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.
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.
Throw in the cover of night and the challenge is amplified, as is the excitement. Driving in the dark also sheds light on the visual progress taken by DiRT 3; Codemasters' racing games have always been a handsome bunch, and this is no exception.
Rich lighting brings the locales alive, and it's at its best in the early-evening light that bathes many of the forest-bound stages. Shards of sun peer through the trees, catching flies that flit above the gravel and dancing across the well realised car models (and they're models that are again served by a damage system that's still unmatched in the genre). It's a pleasantly hazy aesthetic that's well matched to the autumnal palette of DiRT 3.
Away from the action, it's as slick as ever, although the re-introduction of a cool and minimal front-end comes at the expense of the welcome excesses of Codemasters' more recent games. In place of the virtual paddock that starred in both F1 2010 and DiRT 2 is a menu more in keeping with that seen in the original DiRT, and while it cuts down on the loading times that blighted those games, its absence is felt.
There's a levelling system that's fuelled by reputation points and in-game meta-achievements, though there's not quite the same persistent tug of progression that marked out GRID and DiRT 3's immediate predecessors. Events over the four seasons that make up the single-player DiRT Tour are neatly grouped and presented in stylish unfurling pyramids, becoming longer, harder and more demanding as you work towards the ultimate goal of the DC Superseries.
There's the thinnest of narrative threads - and in a hilarious extension of the all-inclusive ethos, the voiceovers are now delivered by an English woman, an over-enthusiastic American and a deadpan Australian in what sounds like the set-up to a joke whose punchline I don't have to hand. But having been showered in context by Codemasters' previous games, it falls comparatively flat.
The real pull, and the real innovation, is elsewhere. Gymkhana, a new and balletic form of motorsport that's tinged with a little extreme sports attitude, is sprinkled throughout the DiRT Tour in events that task players with freestyling their way around a confined arena, performing tricks to rack up points in a fashion not dissimilar to the early Tony Hawks games.
It's a novel addition that truly shines in the DC Compound, an automotive playground set in and around the shell of Battersea Power Station. Here the freestyling becomes more fluid, with the compound opening up as progression is made to reveal an expansive, open-ended arena that's rich with mini-missions. It proves captivating for hours on end, and suggests a new direction for driving games that others would do well to follow.
An online suite of rallycross and staggered point-to-point events caters for the multiplayer side, and it's bolstered by the addition of two-player split-screen that is sturdy while staying largely faithful to DiRT 3's glorious visuals. The DC Compound is home to some of the more outlandish multiplayer modes: there are four-wheeled takes on online staples such as Capture the Flag, and there's even room for a game of zombie-themed tag that's in keeping with the gaming trend that refuses to shuffle off and die. They're sideshows, admittedly, but they're sideshows that are agreeably bawdy and riotous.
And for the main event, Codemasters has succeeded in curating another superlative festival of driving. It's a package more inclusive than any of its predecessors, shot through with the quiet innovations that have defined the studio's more recent efforts. With its off-road events celebrating the series' past and Gymkhana presenting a potentially bright new future, it's another great racing game from an outfit that's proving itself to be a master of its craft.
9 / 10