Face-Off: DiRT 3

Photo finish.

- Xbox 360 PlayStation 3
Disc Size 6.1GB 6.33GB
Install 6.6GB 3337MB (mandatory)
Surround Support Dolby Digital Dolby Digital, 7.1LPCM, 5.1LPCM, DTS

While controversy surrounded attempts to appeal to a mainstream audience with DiRT 2, there's a real sense with the sequel that Codemasters has recaptured the raw essence of car and driver that has felt rather a touch subdued since Colin McRae Rally adopted the DiRT moniker.

In DiRT 3 the focus is back onto traditional point-to-point rallying across terrain familiar to fans of the sport, though not without sacrificing the many enjoyable gameplay additions brought in with the second game. Land Rushes, Head2Heads, and Rally Cross all make their return, while the inclusion of Gymkhana - a set of distinct challenges consisting of freestyle drifting, high speed jumps and more - provides a new hook for this third instalment.

DiRT 3 feels both familiar and refreshed at the same time, but under the hood things haven't changed quite so dramatically. The tech powering the game, Codemasters' highly impressive EGO engine, remains a force to be reckoned with, generating lavishly detailed courses and a rather accomplished lighting solution which breathes life into the surrounding environments. There aren't really any major leaps forward to speak of though: it's more refinement as opposed to a visual revolution, and the lack of progress surrounding advanced terrain deformation is perhaps a tad disappointing. However, as the end results are still so impressive, you can't really complain.

This is also an engine that has been skilfully deployed on multiple formats without much in the way of compromise: the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game are remarkably close to each other. The baseline 30FPS update remains - although noticeable screen tearing is still present on the PS3 - while the game boasts some rather nice lighting in the form of a controlled use of bloom, and impressive reflections on the cars themselves. See for yourself in an extensive DiRT 3 comparison gallery, and check out the head-to-head video.

DiRT 3 head to head on 360 and PS3 - use the full screen button for 720p resolution, or click on the link below for a larger window.

Looking at the visual make-up of the game, it appears that little has changed from previous EGO-fuelled racing games: we're looking at a native 720p rendering solution on both formats, along with 4x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) on the 360, and Quincunx (QAA) on the PlayStation 3. Usually when QAA is employed we find that there is a distinct blurring of the visuals, covering both geometry edges and texture details. But as with DiRT 2, other elements in the visual make-up of the game help to bridge the gap between the two versions.

Sure enough, the 360 game does look a touch cleaner - foliage and sub-pixel details such as power lines don't shimmer quite as much - and certainly it's sharper, but the game's use of post processing effects and lighting style - at times using a softening bloom component - mean that the difference hardly impacts on the visuals negatively to any great extent.

Looking at the video, perhaps the most noticeable difference is in the game's pre-race and replay sequences. In these segments the image is still being rendered in 720p on both formats, but the amount of visible screen-space occupied by the game differs between the two games - it's 1280x569 on the 360 and 1280x538 on the PS3, with black borders at the top and bottom of the screen.

We're just a bit curious as to why this was done. Obviously, the borders seem to be an artistic choice designed to create a more cinematic tone (the PC version is the same), but the reasoning for the reduction in visibility on the PS3 is a little more puzzling to say the least: it's hard to imagine just how big a difference a mere 31 lines would make to overall performance. It's not exactly a big deal, but bearing in mind that the PC version falls into line with the 360 code, you have to wonder why there is any difference at all.

Moving onto other areas, and we find that DiRT 3 renders its foliage using alpha-to-coverage (A2C) - a performance saving technique for displaying transparencies, but with the added side effect of giving them a dithered appearance, which can look a touch unsightly in some titles that use it. However, this isn't really an issue here, as the anti-aliasing on both formats tends to blend away these artifacts making them less obvious as a result. Dithering and shimmering on the foliage is slightly more noticeable on the PS3, as the QAA solution doesn't blend the A2C coverage mask as well as traditional MSAA, though this is really but a footnote on what is just incidental detail any way.

The overall results are excellent, and in most other areas the two are almost a complete match, with most of the differences being so insignificant that they can't be noticed outside of a direct A to B comparison. There are some very small examples of LODs loading in ever so slightly later on the PS3 (visible only in some pre-race sequences), and the odd bit of missing or lower res pieces of foliage, but nothing that is remotely visible during play.

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