because DiRT 3 isn't a sim - and nor does it have pretensions of being one. Instead, it strikes a satisfying middle-ground that's increasingly Codemasters' own, offering a tactile and engaging model that sits well across all of the game's many disciplines.

The introduction of the elements is another welcome concession to the rally hardcore. A weather model brought across from last year's excellent F1 2010 throws up rain that can turn stages into mud baths, while heavy snowfall can force players to face Norway's stages near blind.

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